Somewhere, in red-gold corners of New England or the Pacific Northwest, autumn apples hang heavy and ripe from gnarled branches. They’re primed to be picked and put to use in the kitchen, combined with butter, sugar, cinnamon, and flour to bake up into a steaming, golden-brown grunt.
What? A grunt?
You thought I was going say pie, didn’t you?
I’m happy to tell you that wasn’t an absentminded typo, but rather a reference to a real, actual baked good. The grunt, in fact, is one of many quirky, pie-adjacent delicacies that have proliferated across various pockets of the country. Almost all of them have delightful, nursery-rhyme names like a slump, sonker, and pandowdy — PJ Hamel once wrote that they “sound like a Dickensian law firm.” Perhaps even better, they have their own personal histories and stories as well.
They aren't just funny names, either; they're also a delicious way to bake with seasonal apples without the time or intimidation of pie crust. So this fall, try thinking beyond apple pie and make some of these classic desserts for easier baking and a taste of history.
Grunts and slumps
When we recently published our Blueberry Grunt recipe to the King Arthur site, there was some fervent debate around the name. Would using the odd and unfamiliar term “grunt” scare some people off?
At the same time, we also recognized that its name is part of what makes this dessert special.
So why is this classic New England dish often called a "grunt" or "slump"? Grunts and slumps (the two names are interchangeable) are traditional desserts consisting of berries or diced fruit cooked under spoonfuls of biscuit dough. As the fruit slowly begins to bubble, its wet snufflings supposedly bear some resemblance to an animal’s grunt. When served, the dessert slumps on the plate in a sweet, juicy heap. (Fun fact: Little Women author Louisa May Alcott nicknamed her home “Apple Slump.”)
Try substituting diced apples for the berries called for in our Blueberry Grunt recipe — you’ll likely want to add a few tablespoons more water to the apples, since they’re not as juicy as berries. In addition, make sure to include the cinnamon; more spices, like nutmeg and ginger, are also great to use here.
“We always love underdogs, and the pandowdy is the underdog of the dessert world,” says Robyn Sargent, a New England-lifer who teaches the New England Desserts class at the King Arthur Baking School.
A 1991 edition of the old King Arthur Baking Sheet — a formerly published newsletter bursting with recipes and baking advice — included our recipe for Apple Pan Dowdy, “a traditional American dish which saw its heyday in the 1800s and early 1900s.” A combination of pie and pudding, some say this dessert is a cousin of British steamed puddings. As for the name, the Baking Sheet says it “comes from the method in which the recipe is completed: after an apple-based filling is baked in a crust-lined casserole, the hostess takes a fork and ‘dowdies’ the crust, breaking it into pieces which manage to remain crisp despite being partially immersed in the juicy filling.”
“For those of you who are paralyzed by making the perfect-looking crust, the pandowdy is for you.”
Others, like folklorist Emily Hilliard, share alternate theories. “Some consider ‘dowd-y’ to be a variation of the word ‘dough,’ and others conjecture that it descended from the term ‘pandoulde,’ a regional British word for custard,” she writes for NPR.
The result is a filling that starts off full of liquid, but eventually settles into an almost pudding-like consistency as the extra juice gets absorbed by the crust. As Hilliard writes, “For those of you who are paralyzed by making the perfect-looking crust, the pandowdy is for you.”
Crisps and crumbles
Perhaps the easiest way to prepare a bubbling, baked apple dessert is to make a crisp or crumble. A simple combination of flour, sugar, butter, and sometimes oats or nuts, the topping is hand-mixed then scattered across the fruit before being sent to the oven.
The difference between the two is muddy (some say crisps contain oats and crumbles don’t), but mostly it comes down to texture. As King Arthur’s former owner Brinna Sands wrote in the King Arthur Baker’s Companion, “Crumble toppings contain a ratio of streusel ingredients that tend towards a more crumbly texture, whereas the blend of ingredients in a crisp topping will yield just that: a crisper result.”
(The New England dessert known as Brown Betty is a close cousin of both crisps and cobblers, using breadcrumbs or stale bread in the filling.)
Sonkers and cobblers
New York Times food writer Kim Severson once called the sonker her “white whale” and set off to Appalachia in search of the elusive dessert. As she describes it, a sonker is “a soupy, deep-dish baked dessert of sweet potatoes or fruit topped with a crust or a batter” that’s traced back to Surry County, North Carolina. (There’s even a local Sonker Trail that winds through the county.) Sonkers were likely made to stretch fruit supplies during tough times or use up fresh fruit just on the verge of going bad.
A sonker is similar to a cobbler, itself an indefinable, wide-ranging category that pretty much just means baked fruit with a topping. Sometimes that topping is a biscuit-style dough, other times it’s a sweet cake-like consistency. In some parts of the country, like sections of North Carolina, the only acceptable definition features a pastry crust over fruit in a rectangular pan.
As Robyn explains, some say cobbler's name came about because the lumpy filling looks like cobblestones, while others claim it’s because the ease of assembly makes a dessert that’s “cobbled” together.
For a cake-style version of this shape-shifting dessert, try making our Sugar-Crusted Apple Cobbler.
A buckle is a fresh fruit coffeecake, topped with a streusel that can sometimes contain oats. The name came about because the crumbly topping can look "buckled” as the fruit and topping rise and sink to create a charmingly craggy surface.
And if you make a buckle without the streusel, you’ll be making the wonderfully named "boy bait" (basically a buckle sans topping that’s almost always made with blueberries). According to Cook’s Country, the iconic name came about when a teenage girl who created it for the Pillsbury Grand National Baking Contest claimed teenage boys found it irresistible. (Sadly, she only came in second place!)
To make an apple version of our buckle, substitute 2 cups (227g) diced apples for the berries and peaches called for in our Peachberry Buckle.
If you’re ready to embrace even more seasonal baking this fall, try one of the recipes featured in our Harvest Favorites collection.
Cover photo by Liz Neily.