People often make the joke of “famous last words,” but I assure you that few are as innocuous as the ones that prompted Sarah and I to go bushwhacking in the relative jungles of the Potomac River.
“Pawpaws are in season!” Her father said. She kindly passed the message along, and naturally, I responded:
“The whats are in season?”
“You’ve never heard of a pawpaw?”
“No,” I shrugged, “but I also didn’t know that Mexico and Texas were attached until I was sixteen.”
“Then where did you think TexMex came from?”
“Mmm.” She politely looked away. “Pawpaws are a kind of fruit that grow in this area. My dad told me we can find them around Great Falls Park, if you want to come look with me.”
“What do they taste like?”
“Like bananas. Or mangos. Or pineapples?”
“Yes,” she agreed. “Like that.”
Well, I decided, there could be nothing better than ponangos. So, off we went: enthusiastic for adventure, beaming with excitement at the prospect of picking wild fruit off the land, ready to scour for mother nature’s greatest gift – and just as ready to get home after we’d investigated miles of the towpath and hiked for two hours up and down the Billy Goat Trail.
“I don’t understand. The trees are everywhere.”
And literally, the trees are everywhere. They’re growing all along the riverbank, down every offshoot of trail, up and down the canal, between rocks, and sometimes seeming to sprout out of them. They’re even growing alongside the parking lot.
“…But there’s no fruit.”
Now, herein lies the first of many problems. This is a picture of a pawpaw forest:
See anything in this picture? No? Perhaps you might want to look up:
Still don’t see anything? Me neither. Here’s why:
As you can see, in a crowded forest of large green leaves, pawpaws can be a little hard to see.
That’s not the only problem, either. If you do happen to spot some fruit, you can shake the trees and any ripe pawpaws will fall gently like anti-gravity pillows around you, caressing you lightly on their downward path like gentle baby kisses on the cheek.
Except they won’t. They’ll actually hit you in the face. It hurts.
As I learned the hard way, shaking a tree and looking straight up is a bad idea. Besides the mild pawpaw-punch-in-the-face you’ll receive, you may also find yourself making dozens of one-sided friendships with eight-legged creatures.
Oh, yeah, that’s the other thing. Since we couldn’t find fruit along the canal or down the path, we decided to brave the denser off-trail areas only to realize that we’d trapped ourselves in any reasonable person’s nightmare.
The forests are saturated with spiders.
And I don’t mean the normal amount of spiders you find in forests; the great thing about pawpaw trees (for spiders, anyway) is that they’re narrow, close together, and have branches bent at perfect angles for building webs that encompass the entire height and width of your body.
After becoming fed up with the very considerate, very sweet kisses of several dozens of spiders, I at last ripped a dead tree out of the ground and proceeded to swing it in front of me in order to break the booby-trapped spaces. And I really do mean tree. It was bigger than I was and completely impractical. (I was pretty mad at that point. I have a picture of all the spider bites I accumulated, but Sarah convinced me nobody wants to see that, so I refrained from posting it). She went for a smaller branch, and subsequently it appeared to any onlookers that I was fighting invisible ogres as Sarah practiced wizardry in the background.
But the good news is that the fruit does exist, and if you wander around and are willing to destroy the homes of every arachnid in your path, then you’ll come across them eventually.
(Shaking the trees seemed to be the best way, since the ones on the ground were already dinner for a host of insects – but, here’s another caveat, be careful of putting your hands on the trunks if you shake them. They’re ALSO covered in spiders. Surprise!)
When you do finally get your pawpaws, prepare for a wondrous experience of taste and texture. They’re like a fusion of bananas and pineapples, they’re creamy like custard, and though they’re incredibly delicious and not quite like anything I’ve ever tasted, they’re also out to kill you just as much as their guardian forests. (The seeds are poisonous.)
Search at your own peril, but remember, great risks yield great rewards…
Pawpaw Cheesecake w/ Spiced Rum Caramel
So, you’ve decided to brave the forest! Now that you’ve compulsively eaten yourself sick on one of nature’s best flavored candies, here’s a new way to use your pawpaw stash. Prepare yourself, this combination will send you straight back into the woods.
(And if you haven’t already been out there, here’s a quick reminder of what you’re looking for: the most fruited trees are closer to water, shaking them will release the fruit, pawpaws are ripe when they’re squishy and smell strongly, be wary of spiders, and don’t eat the seeds or skin. There are about two weeks or so before the pawpaw season is over, so get out there while you still can!)
Ingredients for the Cheesecake:
- 1 graham cracker pie crust
- two 8 oz. bricks of 1/3 reduced fat cream cheese
- 1 egg yolk
- 2 eggs
- 2/3 cup sugar (or Splenda; we used half and half)
- 1/2 cup pawpaw pulp
Ingredients for the Drizzle:
- 1 and 1/4 cups of sweetened condensed milk
- 1 cup of spiced rum (we used Captain Morgan)
- OPTIONAL: 1/2 cup pine nuts
How to Put It in Your Mouth:
- Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
- In a large mixing bowl, blend the cream cheese with a hand mixer on medium-high speed for 3-5 minutes until smooth
- Add the egg yolk and beat until completely integrated
- Add the eggs one at a time, beating until incorporated after each addition
- Add the sugar 1/3 cup at a time
- In a separate bowl, beat the pawpaw pulp (sans skin and seeds) until smooth. This will ensure there aren’t large chunks in your cake.
- Combine the two and beat until completely incorporated.
- Pour into your crust and smooth the top.
- Baking instructions:
- Put the pie in an oven safe container
- Add boiling water to the container until it reaches about halfway up the pie tin
- Bake for about 45 minutes. The cheesecake should jiggle slightly, but should not look watery when it’s ready to come out of the oven.
- After cooling to room temperature, let the cheesecake chill in the fridge overnight.
Now, before you eat it…
- Heat a pot or pan and add the spiced rum, letting simmer until about halved
- Slowly pour in the condensed milk, whisking constantly
- While whisking, allow the mixture to bubble up slightly – be careful here, as it’s incredibly hot and can overflow – and then reduce the heat to the lowest setting.
- Simmer gently and whisk for about 5 minutes until the mixture is thickened but still slightly runny, then turn off the heat and allow to cool. As it goes down to room temperature, it’ll thicken further.
- OPTIONAL: toast the pine nuts by swirling them in a pan on medium heat.
Now slice up your cheesecake (best done with a thin, non-serrated blade that’s been run under hot water and dried, if you’re worried about looks), top with the drizzle and toasted pine nuts, and get ready to put your hiking boots back on…