So, pawpaws. Allow me to wax rhapsodic about this indigenous American fruit, which you can find from Deep East Texas on up through the Ozarks and Ouachitas and on east through the mid-South and the mid-Atlantic. It’s very common within its range, but despite growing up within that range, I don’t recall ever hearing anyone talk about eating them — my only childhood memory of them is Balu the Bear singing about them briefly in The Jungle Book. I’m sure people in my region ate them, but not my family.
And I get it: they’re a weird fruit, by modern American standards. Once picked, they quickly go overripe, in just 2 or 3 days at room temp, so they’re not at all suited to grocery store sale. Chock full of seeds, with a leathery skin that’s readily bruised, so they can’t be just chucked in a lunchbox. But man, what a shame, because pawpaws are amazing. They taste sort of like a banana, sort of like a melon or a tropical fruit — nothing like what you might expect to find down by the creek. The flesh is soft and custardy, like a tree just grew a pudding cup for you. And if you know where to look, they’re just growing out in the woods, waiting to be picked. I love them, and look forward to the chance to snag a few in the fall.
But my love for pawpaws, combined with their relative scarcity, causes a real problem for me as a recipe developer. Because, you see, I’ll happily just cut off the end of a pawpaw and slurp out the flesh: they’re so fresh and delicious, I don’t really want anything to come between me and their flavor. And yet, it’s fall, and so I start thinking about baking. And if I’ve got this gorgeous native fruit right in front of me, I should be using it in baking, right?
Well… maybe. I mean, yes, you can sub pawpaw in 1:1 in pretty much any baked item that calls for banana. But I can’t bring myself to! So instead I started thinking about my precious pawpaw as a featured guest, the final touch that would really elevate a dessert. And then my mind was free to wander, contemplating flavors. Sweet-zingy crystallized ginger! Spicy, floral black pepper! Grassy olive oil! Tangy yogurt! I fairly quickly decided to make a variation on Dorie Greenspan’s EVO and Yogurt Loaf Cake, which is one of my reliable go-to bases. (I’ve adapted it before.) The base is rich and moist, and easily takes on whatever flavor you’d like to throw at it.
But I couldn’t quite figure out the overall composition, until I suddenly remembered my time studying abroad in Quebec City. I lived with a married couple for a summer, and ate a homecooked meal with them almost every night. Ariane, the lady of the house, was dieting, and so she often made something light for herself. But she did love desserts, and so she tried to find ways to make something that she herself could also enjoy. At times that was cookies — everyone could take as many or as few as they liked — but often her solution was a slice (or two) of frozen pound cake served with a scoop (or two) of ice cream. It was simultaneously simple and elegant, like Ariane herself.
So that’s the idea here, albeit fancied up from its inspiration: a slice of cake, a scoop of good-quality ice cream, and a spoonful of a barely-adjusted pawpaw puree. The cake is rich and spicy, the ice cream cool and creamy, and the pawpaw takes its rightful place as the crowning glory of the dish. It’s good enough that it has me thinking about planting pawpaws in the back yard.
Pepper-ginger pound cake with a pawpaw puree
A classic example of flavors combining in exciting, unforeseen ways. The cake alone is spicy and surprising, the pawpaw almost too sweet, but when it all comes together with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, this is a simple dessert that highlights America’s sadly under-known native fruit. (Though you can make it with more common fruits, too; see the Options!)
Also, pedantry: not actually a pound cake. Don’t care; alliteration wins out.
Adapted from Dorie Greenspan’s EVO and Yogurt Loaf Cake, as published at Serious Eats.
For the cake:
1 c sugar
1/2 c plain yogurt
3 large eggs
1 1/2 c all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
Pinch of salt
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 c chopped crystalized ginger
2 to 3 tsp black pepper
Butter or shortening and parchment paper, for the pan
For the pawpaw puree:
Flesh of 1 good-sized pawpaw (about 1/2 c)
1/2 to 1 tsp lemon juice
Vanilla ice cream, to serve
For the cake:
Preheat oven to 350°F. Line a loaf pan with parchment; I like to lay a saddle of parchment across the pan, and then grease the still-exposed short ends.
In a large bowl, beat together the sugar, eggs, and yogurt until smooth and pale yellow. Add the flour, baking powder, and salt, and beat till just combined. Add the chopped ginger, black pepper, and olive oil, and fold in until the olive oil is entirely incorporated.
Scrape into the prepared loaf pan, smooth the top, and bake 50-55 minutes, until the top is nicely browned, the edges are beginning to pull away from the pan, and a toothpick inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean. Let cool in the pan for 5 minutes, then cool completely on a rack.
For the pawpaw puree:
Whizz the flesh up in a blender or food processor, just to smooth it out — you could also probably whisk it to death, but I’m lazy. Pawpaw is often sickly sweet; add a half-teaspoon or more of lemon juice just to balance it out a touch.
Top a thick slice of the cake with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a spoonful of pawpaw puree, and enjoy.
Getting the pawpaw flesh. This can be intimidating if you’ve never done it before. There are a number of ways to handle it, but this is how I do it; first, split the fruit longwise: imagine that you’re holding a large gray-green kidney bean, and cut where the natural split between the halves would be. You should have two boats of custardy flesh, each of which has a line of seeds running down the middle. The seeds are each encased in a gelatinous envelope, and if you slice along the top of the seed with a sharp paring knife, you should be able to pop the seeds out, leaving only the flesh behind. Then you can scoop it out with a spoon.
How peppery is this? I made this with a full tablespoon (i.e. 3 tsp) of ground pepper, and it’s really quite peppery on day 1. In a good way! It then mellows out over the next couple days. So I still say go for the full amount, but if you plan on eating the cake on the day of baking and you want a little more subtlety, you might consider using the smaller amount.
Nothing really tastes exactly like a pawpaw, but pawpaws taste sort of like a lot of different fruits: bananas, melons, various tropical fruits. If I were trying to make a similar puree out of more accessible grocery-store fruits, I think I’d try a mixture of banana and mango or guava. Or peach. Or strawberry. Banana and something. Pawpaws are confusing and wonderful.
All things else being equal, I think this puree would actually be a better sauce with a little bit of cream or half-and-half added in. In this case I didn’t use any, because I knew I’d be combining it with ice cream. But if you’re adapting the puree for another purpose, you might try a touch of dairy, and maybe the barest whisper of vanilla.