I love home baking and traditional recipes with a story to tell. This week I got to share one in a big, wonderful way, cooking up a fresh plum sonker on the Hallmark Channel in the bright, sunny Home & Family kitchen. A sonker is a North Carolina regional dessert treasure, a great big, juicy, pastry-lined version of cobbler, with a lovely vanilla sauce on the side. And did I mention it’s irresistible, easy to make, and serves a great big crowd?
Here in my home state of North Carolina, we love sweet treats and homemade desserts, most especially anything in the Pie family. Our pies can be big or small, single crust or double, fried or baked, made with all kinds of good things, from fresh figs to sweet ripe pears, and even sweet corn. When company’s coming, “pie” often becomes “cobbler”, in order to feed a crowd, and the queen of big juicy cobblers is called a “sonker”.
This regional classic originates in Surry County and Wilkes County in the Blue Ridge mountains of northwestern North Carolina. Nobody knows where its curious and charming name comes from, but everybody knows it comes with a lovely sidekick of a dessert sauce, known as Vanilla Milk Dip. (If y)ou’re in a hurry, ice cream and whipped cream work fine, and it really needs nothing extra to be fantastically memorably good.)
Here I’m making fresh plum sonker and vanilla milk dip with H&F’s darling and delightful host Debbie Matenopoulos. Spoons at the ready up on the H&F kitchen counter sits a great line-up of guests: Charming host Cameron Mathison, actor Rick Fox, star of Greenleaf on OWN and faithful UNC TarHeel basketball and NBA star, and lovely and talented Home & Family cast members Kym Douglas and Orly Shani. They all sampled freshly-baked sonker and commented on the process as we cooked on camera.
Being on Home & Family is SO much fun, and I’ve got lots to share with you about it. Soon: but not today. Right now I have one goal: To get you making your very own Sonkers out there! You can do this! You can become fluent in SONKER and I mean soon.
All it is is one great big, extra-juicy, crowd-feeding, people-pleasing deep dish cobbler, which happens to be blessed with a speedy-quick side sauce that is like custard only super-simple.
Here’s our set-up, waiting on the countertop thanks to H&F ‘s Kitchen Genius Joane, and her tenacious and creative culinary crew. Line a big baking dish with your favorite pastry (13 x 9 pan is ideal, and my favorite is a pyrex, rectangular or oval), and have a good supply of additional pastry cut in big long strips to lay over the top in a criss-cross pattern (unless you want to go with a pastry sheet like a double crust pie; if so, remember to cut vents for steam).
Next to that we’ve got the two bowls of essential ingredients: Chunks of fresh plums, and a bowl of dry ingredients to stir together: Sugar, flour to thicken, and spoonfuls of cinnamon, nutmeg, and a little salt to season the sonker’s fruity sauce just right.
Just like apple pie! Mix the fruit with the sugar-flour mixture and toss well; pour into the pastry lined pan, and top with a little melted butter and some water. Then arrange the pastry strips over the top and bake.
See the little milk bottle there tucked in between the plump and gorgerous deep purple plums and the spice grinder? Love this still-life-with-sonker! They make my food look SO beautiful and make me feel so welcome and at home on the Home & Family set, which is an actual house where everything works.
That petite milk bottle holds Vanilla Milk Dip: Milk, sugar, cornstarch, and vanilla, which you stir up on the stove while your sonker bakes.
Loved this touch — whole nutmegs and cinnamon sticks — for beauty and knowledge, we did not grate our own for the show and you don’t have to either — do what suits you and your kitchen!
You can use peaches, or nectarines instead of plums; or use a combination of all three fruits, as long as you’ve got about 9 cups of chunky fruit.
Now for the recipe, which you can print out and take into the kitchen. Or:
- Pastry for three 9-inch single crust pies (3 sheets)
- 1 1/2 cups sugar
- 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
- ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
- ½ teaspoon ground cloves
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 9 cups big chunks of ripe plums (about 3 ¾ pounds)
- 1/2 cup butter, melted (1 stick)
- 1/3 cup water
- 3 cups whole milk
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch
- 2 tablespoons water
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- For the piecrust, drape one of the three circles of pastry dough over half of a 13- by 9-inch baking pan, tucking it into the corners.
- Trim away excess dough, and use it,along with the second circle of pastry dough, to piece and patch together a complete pastry lining of the rectangular pan.
- Press gently to seal up any seams, and extend the edges of the pastry dough 1 inch beyond the rim of the baking pan.
- Cut the remaining circle of pastry dough into long strips about 1-inch wide. Set pastry-lined pan and dough strips aside while you prepare the filling.
- Heat the oven to 450 degrees F.
- In a large bowl, combine the sugar, flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and salt. Use a fork to stir everything together well. Add the chopped plums and toss gently, using your hands or two big spoons, until the fruit is evenly coated with the sugar mixture.
- Pour the filling into the pan and spread it out into an even layer. Pour the melted butter and the 1/3 cup water evenly over the plums.
- To make an easy lattice crust, lay strips of pastry in one direction and then in the other direction, at right angles (think tic tac toe board) covering filling while leaving space for it to show through.
- (Or place the strips at an angle, to make a diamond-shaped grid rather than a square one.)
- Press the end of each pastry strip firmly against the side of the pan, so that it sticks to the crust. Then fold the top edge of the pastry down and over the sealed strips, pressing it against the pastry-lined sides of the pan, going all the way around the rim of the pan.
- Crimp this crust edge by pinching it into little points, or press it with the tines of a fork to make a design.
- Place the sonker on the middle shelf of the 450 degrees F. oven, and bake for 15 minutes.
- Lower the heat to 350 degrees, and bake until the crust is handsomely and evenly browned, and the filling is bubbling up vigorously, 45 to 55 minutes more. (*Note: You'll remove almost-done sonker a little early, to pour on some Dip and then bake a little longer; details below.)
- While the sonker bakes, make the Dip. In a small bowl, combine cornstarch and water and stir with a small spoon to mix well. Set aside with spoon handy.
- In a medium saucepan, stir the sugar, milk, and salt together well. Place the saucepan over medium-high heat, and bring to a gentle boil. As soon as the mixture boils, reduce the heat to maintain a lively simmer and cook to dissolve the sugar, about 1 minute.
- Stir cornstarch mixture well and then add it to the bubbling hot milk mixture, stirring or whisking to mix well.
- Cook 1 minute and remove from heat. Stir in vanilla and then pour out ¾ cup of Dip to pour over the baking sonker; Set aside remaining Dip to cool.
- When sonker is bubbling and crust is almost done, remove from oven and pour the reserved Dip all over the top of the sonker; then return to oven for 5 to 10 minutes more, to absorb the Dip.
- Remove the sonker and set on a cooling rack or a folded kitchen towel for 30 minutes or more. Serve warm or at room temperature, with Vanilla Milk Dip on the side, in a pitcher or a serving bowl with a ladle, for pouring over each serving.
- Or scoop out servings into bowls or onto dessert plates and generously top each serving Dip.
Have you ever had sonker before? Or heard of it? Made one at home? Plan to make one now:?
Let me know in the comments!