One Sunday afternoon a few weeks ago, I found myself tromping through the woods along the Patuxent River, outside Bowie, Maryland (pronounced BOO-ey, I learned) with a group of friends, heads all turned up towards the sky. We were hunting paw paw, and they were proving themselves a little scarce. Though we came across many trees with their large banana-like leaves, few seemed to be bearing fruit, and it suspiciously seemed that someone else had been tipped off to our usually plentiful foraging spot.
Before this excursion I don't think I'd ever had a paw paw, even though I grew up in "Michiana" where there is even a whole town named after the fruit. When my friend Joseph found a paw paw patch at a fiddlers' convention last month, he too was surprised I'd never eaten one, as he called them, "the Indiana banana." I've heard the wild fruit described in different ways--some say it is is the non-tropical papaya, (though Wikipedia suggests that they are only alike in name, not species, and the paw paw is, in fact, tropical), some say it tastes like a mango, banana, or avocado. All of these made sense--I found the texture similar to the latter, and the flavor like a more floral mango. The paw paw is the kind of wild fruit, like mulberries or persimmons, that you can't really find at a grocery store--you just have to go find for yourself (though NPR has this wonderful story on a plant scientist who is trying to change that).
In our hunt along the Patuxent, Adam and Sarah ended up going deeper into the forest and found a good cache, while Caitlin, Mike and I seemed to have the most success following the river and shaking down the tree branches, then collecting the fallen fruit from the river bed. Luckily though, Sarah and Adam were willing to share their spoils, so we all went home with at least enough for some sort of pie, pudding, or custard. I, of course, made a paw paw meringue pie, adapting a recipe from Kentucky State University. Paw paw's smooth texture is perfect of a custard or curd, though the floral flavor took some getting used to, it's a special seasonal treat for adventurous eaters.
Paw Paw Pie
Filling Adapted from a Kentucky State University recipe
1 1/4 c. gingersnap crumbs
3 Tblsp. sugar
1/3 c. unsalted butter, melted
3/4 c. sugar
1/4 c. cornstarch
3 egg yolks, beaten (reserve whites for meringue)
1 c. milk
1 c. heavy cream
1 c. paw paw pulp, puréed
3 egg whites (reserved from filling)
3 Tblsp. sugar
pinch of salt
pinch of cream of tartar
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Put gingersnaps in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until crackers are finely ground into crumbs. Add sugar and melted butter and pulse until well mixed.
2. Pat the buttery crumbs into a 9-inch pie pan, pressing mixture into the bottom and sides to form a pie crust. Place in oven and bake until crust is lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Place on a cooling rack and let cool to room temperature before adding the filling.
For filling and meringue:
1. Combine 3/4 sugar and cornstarch in a medium bowl. Add the beaten egg yolks, milk, and cream. Whisk until well combined and the add the puréed paw paw pulp. Pour the mixture into a medium saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring constantly. Once thickened (about 10 minutes), remove from heat and let cool. When at room temperature, place plastic wrap over the surface of the paw paw curd and refrigerate while you make the meringue.
2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Beat egg whites with 3 Tblsp. sugar, salt, and cream of tartar until stiff peaks form. Pour the curd into the crust and spoon the meringue on top, curling it decoratively with the back of a spoon. Place in the oven for about 10 minutes until meringue has browned. serve chilled or at room temperature.