I remember walking through my neighborhood ten years ago and seeing this tree on the side of the street in someone's yard," Aaron Vandemark says. "It had these large, green, mango-looking lobes, and I thought, What the hell are those?"
They were pawpaws. And that, for many people, raises the same question: What the hell are those?
Pawpaws have been called "America's forgotten fruit" by NPR and "America's best secret fruit" by Serious Eats. Their nicknames range from "custard apple" to "hipster banana." But let's just call them delicious.
They're indigenous to the eastern United States and are particularly abundant in our neck of North Carolina. During the three-to-four-week season, from late August to early September, you can forage them or find a farm with its own trees.
Minka Farm in Efland has seventeen. Vandemark—owner and chef of Panciuto in Hillsborough—got almost a hundred pounds of pawpaws there.
"And they have more than that," he says. "They can't keep up with how many are coming off the trees."
Panciuto has done pawpaw dishes before, and they're always sweet because of the fruit's tropical flavor, with notes of banana and mango. The large yellow fruit have what Vandemark describes as "a creamy pulp inside, almost custardy" and "large, fava-bean-sized black seeds."
These seeds make them labor-intensive to process. But once you harvest the flesh, it freezes well—save for some inevitable oxidation—and then can be used well beyond the fleeting season.
In past years, Panciuto has done a pawpaw budino (an Italian pudding), a pawpaw tart, a pawpaw cocktail with rum, and now, a pawpaw milkshake.
"I've been wanting to do a milkshake on the menu forever, as we push back against this notion of fine dining and play with the idea of fun dining," Vandemark says.
Except, Panciuto doesn't have an ice cream machine, and Vandemark isn't the type to buy anything he could make from scratch. So how do you make a milkshake without ice cream? The answer, it turns out, was in the restaurant's pantry.
Panciuto sources brown sticky rice from South Wind Farm, which grows a notably wide range of grains, from oats to rye. The restaurant uses the rice for dishes like risotto, but inevitably the grains leave some shards and scraps behind, unfit for most recipes.
Knowing this, Vandemark started to think about horchata, a sweet rice milk drink hailing from Mexico and parts of Central America, often spiced with cinnamon, sometimes fortified with almonds or other nuts. What would happen if you substituted rice milk for the usual cow's milk? And frozen, custardy pawpaw flesh instead of the usual ice cream?
You get a just-happens-to-be-vegan milkshake. Well, until Vandemark dollops some whipped cream on top, plus a shower of rainbow sprinkles. A milkshake can only take itself so seriously.