Tropical fruits are often unfamiliar to my students, but for me, they are like a return to my youth in Mexico. The dazzling colors and unexpected combinations of flavors are part of my overall approach to developing plated desserts and other pastry specialties. I also like to make use of what I know of the fruit’s history to get new ideas or to try to recreate some of the possibilities that have stood the test of time.
Originating in Southeast Mexico, the mamey (Pouteria sapota, also referred to as mamae or sapote mamey) belongs to the Sapotaceae family, the same one that includes the sapote Domingo and the green sapote. The Arawaks who inhabited the Caribbean Islands are believed to have included mamey in their diets along with other native fruits and vegetables such as papaya, squash, yams and pineapple. The seed of the mamey was sometimes used to flavor the chocolate drink favored by Mayans. The fruit was recorded as growing near Darién, Panama in 1514, and in 1529 was included by Spanish writer and historian Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés in his review of the fruits of the New World.
The mamey is the finest fruit of the Sapotaceae family. It is grown in Mexico, Central America, parts of South America, some islands of the Caribbean like Cuba and Puerto Rico and, now, in South Florida, thanks to the efforts of the South Florida Tropical Fruit Growers Association.
These football-shaped fruits are usually 5 to 10 inches long and 3 to 5 inches wide, and can weigh up to 4 pounds. Mameys are delicate and, therefore, can be difficult to transport. It is quite easy to bruise the delicate flesh should they be bumped in transit. The red-to-brown skin is almost like fuzzy sandpaper and is very easy to remove. Smaller fruits usually contain a single, large, oval seed and larger fruits may have up to four. The seed has a shiny, hard, dark brown surface with a light brown scar (hilum) on one side.
The flavor of a ripe mamey is unique and has been described as having apricot notes, a touch of sweet potato and persimmon and a little hint of nuts and spices. The flesh can range from yellow to salmon to pumpkin orange, even all the way up to a deep red, which is a feature not many other fruits can claim. The fruit’s color is very intense, even when simply sliced. In fact, a very simple and effective way to feature fresh mamey is to use it in a fresh fruit tart. A glaze will embellish the color and texture of the fruit, making it hard for anyone to resist trying it. In addition to their brilliant color and exotic flavors, mameys have a texture that is silky and luscious, like an avocado. The fruit feels rich and creamy when eaten.
Selecting and handling mameys
The mamey is harvested from May to September. An important note of caution about mameys: Eat them only when they are completely ripe, otherwise they can be astringent. To determine if a mamey is ready to eat, scratch off a bit of skin closest to the stem. The flesh underneath should not appear green; it should be a reddish color. When you press gently against the fruit’s flesh, a ripe mamey feels firm, but not hard. It should be easy to mash, like the texture of a ripe avocado.
Some cultures take steps to lessen the fruit’s bitterness. In Jamaica, cooks steep it in wine and sugar. In the Bahamas, they let the flesh stand in lightly salted water before they simmer it with copious amounts of sugar to a jam-like consistency.
Uses and applications
I personally love this fruit. It reminds me of my childhood, having a licuado de mamey con nuez—a mamey-and-pecan milkshake that was sold on the sidewalks in downtown Mexico City. In my opinion, this presentation of mamey is hard to beat!
Mamey is a fruit that can be eaten raw or featured fresh in a tart. It can also be puréed and made into a mousse, custard, aerated frozen dessert or ice cream. The mamey pairs well with almonds, pecans, coconut, sweet potato, orange, lemon, banana, black persimmon, rum, cinnamon, nutmeg, chocolate, honey, coffee and vanilla, as well as other tropical fruits.
Mameys are widely made into preserves—such as spiced marmalade—and pastes (resembling guava paste), as well as used as a filler for products made of other fruits. Slightly under-ripe mameys, rich in pectin, are made into jelly. Wine is made from the fruit, and fermented “toddy” is made from the sap of the tree in Brazil. In the Dominican Republic, the uncooked flesh is blended with sugar and made into frozen sherbet. The juice or syrup of stewed flesh is seasoned with sugar and lemon juice to make “mamey-ade.” A few tips:
- When cooking the flesh, skim off any foam that forms on the surface of the water, as this is usually bitter.
- Be careful when puréeing this fruit because of its high amount of gums. Clean the blades of your mixer, blender or food processor to keep them moving.
The mamey is not only delicious, but also very nourishing. In 1903, botanist and agronomist Orator Fuller Cook and plant explorer and geneticist Guy N. Collins recorded in a botanical publication: “It was this fruit that kept [conquistador Hernando] Cortez and his army alive on their famous march from Mexico to Honduras.” Mamey sapote is high in vitamins A and C and potassium and an excellent source of fiber. One cup of mamey sapote contains 135 calories.
Normally, my students in the baking and pastry arts degree program are adventurous when it comes to exploring new foods and coming up with new ideas for desserts. What makes these tropical fruits interesting from a pastry chef’s perspective is the challenge of enhancing their delicate flavors without overwhelming them. Here are a few things my students and I have learned in working with the mamey:
Puréeing: The mamey can be puréed more easily for immediate consumption when it is done so with some water. It doesn’t lose much flavor and the color lightens just a little.
Adding sweeteners: Mamey is a sweet fruit, sensitive to additional sugar; sweeteners of any sort should be added with care and precision.
Baking: When baked, the intensity of the mamey’s flavor diminishes, so the quantities of sweeteners and spices should be adjusted.
Using it fresh: When used fresh in a mousse, ice cream or foam, the flavor holds up and comes through; adding a little acid rounds out the flavor.
Combining with chocolate: A ganache made with milk chocolate works very well; the flavor is subtle but definite.
Sautéing: Sautéing mamey works fantastically; it intensifies the flavor. The caramelized exterior of the sautéed fruit gives the presentation special character.
Including in a fruit sauce: As a coulis, mamey produces a sauce with a color so bright that it enhances any dessert. Its texture makes it easy to plate.
Making a sorbet: Finally, a sorbet made with puréed mamey (watered down a bit as described earlier) and a very small jet of lemon juice taken to 28 brix is amazing. The mouthfeel reminds me of persimmons, with a fresh flavor, a mild carroty aftertaste and a great color.
Take the challenge yourself
The mamey is a fruit that should be more widely represented on dessert menus. The challenge I issued to my students gave them a richer, more rewarding educational experience and helped prepare them as future pastry chefs. Take the challenge yourself—add mamey to your pastry repertoire!
Since writing this article, Chef Alain Dubernard was promoted to associate dean for baking and pastry arts at The Culinary Institute of America.