This is the kind of superpack we can all get behind. My friend Leigh Cox, who did the illustrations for The Pocket Pawpaw Cookbook, has put together your dream holiday gift: an organic cotton tote with a copy of The Pocket Pawpaw Cookbook to tuck inside of it. Hop on over to her Etsy shop to place an order.
It’s the first day of November. Walking the five blocks with my daughter to drop her off at her elementary school, we passed by two persimmon trees. Last week they were both in the throes of dropping ripe fruit, but now they are nearly bare. Every single day I had to fight off the urge to gather as many persimmons as possible, mainly because I didn’t have time to deal with them at home. Persimmons are not something you can sit on, literally and figuratively.
Last month I was facing the same dilemma with the last of the season’s pawpaws. It was a very good year for pawpaws here. I processed and froze maybe ten quarts of pulp, and who knows how many pounds of pawpaws I drug home. It was a tiny fraction of what I could have gathered hypothetically, but there are only so many hours in the day.
There are other tantalizing casualties of autumn: gingko nuts, crabapples. I can’t ever get as many as I would like. What I really want is for time to freeze, but that would be ultimately unbearable. The only thing that’s permanent is a state of transition. The cycles of time spin onward.
Career-wise, transition is also a permanent state for me. I’ve been gigging it as long as I’ve been in the food writing game, always cobbling together different jobs to piece together an income. For nearly a year, I’ve been editing the food section of the pop culture website Paste Magazine. The bulk of my food writing in the past ten months has gone there and not to this site, which is okay because I’m not heavy into blogging.
I also got deeper into the whole foraging thing, and it’s all been within walking distance of my house. Bringing unusual things home to eat is fun, but it’s going out there to look for them in the first place that helps me keep my sanity. There’s something about dragging five types of acorns home in my pockets that gives me a sense of purpose missing from being on the computer all day long, even if the only thing we do with the acorns is make them into goofy crafts. Humans can eat acorns—they were a staple food for many Native American tribes of California—but we’ve not made it that far yet. Rendering acorns into edible foodstuffs is work, more work than pulping our seedy native persimmons, even. I think I just like knowing this stuff is out there and I can groove on it for a little while before it’s gone.
The gigs are the same way, really. I get one and know it won’t be around forever, so I enjoy it while it lasts and keep my eyes alert for the next opportunity to replace it once it’s over. The pawpaws go away and the persimmons are waiting in the wings.
A hope of mine was to share a persimmon fruitcake recipe—I made three versions of it, but it’s still not quite there. These are the small and wily North American persimmons, by the way, not the big and knobby Fuyus or Hachiyas, though you can generally substitute Hachiya pulp for the sweeter and grittier pulp of Diospyros virginiana.
So instead, I’m going to leave you with a wish that you’ll go outside—a park, your backyard, a trail, anywhere—and look around and think about the way everything is today. What does it smell like, is it cloudy or not, are there leaves on the trees. Are there trees at all. I’m always seeing these lists like “20 National Parks to See Before You Die”, and it breaks my heart a little, because there’s a whole world around you every day that wants to be noticed, and it’s a little different every time, offering patterns and cycles and surprises all at once.
Pawpaws have a powerful symbolic meaning to me as a reminder to move away from scarcity (the parts of my life that deplete me) and toward abundance (the things in my life that energize me, such as pawpaws). However, wild pawpaws also embody scarcity and abundance in the most literal fashion possible, and I have been dealing with this in practice for the past few weeks.
In only ten minutes, I can walk to spots in the neighboring woods that are currently crawling with pawpaws. On a good day--like yesterday--if I'm really hoofing it, I can bring home about five pounds of pawpaws after ten short minutes of active searching. When I'm in the right mindset, it's almost as if the pawpaws just jump right off the trees and into my hands. They are unavoidable. Making use of them all is impossible. I could canvass the region for pawpaws, buy multiple giant freezers, devote myself full-time to capturing and processing them all, and still not make a dent in the county's pawpaw population.
That wild seasonal abundance is what I consider a temporary infinite supply: the pawpaw paradox. Meanwhile, the mass of pawpaw pulp that time realistically allows me to collect is finite. If I'm lucky, I'll come out of this season with about six quarts of frozen pulp, collected and extracted by my own loving hands. It's work I'm happy to do, and work that I don't consider work, but it does menace me, this pawpaw paradox. I hoard my pawpaw pulp and am reluctant to thaw and use it because once it's gone, it's gone. What if it's February and I need some for recipe testing? What if next year turns out to be a bad pawpaw year? When your culinary spirit animal is a fruit that's not grown on a commercial scale to speak of, the going gets tough. Moderation is key.
Meanwhile, beautiful ripe pawpaws blacken and rot on the carpet of dry leaves out on the woods. This will happen for another two weeks, tops. We're spoiled by having everything we want at the snap of our fingers, be it produce, clothing, water, or visual and audio entertainment. The modern lives of the first-world bourgeoisie don't present us with much scarcity of anything, except for quiet time alone in nature. Luckily, the pawpaws don't need to be in season for us to access that.
On a side, note, I encountered yesterday the most wonderful feral pawpaw I've yet laid eyes on. One tree on my route was laden with about six giant pawpaws, ones that lit up the eyes of my inner food stylist. They are centerfold pawpaws. I tried to capture their beauty with my iPhone, but my skills could not do them justice. I processed the not-as-pretty pawpaws into pulp and drank a pawpaw lassi for breakfast this morning. It made me feel empowered and grateful.
First, get some pawpaws. Hurry, you only have a few weeks left. This article I wrote for Serious Eats explains how to do that. It's awesome and you should read it right now.
Next, make this pudding. It’s homey and custardy, with intriguing caramel notes and an undeniable pawpaw kick. Using a food processor, it takes only minutes to blitz that batter together. (Note: estimated minutes blitzing batter excludes gathering of pawpaws. It took me about 40 minutes to haul home ten pounds. Call it your exercise for the day.)
Serves 6 to 12
- nonstick cooking spray, to grease the dish
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
- 2/3 cup all-purpose flour
- 2/3 to ¾ cup sugar (I prefer a less-sweet pudding)
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- 1 large egg
- 1 large egg yolk
- 1 cup pawpaw pulp
- ½ cup buttermilk, preferably not low-fat
- ¼ cup half-and-half
- 2 teaspoons vanilla bean paste OR vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and position a rack in the middle. Grease a 9-by-9 inch baking dish, preferably glass or ceramic, with nonstick cooking spray.
In the bowl of a food processor, pulse the flour, sugar, salt, and baking soda to combine.
In a large glass measuring cup or medium bowl, combine the pawpaw, buttermilk, half-and-half, and vanilla bean paste. With the machine running, add the pawpaw-buttermilk mixture through the feed tube. Turn off the machine, scrape down the sides, and add the butter with the machine running. Your batter should have the consistency of pancake batter.
Pour the batter into the greased dish. Bake until the center is set but still jiggly (like a pumpkin pie), about 30 to 45 minutes. The sides of the pudding will rise up and brown, while the interior will be flat, shiny, and amber-colored. Let cool to room temperature and serve with crème fraiche or whipped cream (I like this for breakfast with a big dollop of Greek yogurt, but I could say that about most any dessert.)
The pudding will keep 2-3 days at room temperature. I suppose you could refrigerate it, but I like it better when it’s not cold.