A tiny smidgen of silver to line the COVID-19 cloud: The “homely arts” are reappearing as a treasured part of daily life. Not saying I like what’s going on–I don’t, not at all–or that I wouldn’t really like to have my old life back, right about now, but I’ve rediscovered a lot of things I’m always too busy to mess with: Crafts, the joy of accomplishing stuff around the house and…cooking.
Take today: I made a sonker, a North Carolina comfort food. It’s in the oven now, and even if we absolutely hate the final product, it was a fun trip back in time.
Sonker, according to food historians (and my mom’s side of the family), is a bit of a cross between a cobbler and pudding cake, and pretty much the only people making it live in Surry County, North Carolina, where Mom’s from. In fact, it’s most famous in my mom’s hometown, Mt. Airy, North Carolina, famous for being the home of Andy Griffith (he just substituted “Mayberry” for “Mt. Airy,” not always kindly, and “Mount Pilot” actually exists, only it’s really Pilot Mountain, just outside of town).
The area has a rich succession of settlers who devised delicious treats. Our own ancestors were Germanic Moravians whose homes can still be toured in historic Old Salem. They created thin, crispy cookies redolent of ginger, and an amazingly delicious potato-cinnamon bread called Moravian sugar cake. The last time I made that I was still in high school; one of these days I’ll have to try it again.
Sonker, however, is supposed to be a fruit-filled version of Scottish pudding, and the history of the area certainly bears that out. In the early 1700s the British began dismantling the Scottish clan system and kicking the Highlanders out of the the country (think “Bonnie Prince Charlie”). A large number came to the central part of the US eastern seaboard about the same time the Moravians arrived, up into the Blue Ridge Mountains, bringing their desserts with them.
I had my first sonker about ten years ago but didn’t realize how unique it was until an article in the New York Times.
So–as usual, it takes me forever to get to the point–this all came back today because our freezer was full and needed cleaning out. I dove in, found an old, ice-crystalled bag of frozen strawberries. Seemed a shame to throwout otherwise good fruit (thanks again, COVID-19, because I’ve become a LOT more frugal), so I set out to find a recipe for frozen, freezer-burned fruit.
Hit up Cooks Illustrated, and up came Lazy Strawberry Sonker. SONKER? REALLY? ARE THEY KIDDING? WHOA!!!!!
I eagerly clicked and, sure enough, there was a sonker recipe. Good as Cooks Illustrated is, the recipe needed a bit of tweaking, so I got to work.
Were the results worth eating? Read on.
Freezer Burn Sonker
- 2 lbs or so of frozen fruit that’s seen better days. I’m using strawberries, but the sonkers I had in Mt. Airy were blackberry and peach, and incredible.
- 1/4-1/2 cup cup of sugar (adjust this up or down depending on the tartness of the fruit–I’d probably use less than a quarter-cup for overripe peaches)
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon cornstarch
- 1/4 to 1/3 cup water (if the fruit is badly freezer-burned it’ll have dried out, so use a little extra water)
Cake or topping or…not sure what to call it
- 1 cup of all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamon
- 10 grates of fresh nutmeg
- 1 tablespoon vanilla (please, use the good stuff, not artificial vanilla)
- A couple drops of almond extract (or, if you have it, a quarter-teaspoon of orangle flower water)
- About a half cup of melted, unsalted butter (REAL butter)–it’s got to be runny, so you want it hot
- 1/2 cup whole milk or buttermilk (if you use buttermilk, you’ll want a little more sugar)
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
This has to be the weirdest way to make a cobbler-thingee ever, but…
- Place the frozen fruit into a bowl. If it’s covered with ice crystals and freezer burn, as mine was, give it 1-2 minutes in the microwave on high. Don’t defrost, just zap it enough to get the crystals really melting.
- While that’s going on, get out a jelly roll pan and cover it with aluminum foil or parchment paper. You’ll thank me later.
- Also, preheat your oven to 350 degreesF.
- Remove fruit from microwave and sprinkle with the sugar, toss to coat.
- Put the cornstarch into a small bowl and gradually add water, whisking until smooth. Pour it over the fruit/sugar mixture, and stir to evenly coat.
- Dump the mixture into a 9-inch square or round glass baking pan (you can use a metal pan but it’s gonna be harder to clean later).
- Bake at 350 degrees for about an hour.
- Remove from the oven, get out a spatula, and start stirring the mixture, being careful to scrape every bit of the bottom. You’ll find that the cornstarch has pretty much migrated all the way down, and you’ll be scraping up pinkish goo. Do NOT throw this out–just mix it back into the bubbling fruit. You’ll find it eventually dissolves, and the whole thing begins to thicken up.
- Set aside.
- Now start mixing up the cake part. Get out another bowl and dump in the dry ingredients–flour, baking powder, spices, sugar, salt.
- Get out a whisk, mix the dry ingredients together thoroughly, and add in the rest. Whisk like crazy until smooth (and don’t take your own sweet time about it; once that baking powder gets wet the clock is ticking).
- Pour the batter over the filling. The Cooks Illustrated instructions say to pour it in evenly. Yeah, right–that’s well-nigh impossible. Just keep the bowl moving while you’re pouring and try to get it as even as possible. It will sink as you pour, so no, you’re not doing anything wrong.
- When you’ve emptied all the batter into the pan, stick it in the oven. Don’t try to evenly spread the batter or make it look better; not gonna happen.
- Bake at 350 degreesF for…we’ll discuss that in a minute.
- While still hot, scoop out some of this odd, soggy mess and serve with a really good vanilla ice cream. It’s not worth even trying whipped cream, it’s just not strong enough to stand up to the flavor and texture of this stuff.
Now, about that cooking time: Cooks Illustrated says this should take 35 to 40 minutes until the cake that shows on the surface is golden brown. In your DREAMS, guys. My oven runs hot, but after 40 minutes the batter still resembled batter, albeit hot batter. The sonker actually took a bit less than an hour; all I can say is keep an eye on it from about 45 minutes on.
What you’ll get is very soft cake embedded in a glorious mess of soupy, hot fruit. You’ll need a large spoon (or ladle) to dump the stuff into your bowl (do NOT use a plate unless you want to be wearing it). This recipe filled my 9-inch baking dish to the tippy-top, and then some; I was extremely glad I’d used that covered pan to catch drips.
In our house, The Resident Carpenter-Blacksmith gets first bite of my experiments; it’s less obsequious courtesy and more like the role of a traditional food-taster. If he can swallow it without actual physical pain, then I’ll give it a try, too.
I ladled a healthy portion into a bowl, topped it with Tillamook Vanilla Bean ice cream, and handed it over. He took a bite.
“This,” he said, “Is very hot, and very delicious. It tastes like strawberry-rhubarb pie, but with cake.”
Emboldened, I tried it myself. It reminded me of hot strawberry shortcake, and I concur with Nate: It’s delicious. I suspect another five minutes in the oven would have crisped up the top surface of the cake a bit–it was soft, and definitely a cake, but I thought it could have stood a leetle more cooking.
Nonetheless, it’s tasty, and pretty easy to make. Definitely a great way to use up your old frozen stash.