American desserts often come with wacky names: buckle, slump, grunt, Bettie. You can add another one to the list: sonker. It's a silly name for a seriously good dessert. Tucker Shaw is the head of the Cooks Country team at America’s Test Kitchen. He talks with managing producer about this dish of stewed fruit and lightly crisped top with North Carolina roots. Tucker also left us with a recipe for Lazy Strawberry Sonker, a perfect treat to use up a lot of your summertime strawberries.
Sally Swift: I want to talk about the reason we have such bizarre names for fruit desserts. We all know what a cobbler is, and a crumble – but what's a Betty?
Tucker Shaw: We love a Betty.
SS: I knew you'd know.
TS: There are so many baked fruit desserts that have funny, silly names. I think it has to do with the fact that they're fun things to eat, so why not have a goofy name? Betty is usually apples layered with breadcrumbs and baked into sort of a pudding.
SS: It’s kind of cobbler-y, kind of a crumble. But what is a grunt?
TS: What a great name. Sometimes called a slump, a grunt is similar to a cobbler. But, whereas with a cobbler you would dollop biscuit dough on top of the fruit, a grunt or a slump is baked under dumpling dough. It's less flaky and more elastic, but no less delicious. It's named for the sound that the dumplings make as they bake; they kind of grunt a little bit.
SS: I love that.
TS: I've got one more to throw at you, Sally. Have you ever heard of sonker?
SS: No, I have not heard of sonker. What in the world is it?
TS: A sonker is a cousin of these other fruit desserts. It’s super localized in Surry County, North Carolina. The epicenter is Mount Airy, North Carolina.
SS: Which is Mayberry, RFD.
TS: That's the place, you know it. Andy Griffith grew up there; they shot the show there and if you go to Mount Airy now, you will see a lot of the exterior locations they used on this show.
SS: What does this dessert taste like? What is it?
TS: It's similar to a lot of the other baked fruit desserts, but it's much juicier. If you can picture a baking dish filled with super juicy baked fruit – either berries or peaches – covered with a relatively thin, but still cakey batter, much like a pancake batter on top. It's baked in the oven where all the flavors deeply intensify, and the top turns a lovely golden brown.
SS: Wow! It sounds delicious.
TS: You start with two pounds of strawberries. You can also use blueberries or peaches. This is a great place to use that fruit that's a bit past its prime, a little imperfect, maybe it has a bruise on it. Bruise, shmuise, you're going to stew the heck out of this stuff! You can also use frozen berries here as well; you’ll have to bake it a few extra minutes, but the end result is essentially the same.
Take your berries and combine them with a cup of sugar and a hint of salt. Stir it together with a quick slurry of water and cornstarch; this gives it just a little bit of body. Transfer this fruit mixture into a baking dish, and stick it into the oven for about 35 to 40 minutes. While that's baking, you're going to whisk together a simple and familiar batter. It's similar to a pancake batter: flour, baking powder, whole milk, and a lot of melted butter. I know this sounds rich – we're actually using a stick of melted butter here – but you need to have a good amount of fat in the butter so it floats on top of the juice. That fat is lighter than water. If you were to use a batter with less fat, it would actually sink into the juicy fruit and turn it chalky, instead of the rich, vibrant color that you're looking for.
Drizzle the batter on top of the fruit. Stick it in the oven for another half-hour, maybe another three-quarters of an hour, depending. What you'll pull out of the oven will almost look like a yellow cake from the top; it will be golden and faintly brown. When you stick a spoon in it, you’ll hit through that lightly crisp top, and descend into a warm, syrupy pond of stewed fruit that is intensified by all that time in the oven.
SS: It sounds beautiful.
TS: It's gorgeous. As I said earlier, you must serve it in a bowl, because it will run all over a plate and be a mess. In Surry County, you'll sometimes find it served with what's called dip, which is essentially a thin sugar and milk sauce drizzled over the top. We also love it with ice cream. I say go for the ice cream, especially in the summertime.
SS: Absolutely. What a great place for all those times when you're in the farmer's market and see berries that are going over the hill, and you don’t grab them. Now, you can grab them and freeze them, and you've got this great dessert to make.
TS: Totally. You can freeze them and use frozen fruit all year round.