Where does Monkey Bread come from?
One treat that always floods me with nostalgia is Monkey Bread. A loaf, traditionally made in a bundt pan, made up of tiny pieces of yeast bread has apparently not always been the sweet treat that I remember my mom making. Originating in the mid-1900’s in the west, it went through several phases before landing on the one that many of us now know as a delicious breakfast treat. (See this great article) While I appreciate the fact that this started out as a savory bread, nothing beats the wafting aromas of bread, butter, sugar and warm spices as you wake up on a cold winter morning. This is what I remember about Monkey Bread and why I have been longing to develop a recipe that I can make in Madrid. Sometimes you just need to bring a little bit of childhood back into your life.
Developing my own recipe
In looking at how to make it, my mother’s recipe calls for using pre-made dough biscuits from the refrigerated section of the supermarket, cut into small pieces, rolled in a cinnamon and sugar mixture, then topped with a brown sugar-based syrup and baked. The syrup can easily be made here with an unrefined sugar called panela, a bit of local molasses and butter (see my previous blog post on brown sugar substitutes). However, as is the case with many made-for-convenience American items, refrigerated dough does not really exist here in Spain (unless it is thin pizza or empanada dough). As a result, this has been the main hurdle to overcome in successfully developing this recipe. The taste, texture and density of bread made from processed biscuits, which likely have heaps of chemical preservatives in them, is not so easily recreated, at least for perfectionists like me…and even more so when it comes to comforts from my childhood. I have been determined to try as many variations on the dough necessary in order to land one that most closely resembles what my palate recalls.
Monkey Bread Dough from scratch
Before finding the winning recipe, there were some dough failures:
- Baking soda biscuits – apparently this is what the pre-made biscuits are. The dough was way too wet which resulted in bread that was way too soft and next to impossible to work with.
- Challah bread dough – while making it one day to use up extra egg yolks, it dawned on me that this could work for Monkey bread because egg-based bread doughs had a very distinct texture to those without eggs. As well, challah typically has a bit of sugar in it, which lends itself well to a sweeter breakfast bread. Unfortunately, this dough that was a bit too dry and heavy.
As perhaps I should have done from the very beginning, I next went to what Monkey Bread ultimately is: easy sticky buns. Why not use a basic sticky bun dough? This ended up being the best choice. I found recipes that used both full eggs and egg yolks only, but in the end chose the dough with only the egg yolk as the whites provided a bit too much lightness over what I was looking for. After doing a bit more reading up on yeast breads and the fermentation/proofing process here on Serious Eats, I tried an overnight proof in the refrigerator (for the second rise) to give the bread a deeper flavor and, holy cow did that pair well with the sweet syrup and warm cinnamon! While it is not absolutely necessary to do this, it makes it easier to have a piping hot treat first thing in the morning by breaking up the workload.
Homemade Monkey Bread Recipe
In putting the dough and syrup together into the final recipe, I decided to forgo a bundt pan, just as my mother did. No, it doesn’t have a show-stopper look, but in a cake pan ALL the pieces get syrup on them, as opposed to just the edge pieces. In other words, a better syrup-to-bite ratio. Either way however, you are guaranteed to get a deliciously sticky treat that will be a crowd-pleaser any time of the year.