This, my friends, is how you end Passover with a bang.
I didn’t grow up on monkey bread. In fact, I hadn’t even heard of it until the first time I read Nonnie’s cookbook cover to cover. According to my mom, it was one of Nonnie’s specialties, a party trick she’d break out for special occasions — and one of the recipes Mom only made herself once or twice, since it allegedly never turned out to be as good as her own mother’s.
So: What the hell is monkey bread? The answer depends on who you ask.
Most monkey bread recipes you’ll find (online, anyway) involve pre-made biscuit dough and copious amounts of sugar. They yield a sort of sticky bun/cake hybrid, dozens of little dough balls smushed together — basically breadier, baked doughnut holes. (Wikipedia says its name may come from “the bread’s resemblance to the fruit of the monkey puzzle tree,” which seems… dubious at best.)
Sounds delicious! Except that’s nothing like Nonnie’s monkey bread at all.
My grandmother’s take is more bread than pastry, a light but rich pull-apart loaf — Parker House Rolls, not Pillsbury. The recipe is nearly identical to that of history’s most famous monkey bread: Nancy Reagan’s, which was apparently the toast of the White House in the mid-’80s.
The New York Times — which suggests the name “monkey bread” comes from the way you eat it: “pick it apart like a bunch of…” — calls that version “buttery and yeasty, as much brioche as bread” and suggests serving it “with even more fresh butter and perhaps a fine English raspberry jam.”
I’m sure that would be delicious — provided you can stop eating it long enough to pull out the condiments.
1.5 packages yeast [One package is 2 1/4 teaspoons, so you’ll need 3.5 teaspoons altogether]
1/4 cup warm water
1 tablespoon sugar [The smallest amount of sugar I’ve seen in any monkey bread recipe; it’s great for a more neutral loaf, though I’m sure you could bump it up without ruining the bread’s structural integrity. Nancy used three tablespoons]
1 cup milk
1 cup butter [That’s right: two full sticks. One goes in the dough; the other is for dipping dough balls into, one by one. I had about 1/4 cup, or four tablespoons, left over after my dipping was done]
1 teaspoon salt
3 eggs, beaten
3-4 cups flour
Soften yeast in warm water and stir in sugar. Scald milk and add 1/2 cup butter and salt. [What does it mean to scald milk? Basically, it’s a direction intended to kill any gnarly stuff that might be hanging around in your dairy; because all commercial milk is pasteurized these days, it’s no longer strictly necessary. TL;DR: I heated my milk in the microwave for a few minutes, then added the butter to melt it.]
Cool to lukewarm. Stir beaten eggs and east mixture into lukewarm milk mixture. Gradually beat in flour with a wooden spoon and make a soft dough. [Mine needed an extra half cup to form a manageable dough, one capable of being kneaded until it becomes smooth and elastic (which takes 5-10ish minutes); Nonnie doesn’t specifically tell you to knead, but using other recipes as a guideline, I figured it was a step I shouldn’t skip.]Transfer dough to greased bowl, and turn dough to grease top. Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubles in bulk [about the length of one pilates class, or 60-90 minutes].
Divide dough into halves and roll each portion out on a floured surface to a sheet 1/3″ thick. Melt remaining butter. [Try not to think of Reese Witherspoon’s response to her first breakfast in Pleasantville: “I”m gonna hurl, I swear to God. All that animal fat! I feel it in my pores or something.”]
Cut dough with floured 3″ diamond shaped cookie cutter. Dip each piece of dough into melted butter and layer into greased 10″ ring mold, overlapping points of pieces. There should be about 3 layers, but pan should not be more than 3/4 full.
[This is the point where I should tell you that I actually made two kinds of monkey bread: one regular loaf, and one studded with cheddar cheese. Nonnie includes guidelines for both in her cookbook. Before adding the flour, I divided the butter/egg mixture in two; one half got studded with 1/4 plus 1/8 cup of shredded cheddar. (A full recipe of cheese monkey bread would use 3/4 of a cup of cheese.)
After both dough balls rose, I rolled them out and built each loaf in two standard loaf pans, because I don’t have a 10″ ring mold, because it is the year 2016. As you can see, I followed slightly different methods: Nonnie tells you to simply layer the dough pieces (right), but most other recipes have you roll the dough pieces into little balls instead (left). The results weren’t significantly different, although the balled loaf did end up being easier to pull apart.
Oh, and one last thing: I sprinkled some extra cheddar onto half of the cheese loaf, because I couldn’t resist. It was not a mistake.]
Let dough rise until light (about 1 hour). Bake at 400 35 minutes or until lightly browned.
The verdict: Mikey and I tried to resist eating this the very second it came out of the oven. We lasted, oh, all of five minutes — and neither of us has any regrets.
The cheddar loaf was subtly flavored enough that I’d add a whole bunch more cheese to it next time — maybe half a cup, if I were making a full recipe. You should know, too, that this bread gets stale fast; you can feel its exposed insides hardening mere moments after you pull it apart.
The solution, then, is simple: Just eat the whole thing before there’s any danger of that happening. Or maybe slice it up (carefully! It’s made for ripping, not for cutting) and make some French toast.
Tough choice, I know.