Not quite a pie and not quite a cobbler, sonker is a juicy, fruit-filled deep-dish dessert rarely found outside Surry County, North Carolina. While toppings vary, a subset of sonker recipes dub themselves “lazy” sonkers, in which the fruit is cooked into a sweet stew and topped with a pancake batter that bakes into a distinct, lightly crisp layer of cake. For our version, we tossed strawberries with sugar, salt, water, and cornstarch and then baked them until they bubbled and thickened. We then poured the batter over the filling and returned it to the oven. The thick stewed strawberries gave the batter a sturdy, level surface on which to bake, and the hot filling baked the batter from underneath. Eight tablespoons of melted butter made the batter light and floatable so that it baked into a tender-yet-crisp raft of cake.
[Ed. note: for more history and process information on the sonker, listen to Sally Swift's conversation with Tucker Shaw from America's Test Kitchen.]
If you’re using frozen strawberries in this recipe, there’s no need to let them thaw. In steps 2 and 3, be sure to stir the strawberry filling as directed, scraping the bottom of the dish to incorporate the cornstarch so that it evenly and thoroughly thickens the mixture. In step 3, add the butter to the batter while it is still hot so it remains pourable, and be sure to mix the batter only right before pouring it over the filling. Serve with vanilla ice cream.
1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 350 degrees. Line rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Combine strawberries, 1/4 cup sugar, and 1/4 teaspoon salt in bowl. Whisk water and cornstarch together in second bowl; add to strawberry mixture and toss until strawberries are evenly coated.
2. Transfer strawberry mixture to 8-inch square baking dish and place dish on prepared sheet. Bake until filling is bubbling around sides of dish, 35 to 40 minutes (1 hour if using frozen strawberries), stirring and scraping bottom of dish with rubber spatula halfway through baking.
3. Remove sheet from oven and stir filling, scraping bottom of dish with rubber spatula. Whisk flour, baking powder, remaining 3/4 cup sugar, and 1/4 teaspoon salt together in bowl. Whisk in milk, melted butter, and vanilla until smooth. Starting in corner of dish, pour batter evenly over filling.
4. Bake until surface is golden brown and toothpick inserted in center comes out with no crumbs attached, 35 to 40 minutes, rotating dish halfway through baking. Let sonker cool on wire rack for 15 minutes. Serve.