Kristy Wenz is a writer, entrepreneur, wine lover, experimental home cook and avid traveler. She blogs regularly at Eat Play Love, where she and her family explore cuisines and cultures around the globe.
A Sonker by Any Other Name
This month’s feature article takes us to Yadkin Valley AVA in northwestern North Carolina. Historically a tobacco producing region, the area has seen an increase in vineyards and wine production since becoming an AVA in 2003. Sitting in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, wine producers in this region often work with Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Viognier as well as many native and hybrid varieties. Having had the opportunity to tour through this region a few years back, I can certainly attest to the quality of wines, but especially on the innovative food scene.
North Carolina’s Not All BBQ
Now, when most people think of North Carolina, barbecue is often one of the first foods to come to mind, and rightly so. Barbecue in the Tar Heel State is big business; and unlike other popular barbecue states where the focus is on the sauce, here the emphasis is on the cut of meat. Whether roasting a whole pig in the eastern regions or the pig shoulder in the west (Lexington BBQ); slow roasting with fall off the bone tenderness is paramount. Which style of BBQ is quintessentially North Carolinian, however, is debatable and historically a hotly contested political issue. In fact, BBQ is so much a part of the identity of the state that the one-day Lexington Barbecue Festival held each October (October 22, 2016 this year) is listed as one of the 1,000 Places to See in the USA & Canada Before-You-Die.
However, North Carolina is not only for barbecue lovers. It’s a veritable foodie scene with innovative chefs using fresh ingredients combined with local herbs and spices to create unique twists on the traditional Southern cuisine. Yes, you can absolutely find many of the classics from collard greens and fried green tomatoes, to sweet potato biscuits and Moravian sugar cake; but if you’re feeling more adventurous how about grits with goat cheese, a red pepper coulis and basil? Or peach lemonade infused with rosemary? We even found fried chicken with crispy ham, basil and milk gravy. It wasn’t hard to find good food; it was hard to choose what to try. It’s easy to see why the debate over regional specialties gets passionate (and often political).
Enter the Surry Sonker
That said, it was not difficult to choose the recipe for this month. With October right around the corner – a beautiful month for getting out on a wine trail or stopping at a BBQ festival – it seemed fitting to highlight another popular recipe credited specifically to Surry County within the Yadkin Valley AVA, the Surry Sonker. Never heard of a Surry Sonker? Well neither had I, but I can tell you I won’t soon forget it, and if you decide to make this month’s recipe, neither will you.
A sonker, believed to have originated in Surry County is akin to a cobbler, fruit crisp or deep dish pie. It’s a combination of fruit sweetened with sugar and combined with unformed dough. Ingredients vary from sweet potatoes, peaches or apples, to strawberries, blueberries, huckleberries, etc., depending on what’s in season. A sonker is soupier than a typical cobbler and it is often served with cream made from sugar or molasses. While the origins of the term “sonker,” are debatable, Surry County takes full credit for the delicacy and has even built a tasting trail dedicated to the deep dish dessert (with a winery being one of the stops). In fact, there’s also a festival held the first Saturday of October each year dedicated to the sonker! It’s sounding more and more like Yadkin Valley is the place to be next month.
A Cuppa Recipe
If, like me, you’re tethered to responsibilities this fall, in September we’re sharing a recipe for a sonker that will bring some North Carolinian excitement to your kitchen. The recipe highlighted below is often referred to as a “cuppa” sonker as it requires “a cuppa this and a cuppa that.” We’ve chosen to use peaches this month because, well, who doesn’t want to hang on to summer just a little bit longer; and besides it’s delicious. We’re also going to take inspiration from the creativity found on the North Carolinian food scene and add a little natural flare with the use of rosemary, vanilla ice cream and an aged balsamic vinegar. And don’t worry – we’ll of course pair it with some Yadkin Valley wine.
The recipe is very simple. To begin, melt ½-cup of butter in a deep, oven-safe dish as you preheat the oven to 350 degrees. While the butter melts, peel and cut approximately 8-10 peaches (enough to make around 4 cups give or take). Next cook the sliced peaches with a ¼ cup of sugar and 1 tablespoon of dried rosemary (or more if fresh) in a skillet until the juices begin to run and become bubbly. Then in a mixing bowl whisk together a cuppa self-rising flour, ¾ cups of sugar, a pinch of salt and a cuppa milk. I also recommend cooking this alongside some feel good music. (Spotify’s “Feelin’ Good” station worked nicely.) Finally, once the butter has melted, remove the dish from the oven and pour the batter directly over the melted butter into the deep dish, followed by the peaches. Place the sonker back in the oven and bake for 35-45 minutes until the juices are bubbly and the edges of the crust are a slight golden brown.
Once complete, let the sonker cool slightly then serve topped with a milk or sugar based cream (as is traditional), or as we’ve done here with vanilla ice cream with a drop of creamy, aged balsamic vinegar (not to be confused with store-bought balsamic vinegar). A balsamic reduction would also work nicely. Or, feel free to dive in au naturel – it won’t disappoint. The sonker is a rustic, juicy fruit dessert where the creamy, sweet dough provides a velvety complement to the tangy fruit. The use of rosemary adds a fresh, savory component that I swear makes it almost addictive (you’ve been warned). It’s easy to see why the sonker is so revered in the Yadkin Valley. Leftovers, should you have any, can be stored covered in the fridge and eaten either cold or reheated (and if you eat it for breakfast the next day, we won’t tell anyone).
As for the wine, it’s always a challenge to pair desserts and wine, but here North Carolina’s Yadkin Valley offers a few excellent options including a Late Harvest Viognier, a Moscato d’Asti-style sparkling wine or perhaps even a Merlot blush or dessert Port. You may even find your own combinations after a weekend on the Yadkin Valley Wine and Surry Sonker trails. Whatever you choose, make sure to sit back, sip and savor the wonderful flavors and innovations of the Yadkin Valley. They are deliciously rich, utterly sublime and worth experiencing either on the road or in your own kitchen. And whether you know it as a cobbler, a pie or a sonker, let’s face it, a sonker by any other name may taste as sweet, but it sure wouldn’t be as fun to say!
Peach & Rosemary Sonker
½ cup (1-stick) butter
8-10 peaches, peeled and chopped (approximately four cups)
1 cup sugar, divided
1 T dried rosemary
1 cup self-rising flour
1 cup milk (2% or whole milk)
A pinch of salt
Preheat oven to 350F. In a deep, oven-safe dish melt the butter in the oven as it preheats.
Combine the chopped peaches, ¼ Cup of sugar and rosemary in a skillet and cook over medium heat until the juices run and become bubbly.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the remaining sugar, flour, milk and salt. Whisk until a smooth batter is formed (it will have the consistency of a pancake batter).
When the butter is melted, remove the dish from the oven and pour the batter directly over the butter, followed by the peaches. Place the dish back into the oven and bake for 35-45 minutes, or until the juices are bubbly and the crust is risen and golden brown.
Remove from the oven and let cool, but remain warm. Serve with cream, ice cream or au naturel.