This is loosely adapted from my friend Linda’s recipe for sourdough-risen cinnamon rolls. When she sent it to me, she mentioned that she’s been using it to make monkey bread because it has a higher goo: dough ratio than the rolls. With that in mind, I’m not sure I’ll ever make the roll version.
What’s With the Silly Name?
For the uninitiated, monkey bread is a pull-apart loaf usually made by pinching off pieces of dough and rolling them in something or other—often butter and cinnamon-sugar, or sometimes a caramel sauce. Raisins and pecans optional. Whatever the coating, you toss all the balls in a pan and as they rise and bake, they come together into a coherent whole. However, the coating prevents them from becoming a completely solid mass, so you can pull the pieces off by hand. You could also slice it, and then you’ll get pieces that are marbled with the coating. But I’ve never seen it served that way. As far as I’m concerned, the entire raison d’etre of monkey bread is how the form seems to dictate the method of consumption: the bubbly exterior practically begs you to tear pieces off, each one coated in flavor.
There are apparently a few theories on the origin of the “monkey bread” name. According to the Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink (via the Food Timeline), some people claim that it’s named after the monkey puzzle tree (Arucaria araucana). Based on pictures of the tree, that seems plausible—although I’m not sure if the name would have been a reference to the bark, which has deep irregular ridges that do kind of resemble lumps of dough baked together, or because of the interwoven pattern of scale-like leaves, or because of its spherical cones, which might resemble the balls of dough.
Former First Lady Nancy Reagan offered another explanation when she provided the recipe to the kitchen staff to prepare for holiday visitors to the White House in 1982: “’Because when you make it, you have to monkey around with it.”
The third possibility is that it’s a reference to the way people consume the bread, not how you prepare it. . From a 2003 New York Times article that accompanied a reprint of Nancy Reagan’s recipe: “Since monkeys are known for gleefully pulling at, well, everything, it makes sense that an audience-participation loaf should be called monkey bread. Formed of balls of dough and baked in a ring mold, monkey bread emerges as golden puffs that are irresistible to both hand and eye. The idea is that you pick it apart like a bunch of . . . that it’s more fun than a barrel of. . . . You get the idea.”
More fun than a barrel of garlic-covered monkeys!
I was a little surprised to see that Reagan’s recipe and the “original” attributed to actress and cookbook author ZaSu Pitts and Ann King, her African-American cook, are both just a rich, buttery yeast dough cut into pieces coated in more butter and baked. No cinnamon-sugar. No raisins or pecans. Reagan actually calls for hers to be served with jam, which is totally antithetical to the sticky-sweet version I’m most familiar with, which often starts with refrigerated biscuit dough coated in so much butter and sugar that once it’s done, it resembles a giant sticky bun.
But I guess if the essence of monkey bread is that you pull it apart by hand and eat it, there’s no rule saying it has to have cinnamon-sugar goo on it. I decided to try a savory version kind of like this recipe by Sharon123 from Food.com. I reduced the sugar in Linda’s recipe and added some cheese and herbs. Then, I rolled the balls in melted butter mixed with minced garlic and then dipped each one in a mixture of parmesan and herbs.
A few other modifications: Linda usually makes a sponge for the first rise, Sandor Katz-style, which is basically all the dough ingredients except about half the flour. You let that sit for 6-8 hours and then add the rest of the flour, knead, and let it rise for another 2-4 hours before shaping, rising again, and baking. Her recipe also calls for 2 cups of water and approximately 2x the other ingredients (3 beaten eggs, about 9 cups of flour total, 1/4 cup honey, 1/4 cup oil). I decided to skip the sponge step and mix all the flour in at the beginning, and I made a smaller amount so it would fit in one pan—I used a large souffle dish, but a 10” bundt or tube pan would probably work just as well or better. Also, instead of giving it a good, long knead, I just kind of smooshed it around in the bowl a bit until it came together as a dough. So basically, this is a much lazier version.
Making a sponge would probably give you more flavor (including a more pronounced sourdough flavor if you wanted it, although you could neutralize that with some baking soda if desired), and kneading the finished dough would give you a more even crumb and perhaps a fluffier rise. But even without all that, it’s still homemade bread coated in delicious, flavorful stuff—hard to go wrong. One change I’ll make next time is to pull out my tube pan or bundt pan—the soufflé dish worked all right, but the very middle was a little dense and doughy and I think having more surface area would help with that as well as providing more toasty golden brown edge pieces.
Recipe: Sourdough-risen Garlic Parmesan Monkey Bread (adapted from Linda Wan and Sharon123 on Food.com)
- 2 cups refreshed 100%-hydration sourdough starter (see note below to substitute packaged yeast)
- 1/2 cup water
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 4-5 cups bread flour
- 3 Tablespoons oil or melted butter
- 2 Tablespoons sugar, honey, or other sweetener
- 3 teaspoons kosher salt
- 8 oz. grated sharp cheese, like cheddar, asiago, or aged gouda
- 1 Tablespoon dried parsley flakes
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder (optional)
- 1/2 cup butter, melted
- 3-4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2 cup grated hard cheese, like parmesan or romano
- 2 Tablespoons dried parsley flakes
- 1 teaspoon dried oregano
- 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
To substitute packaged yeast: increase the water to 1 3/4 cups, heat it to 110 F, dissolve 2 packages or 4 1/2 teaspoons of active dry yeast (regular or rapid-rise) in the warm water along with the sugar and let sit for 10 minutes before adding the remaining dough ingredients. Increase the flour to 5 1/2-6 1/2 cups.
1. Combine the dough ingredients and stir just until mixed. Cover and let rise for 8-24 hours (1-2 hours if using packaged yeast). The longer you let it rise, the more sour it will taste. If you want to neutralize the sourdough flavor, you can add baking soda—start with 1/2 teaspoon and add more as necessary.
2. Melt the butter and add the minced garlic, and combine the topping ingredients in a separate bowl. Pinch off walnut-sized balls of dough and roll between your palms, roll them in the melted butter, dip in the parmesan mixture and place parmesan-side up in a large tube pan, bundt pan, soufflé dish, or other baking dish.
3. Let rise for another 2-8 hours (1 hour if using packaged yeast) or until nearly doubled in size. I only let it rise for about 3 hours, but would have let it go for 6-8 if I’d had the time, which would have also helped with the dense & doughy center issue.
4. Preheat the oven to 350F at least 20 minutes before baking, and bake until the internal temperature is 190F. Start checking after 45 minutes. A soufflé dish will take longer than the bundt/tube pan—perhaps as long as 75 minutes.
Serve warm, if possible.