This installment of All The Fixin’s comes from Ronni Lundy’s Victuals. We’d never heard of sonker until friend-of-the-blog Jason mentioned it during a discussion of the great cobbler versus pie versus crumble debate. “Sonker?” we asked. “What on earth is a sonker?”
Well a sonker, we learned, is a deep-dish, cobbler-like dessert unique to a specific area of northwestern North Carolina — two counties, Surry and Wilkes, to be exact. It’s so niche, it doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. According to Lundy there are a number of variations, but most if not all feature a crust along the bottom and sides, a lattice top, a sweet filling, and a mysterious sauce called milk dip. The version here is adapted from Nothing in the House, a pie blog by Emily Hillard. We went ahead and adapted it even further, because sorghum is really hard to find in Brooklyn (just further confirmation that we need to open our Southern grocery, but that’s a topic for another day).
This recipe also comes to you just in time for the Surry County Annual Sonker Festival, which takes place on the first Saturday of every October in Mount Airy, North Carolina. The event, now in its 38th year, celebrates sonker in all its glory. But if you can’t make it down to Tar Heel state this weekend, you can still bring a little bit of down-home goodness into your home, wherever it may be.
We started our sonker journey off by making our very own homemade pie crust (pause for applause). That’s right y’all: We eschewed our usual Pillsbury and got our hands dirty (literally — Zelda is of the “why did the good lord give us hands if not to mix this dough ourselves” school. Also, it feels all squishy, in a good way.). The sun was high, the butter was cold, and we were culinary pioneers forging ahead into unknown, sonkery territory. However, in our recipe research, we skipped over the fact that the pie dough, once made, had to chill for at least an hour. Now worries, we thought, we’ll just make the filling in the meantime! And then came the second jab of the one-two punch: The sweet potatoes, once boiled, also had to chill before they could be sliced and formed into sonker innards.
Now Zelda works on Sunday evenings, which meant she had to leave Scout’s apartment mid-bake. And dear Scout had to forge ahead, alone — a state to which she is unaccustomed while in the kitchen. Her roommate and friend-of-the-blog, Stephanie, offered to pitch in. Zelda offered moral support via Snapchat and texts. And so, the journey continued.
Overall, it could have gone worse. Scout, in her inexperience, may have overcooked the sweet potatoes, which made assembling them all the more difficult. The pie dough, while definitely homemade, was also on the crumbly side, which made assembling it difficult. Then Lundy asked us to forge a lattice top, and Scout nearly threw the whole thing out the window.
In the end though, she did the best she could, and the results, while not as aesthetically pleasing as the one pictured in the book, did taste quite good! We even got the North Carolina Sonker seal of approval from our pals Sarah and Jason. So we are calling it a success. Scout earned her All the Fixin’s merit badge! But she’s none too eager to re-enter the kitchen sans Zelda any time soon.
Sweet Potato Sonker with Milk Dip and Emily Hillard’s Pie Crust (adapted from Ronni Lundy’s Victuals)
1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature (plus a little extra for greasing the baking dish)
⅓ cup all-purpose flour (plus a little extra for flouring the baking dish)
6 medium sweet potatoes (about 3 pounds), peeled
2 teaspoons salt
1 ½ cups sugar
1 cup sorghum syrup (can substitute honey or molasses)
3 cups whole milk
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 pie crust*
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
Butter and lightly flour a 13×9-inch baking dish.
On a floured surface, roll out one chilled dough ball or pie crust into a large rectangle. Transfer to the prepared baking dish and press gently into the bottom, fully lining the dish to form the bottom crust. Place the dish in the fridge to chill.
Put the whole, peeled sweet potatoes in a large pot. Add the salt and enough cold water to cover. Place the pot over medium heat, cover, and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook until the potatoes are tender when pierced with a fork, about 25 minutes.
Use a large slotted spoon to transfer the cooked potatoes to a cutting board to cool. Reserve 1 ½ cups of the cooking liquid and set aside to use later.
Slice the cooled potatoes into rounds, as thin as you can get them without the potatoes breaking.
Removed the dough-lined pan from the fridge. Layer the sweet potato slices on top of the crust.
In a medium bowl, combine 1 cup of the sugar, the sorghum, ⅓ cup of the flour, the butter, and the 1 ½ cups of reserved cooking liquid. Mix well and pour over the sweet potatoes.
Roll out the second chilled dough ball/pie crust into a rectangle, slightly smaller than the first. Cut into ½-inch wide strips. Form a lattice crust on top of the sweet potatoes.
Bake for about 40 minutes, until the crust is golden brown. But wait, there’s more! Your sonker is not done yet! While the sonker is baking, it’s milk dip time.
Whisk ½ cup of the milk with the cornstarch in a medium saucepan, until all the cornstarch is dissolved.
Add the remaining 2 ½ cups of milk and the remaining ½ cup of sugar. Cook over medium-high heat until the mixture comes to a boil. Let boil for 1 minute to thicken. Removed from the heat and stir in the vanilla.
Once your sonker has baked for 40 minutes, pour 2 cups of the milk dip (in our case, all of it) on top, coating the entire surface. Return to the oven and bake for about 15 more minutes, until the edges are caramelized and the crust is golden brown on top.
Remove the dish from the oven and let it cool for at least 20 minutes before serving. (Do not skip this step, however impatient you may be! It lets the milk dip thicken and fully absorb into the sonker.)
Serve your sonker just warm, with the remaining milk dip (if you have any) on the side for dipping.
*As y’all know, we normally fall into the lazy/time-crunched camp of store-bought pie crusts. Pillsbury makes a mighty fine product, after all, which has yet to let us down. But for some reason this month, we were feeling particularly ambitious. Readers, we made our own crust. Here’s how.
4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons salt
1 ½ cups (3 sticks) butter, slice and chilled (Note: The chilled part is very important! The colder the butter, the flakier your crust will be. Zelda suggests slicing and immediately sticking it back in the fridge or freezer until it is absolutely necessary to take it out.)
1 large egg
½ cup ice-cold water
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
Whisk the flour, sugar, and salt together in a large mixing bowl (bonus point if it’s giraffe-print).
Using a pastry blender, a fork, a knife, or the hands the good lord gave you, cut the butter into the dry ingredients. Rub/mix until you’re left with pea-sized butter chunks, for maximum flakey-flakey goodness.
Lightly beat the egg in a medium bowl. Whisk in the water and vinegar.
Pour the liquid mixture into the flour-butter mixture and mix with a wooden spoon until combined. It should come together but still be shaggy: Do not overmix.
Use floured hands (if, like Zelda, you’ve used your hands to really get into the pie mixing, your hands will be plenty-floured already) to divide the dough in half and form two balls. Wrap in plastic wrap (or if, like Scout, plastic wrap is not a thing you remembered to procure, wax paper will also do the trick).
Put your dough balls in the fridge and let chill for at least one hour before rolling out.