Pawpaw season, for most of us, is coming to an end.
The fruit, often called the “Appalachian or West Virginia banana,” ripened early, perhaps due to the strange summer weather we experienced. This year’s pawpaws were big and delicious.
Pawpaws are the largest edible fruit indigenous to 26 states. They grow wild from the Gulf Coast to the Great Lakes. The cold-hardy pawpaw tree, known as the Asimina triloba, is common throughout the southeastern Appalachian region. The trees can grow from 20 to 40 feet tall. They are usually found in thickets or groves. They are the host plant for the zebra swallowtail butterfly, whose larvae feed on the leaves.
Pawpaw trees have few pests and don’t need much care. The maroon blossoms that appear in the spring are some of the prettiest you will ever encounter, but they smell like rotting meat.
Pawpaws were enjoyed by Native Americans and early European settlers. Hernando de Soto recorded the first documentation of pawpaws during his 1541 expedition of the region that is now modern-day Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas.
George Washington is said to have enjoyed pawpaws for dessert. Thomas Jefferson liked the fruit so much that he planted a grove at Monticello and even sent seeds to France, hoping to impress his friends with this exotic American fruit.
Lewis and Clark wrote about pawpaws in their journals. They even mentioned the importance of this foraged fruit when provisions ran low in 1806.
Pawpaws have the consistency of custard, with different varieties having notes of banana, mango and/or melon.
Unfortunately, pawpaws are rarely found in stores or farmers markets, because they are highly perishable. Unless the consumer knows about the sweetness that lies beneath the bruised, mottled skin, they will be turned off by the appearance. Pawpaws have a two-day shelf life at room temperature.
The creamy flesh is too soft to dice, so it is often pureed or mashed when used in recipes. Mashed pawpaw freezes well, which is a way to enjoy this fruit beyond its short season.
Plant scientist Neal Peterson has been working to develop pawpaws that have more of an extended shelf life. Peterson’s interest in the pawpaw began when he was a student at West Virginia University, studying for a master’s degree in plant genetics.
Food scientists are studying pawpaws more closely. They’ve determined they are high in antioxidants, rivaling the cranberry and cherry. They are high in protein, vitamins A and C and several essential minerals.
Mashed pawpaws can be substituted in recipes calling for bananas. If you are lucky enough to have some pawpaws, bake a batch of pawpaw cupcakes.
Pawpaw Cupcakes with Peanut Butter Frosting
¼ cup butter, softened
½ cup sugar
3/4 cup mashed ripe pawpaws
1/8 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup cake flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 cup confectioners' sugar
½ cup creamy peanut butter
1/4 cup butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 to 2 tablespoons milk
• In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add egg, beating well. Combine the pawpaw pulp, buttermilk and vanilla. Combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt; gradually add to creamed mixture alternately with pawpaw mixture, mixing well after each addition.
• Fill paper-lined muffin cups two-thirds full. Bake at 350° for 18-22 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Cool for 10 minutes before removing from pans to wire racks to cool completely.
• In a large bowl, beat the confectioners' sugar, peanut butter and butter until fluffy. Beat in vanilla and enough milk to achieve desired consistency. Pipe frosting over cupcakes. Store in the refrigerator.