Little did I know when I was there, though, that along with Andy Griffith and Round Peake playing, Surry County also boasts a distinctive regional dessert, called a sonker. A sonker is essentially a cross between a cobbler and a pie, as it uses pie pastry, but is served in the biggest rectangular pan that can fit in the oven--perfect for serving large crowds at church suppers and community events common in the region. Sonkers also serve as a means for showcasing some of the superb fresh local produce grown in Surry County. A peach filling is classic, but they can also be made with cherries or blueberries or other stone fruits, and in the winter, sweet potato sonkers are quite popular.
A sonker is also traditionally served with a sauce called "dip", a warmed-milk and sugar concoction ladled over individual slices. As Nancie McDermott mentions in Southern Pies, a fancier dip can also include an egg, likening it to the "classic Southern dessert sauce, boiled custard." The whole ensemble is even celebrated at the Surry County Sonker festival, held on the first Saturday of October.
For my first sonker, I went with a classic peach, and threw in a few apricot slices I had leftover from the gooseberry-apricot pie. Here's the recipe I used, adapted only slightly from Southern dessert maven Nancie McDermott.
Surry County Peach Sonker with Dip
Adapted from Nancie McDermott's Southern Pies
Nothing-in-the-House pie crust, multiplied by two
1 1/2 c. sugar
1/3 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp. salt
9 c. fresh peaches, peeled and cut into slices
1/2 c. (1 stick) butter, melted
1/2 c. sugar
3 Tblsp. cornstarch
3 c. milk
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
For crust & filling:
1. Prepare Nothing-in-the-House pie crust as per the directions. Once dough has chilled, roll out half of it to line a 9x13-inch greased and floured baking pan. Make sure to tuck the dough into the corners. Leave a 1-inch overhang around the sides of the pan and trim off any excess dough.
2. Roll out remaining dough and cut into long strips, approximately 1-inch wide. Refrigerate pastry-lines pan and cut strips while you prepare the filling. If you have extra dough, wrap it in plastic wrap and freeze for your next sonker!
3. Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. In a large bowl, combine sugar, flour, nutmeg, cinnamon, and salt, using a fork or whisk to combine. Add the sliced and peeled peaches and gently toss them with the dry mixture until they are evenly coated. Pour the filling into the pastry-lined pan and spread evenly. Pour the melted butter and 1/2 c. water evenly over the peach filling.
4. Remove pastry strips from the fridge and weave a criss-cross or lattice pattern across the top of the filling. Press the end of each strip against the side of the pastry crust, then fold the bottom overhang of pastry over the strips. Seal and crimp the edges using a fork.
5. Place the sonker in the oven and bake for 10 minutes at 450 degrees. Reduce heat to 350 degrees F and bake for about 45-55 minutes more, or until crust is golden brown and filling is bubbling.
1. In a medium saucepan, combine sugar and cornstarch, mixing well with a fork or whisk. Add milk and vanilla and stir to dissolve the dry mixture into the milk. Place the saucepan over medium-high heat and stir constantly as it comes to a boil. As soon as it boils, reduce the heat and let the dip simmer until it thickens and becomes smooth, about 3-5 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside to let cool.
2. Serve sonker warm, covering each slice with a generous ladle-full of dip.
With its FULL STICK of butter added to the filling and warmed milk dip reminiscent of childhood late night snacks, this is an incredibly sumptuous and comforting dessert that would be excellent anywhere from a Surry County fiddlers' convention to a Washington, D.C. kitchen. My housemate Bobbie said it's one of her most favorite things she's ever eaten, which is saying a lot in our house full of baked goods, and is evidenced by her plate-licking photo below. Personally, I'm going to pioneer the movement to combine the Surry County Sonker Festival and the Mt. Airy Bluegrass and Old-Time Fiddlers' Convention into one event, or at least bring a sonker or two to next year's fiddle festival.