As a native North Carolinian, I love sharing little-known North Carolina dishes with you guys, whether it’s my much beloved Moravian Sugar Cake or a new dish I make with an NC favorite, like my Cheerwine Layer Cake. Today, I get to spotlight North Carolina’s contribution to the vast panoply of fruity desserts comprised of cobblers, crisps, grunts, slumps, crumbles, and buckles: the sonker. Friends, I present to you Strawberry Peach Sonker with Milk Dip.
What is a Sonker?
There is no hard and fast answer to the question, what is a sonker. It is definitely cobbler-like, and some would say that a sonker is just another name for cobbler. If you’re from Surry or Wilkes County in the foothills of North Carolina however, it is quite possible you’ve never heard of a cobbler and are only familiar with sonkers.
Whether you call it a cobbler or a sonker, here are some characteristics usually true of sonkers:
- A sonker is baked in a rectangular pan.
- A sonker is a deep dish dessert.
- A sonker is a very juicy dessert.
- A sonker often has a lattice crust (although it can also have a plain pastry crust or even a batter, depending on who you ask)
- A sonker is often served with a side of milk dip (which can also be poured over the sonker partway through the baking time)
While this last isn’t usually true of all sonkers, it seems to be a uniquely sonker Thing:
- the filling can be made of sweet potatoes. (At least I’ve never heard of a sweet potato cobbler or crumble.)
Milk Dip? Huh?
While many fruity desserts are enhanced by some sort of dairy topping, be it ice cream, whipped cream, creme fraiche, etc, sonker is the only one I’ve ever heard of served with a side of milk dip.
Think of it as an almost-Anglaise. Rather than being thickened and enriched with egg yolks, milk dip is thickened with starch. It is pourable, so it’s not as thick as pudding, but it shares some characteristics with pudding: milk-based, sugar-sweetened, starch-thickened, vanilla-flavored. It’s very easy to make, and the smooth creaminess plays very nicely with the crisp and chewy pastry and the intense fruitiness.
I was prepared to not love it, and I perhaps ended up drinking some of it. Perhaps.
Strawberry Peach Sonker with Milk Dip
Strawberry seems to be a popular sonker flavor, but when I was at the farmers’ market, I also found some beautiful, meaty NC cling peaches, so I decided to combine the two to make a strawberry peach sonker with milk dip. This was a very good plan.
The fruit I found was not incredibly sweet, but the peach and strawberry flavors were very intense. This lent itself to an almost savory sonker, although this is most definitely a dessert. If you choose to make this recipe, feel free to use a bit more sugar than I did. It will all depend on the quality of your fruit.
I played up the “meatiness” of the fruit by being fairly assertive with the salt and not using any other flavorings like lemon, vanilla, cinnamon, etc. Again, feel free to spice yours however you’d like. While I get the feeling that a traditional sonker uses minimal spicing/flavoring and decided to let the fruit carry the day, I certainly encourage you to put your own spin on your sonker. I won’t tell the good folks of Surry or Wilkes County.
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Before we get on with the recipe, let’s make sure you have what you need.
The Wusthof Classic is the paring knife we own. I use it for peeling ripe fruits and slicing up all manner of fruits and vegetables. I used this Nielsen Massey Vanilla Paste to flavor my milk dip. It has a clean, pure, well-rounded vanilla flavor that won’t steer you wrong. And this set of two pourers work for milk dip, honey, pancake syrups, etc. Each will hold about 1/2 cup, so it’s nice to place both on the table if you’re serving more than 2-3 people.
Okay, we’re ready now. Let’s make some strawberry peach sonker.
Strawberry peach sonker with milk dip is a fruit dessert native to Wilkes and Surry Counties in North Carolina. Cousin to cobbler, crumble, crisps, etc, sonker is set apart by the sweet milk dip accompaniment. You're going to love it.
- 1/3 recipe Lazy Baker's Puff Pastry (see Notes for link)
- 1 quart strawberries washed and halved (about 4 cups)
- 5 medium peaches washed, peeled and sliced (about 2 cups)
- 3 1/2 oz granulated sugar (1/2 cup)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch
- 4 Tablespoons water 2 oz or 1/4 cup
- scant 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 cups whole milk 16 oz
- 3 1/2 oz granulated sugar (1/2 cup)
- heavy pinch kosher salt
- 1 Tablespoon cornstarch
- 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract or paste
- 1 large egg beaten with 1 teaspoon water and a tiny pinch of salt
- 2 Tablespoons demerara sugar or other sugar with large crystals
Place a rack in the center of the oven and heat to 375F.
Roll out the Lazy Baker's Puff Pastry into a rough square about 1/8". Cut off all four sides in roughly 2" strips. You should have about a 9" square left.
Piece the 2" strips of dough around the insides of the baking dish leaving the bottom empty. It took 3 strips to go around the inside of my pan. I cut up the remaining strip and placed those pieces in the bottom as well because I like "dumplings." Set aside
Combine the sliced fruit, sugar, cornstarch, water, and salt in a large bowl. Toss to evenly combine.
Dump the fruit mixture into the pan and spread it out evenly.
Take the square of dough and cut into 9 strips. Place these on top of the fruit in a lattice pattern. You can weave them or just place 4 one way and 5 perpendicular to those. It's your call.
Brush the lattice with the egg wash and then sprinkle generously with the demerara or coarse sugar.
While the sonker is baking, make the dip.
Combine the milk, sugar, salt, and cornstarch in a medium saucepan and whisk well.
Bring to a boil over medium high heat, whisking constantly. Allow to boil 30-45 seconds.
Pour through a fine mesh sieve to catch any lumps and stir in the vanilla.
Reserve 1/2 cup and set the rest aside to cool and then refrigerate. Rewarm the milk dip before serving.
After 30 minutes, remove the sonker from the oven and drizzle the 1/2 cup of dip evenly over the top.
Return to the oven and bake an additional 25 minutes, or until the fruit is bubbling all the way into the center, the pastry is deeply golden brown and the dip has some golden spots on it. If the pastry is browning too quickly, cover with foil until the fruit bubbles in the center.
Remove from oven and let cool to warm before serving with a generous splash or three of the milk dip. Refrigerate leftovers for up to 3 days.
Here is the recipe for Lazy Baker's Puff Pastry. You'll have to scroll down past the tart recipe to find the puff recipe. You can also substitute your favorite pie crust, either homemade or store-bought.
Please feel free to add an additional 1/4 cup of sugar if you like your desserts a bit sweeter. You can also cut back a bit on the salt, but please don't leave it out altogether because even just a bit of salt will enhance both the sweetness and fruitiness of the sonker.
Would you just look at that. Crisp, flaky pastry, jammy stewed fruit, chewy poached dough and smooth, creamy milk dip. Sonker is good for what ails you, even if what ails you is only that you’re hungry for some fruity Southern dessert.
And there you have it, friends. Strawberry peach sonker with milk dip is definitely one of those cases of less is more. Gorgeous, intensely flavored, ripe fruit, lightly sweetened and assertively salted to bring out the fruit’s savory side–it doesn’t need anything else. But that milk dip, which is perfectly sweetened and mellow with vanilla, is a welcome accompaniment.
I didn’t come by this sonker knowledge without a good bit of reading. Here are the sources I consulted in writing about sonkers:
- A Foothills Twist on Pie: The Sonker, by Andrea Weigl
- Recipe: Surry County Sonker from WRAL.com
- Southern Sonker: A Cobbler Cousin from Southern as Biscuits
- Surry County Sweet Potato Sonker with Milk Dip from Our State Magazine’s Community Cookbook Series
- Rhubarb Sonker with Milk Dip from The Local Palate
- Surry Sonker Trail
Thanks for spending some time with me today, friends. I hope you enjoy the strawberry peach sonker with milk dip as much as we are!
Take care, and have a lovely day.