Anatomy of a dish: Pawpaw Panna Cotta, Raspberry Gel, Savory Wafer

Having grown up in the sticks of Southern Indiana, it now seems that it was inevitable I would eventually grow an obsession with pawpaws. The largest true fruit native to the continental United States, it is also fabulously elusive, appearing on exotic-looking trees near creek beds and shady springs throughout Eastern North America. Making them even more appealing, they are extremely perishable, offering virtually no shelf life and therefore unavailable for transport, meaning you gather and eat them locally. On top of that, in even a good year the season lasts three weeks tops.

I never knew much to do with pawpaws but eat them right away because they are so incredibly perishable. They are a labor of love to eat because the soft, creamy pulp is pitted with large seeds, but they have such an incredible, delightful flavor unlike any other plant native to the Northern Hemisphere – fragrant banana, lychee, berry, mango, and pineapple explode not only on your tongue but the fragrance consumes your entire head. It’s one of those things that is just special.

The pawpaw doesn’t cooperate with modern designs on fruits and vegetables as things that should be packageable and shippable for thousands of miles before staying for weeks in wholesalers’ and then retailers’ coolers before reaching your kitchen. Once a pawpaw is ripe, you have to pick it, handle it with kid gloves, and even then have maybe two days to use it before you have a rotten mess on your hands. It challenges us to cook fresh, so very very fresh, and it will only cooperate if we handle it with the greatest of care.

For years, long before Big Jones, each year as pawpaws came and went, I imagined that when I opened my own restaurant I would do something hardly anyone does: serve pawpaws. But how to do that, when they are so tender and spoil so quickly? I wondered if we could make the labor of love less laborious, and more about the love by preserving the fruit in a manner that would retain all three major components: texture (smooooooth and creamy,) aroma (floral, tropical,) and taste (floral, tropical, fresh berries.) My sous chef Corey had the idea last fall that a panna cotta might be a great way to showcase the flavor while offering a similarly creamy texture, and would possibly allow the color to be preserved long enough to serve. It worked, and we served a few pawpaw panna cottas last year.

Emboldened this year, I gave some extra thought to the process, using cream instead of milk to really soften the texture up to best mimick the natural texture of the fruit while holding its shape on a plate. I also decided to only stir the fruit in at the very last minute before pouring into the molds, taking a risk that the gel wouldn’t set or the color would turn brown. It turned out beautifully, and we have a pawpaw dessert to roll out in earnest. The downside is that these are pawpaws we are talking about, and the season will be over as fast as it began. We can offer this for another week – maybe. Such is the fleeting nature of such rich fruit in the wild.

This is a very quick and easy recipe unlike many I’ve posted here. You can easily pull this off with bananas, mangoes, or a combination. Be careful with papayas or pineapple – they contain an enzyme that will digest the gelatin and leave you with a blase mess. The pawpaw flavor is best left alone – here with a little smear of raspberry gel and some savory cookies for texture.

Pawpaw Panna Cotta

  • 7 leaves gelatin
  • 3 cups heavy cream
  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 Tablespoon vanilla extract
  • 4 cups fresh pawpaw pulp (about 6 large pawpaws or 8 small, pitted and strained through a fine mesh tamis

Soak the gelatin leaves in cold water for thirty minutes to bloom. In the meantime, set 12 3-ounce molds, which can be cups, ramekins, souffle cups, etc. in the refrigerator to chill. Place the heavy cream, sugar, salt, and vanilla in a non-reactive saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Remove gelatin from water, and squeeze out excess water. Add gelatin to the cream mixture and return to a boil, whisking constantly. Once at the boil, remove from heat, whisk in the pawpaw pulp, and quickly transfer to prepared molds. Refrigerate immediately. They should set in about four hours. After setting, cover individual molds with plastic wrap and refrigerate until needed, up to one week. To unmold, quickly dip the mold in and out of hot water for fifteen seconds, run a thin spatula around the edges, and invert until the gel slips out.

Raspberry Gel

  • 3 pints fresh raspberries
  • 1 cup plus two tablespoons white sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon tellicherry peppercorns
  • 1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
  • 8 grams gellan F
  • 2 grams gellan LT-100

Place raspberries, one cup sugar, water, salt, peppercorns, and vanilla in a small non-reactive saucepan over low heat, covered. Slowly heat the mixture over several hours as the raspberry skins rupture to release their juice, the sugar dissolves, and a syrup starts to form. Maintain low heat, never boiling or disturbing the contents of the pot, allowing the juice to rise and skins and pulp to fall. After three hours, carefully strain the fluid through a fine mesh strainer, yielding a clear sweetened juice and leaving the pulp behind. Weigh out 1000 grams, adding water or subtracting fluid as needed. Return 1000 grams of fluid to a clean saucepan. Combine gellan powders with 2 tablespoons sugar and combine with the raspberry fluid, blitzing with a handheld blender to insure hydration. Bring to a boil over medium heat, whisking constantly. Boil one minute. Transfer to a 9″ casserole dish to cool. Using a fork, stir often, nearly constantly, while cooling to prevent the gel from setting into a brittle mass. Once set, you should have a gel that is bright red, translucent, and spreads without breaking. Cover and refrigerate until needed.

Savory Tuile

  • 1 cup butter
  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 1/2 cup isomalt
  • 2 tablespoons fresh winter savory leaves
  • 3/4 cup egg whites
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

Combine butter, sugar, isomalt, and savory in food processor and process until smooth and well creamed. Add egg whites in a thin steady stream while processing. Once egg whites are incorporated, transfer mix to a mixing bowl and add salt and flour. Mix thoroughly. Drop by teaspoonfuls onto silicone mat-lined baking sheets. Spread into thin disks using a hot spatula. bake in a 325 degree oven until golden brown throughout. Shape into cigars, cups, or arc while still hot. Cool on a baking rack and store in an airtight container in a cool dry place until needed.
To plate, smear some raspberry gel onto each plate. Unmold 1-2 panna cottas per serving for each plate depending on appetite and occasion. Garnish with cookies.