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! Read more »