Even if you live in an area where they are common, you might not know about Pawpaws. The tropical-looking fruit is native to the eastern, southern and Midwestern United States, growing on small (35 feet or under) trees in shaded, fertile areas, usually among mixed hardwoods and most often on or near the bottoms of stream drainages. The leaves of the pawpaw tree are large and grow in symmetrical clusters at the ends of the branches. The tree blooms in early spring, and the fruit matures all through the summer. Pawpaws produce the largest fruit of any of our native trees, with mature examples often measuring six inches long and resembling a large baked potato in shape.
Pawpaw fruits are ripe when they are a little soft to the touch and the skin has started to turn brown in spots. They will have a strong mango/tropical fragrance. If you are watching a grove of pawpaws ripen, keep a close eye on them as they start to ripen. Every critter in the woods is doing the same thing, and they can clean a tree of fruit almost overnight when they are ready to eat.
To prepare a pawpaw for eating, simply slice the fruit in half. You will notice the creamy yellow flesh and some large brown seeds. Simply spoon out the flesh (just like you would an avocado when making guacamole) into a bowl. Using your fingers or a spoon, pick the seeds out. If you would like to start some new trees from the seeds, simply clean them off with a damp paper towel and place them in a paper bag and refrigerate for four months. Plant the seeds in a pot of loose-growing medium next spring and keep the soil moist, but not wet, until the seeds germinate. Once the seedling are large enough, transplant them to a suitable spot.
What does a pawpaw taste like? The flavor is most often described as a cross between mangos and ripe bananas, and that is pretty close. The texture is smooth and creamy, almost like a custard. What can you do with them? Pretty much anything you can do with bananas. We have made fried hand pies, homemade ice cream, pawpaw nut bread and cookies. One of my favorites is this easy, no-bake pawpaw pudding. Made just like banana pudding, it goes together quickly and is the perfect finish to a warm fall evening.
6 medium to large pawpaws, scooped, seeded and lightly smashed
In a large mixing bowl, beat pudding mix and milk two minutes. Blend in condensed milk and cream cheese until smooth. Stir in vanilla and fold in 2/3s of the whipped topping, reserving the final 1/3.
Layer the bottom of a 13x9 dish with vanilla wafers. Cover the wafers with a thin layer of the pudding mix. Dollop on the pawpaw by the spoonful evenly over the pudding mixture. Add another layer of vanilla wafers and repeat with remaining pudding and pawpaw. Top with the remaining whipped topping and refrigerate for at least two hours.
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