Week Twenty: Southern Breads
Is monkey bread Southern? If I’m honest, it’s not actually Southern in origin, nor is its popularity confined purely to below the Mason-Dixon line. In fact, it’s quite popular all across the country, mainly as a special treat for Christmas. So why am I including it with a week of Southern breads, in the middle of May?
Well, if there’s one thing I know about Southerners, it’s that they love rich, sweet food. They don’t want to spend too much time making it, but sure do like a reason to linger with family and friends around a table. And they want to be able to make it specifically to their liking – however that is, it’s probably just like momma used to make. Monkey bread fits all of these categories, with the added bonus of being infinitely variable. No matter who’s making it, it’s always welcomingly familiar, and most always delicious. You can make it sweet or savory, syrupy or crusty, with or without nuts, in one giant cake or in individual servings.
Monkey bread finds its origins in the same place as cinnamon rolls, in the long trek of sweet, butter-rich breads that originates in the Middle East, travels with the spice trade into Central Europe, and across the Atlantic to America, notably the Eastern coast. Unlike cinnamon rolls, though, which have their own notable lineage, monkey bread took a cue from the cloverleaf roll, a savory and more refined cousin. Multiple balls of dough are left to rise in the same small pan (or muffin tin), which hold together while baking, but pull apart easily when done.
Monkey bread is usually baked in a bundt pan, then served inverted, and becomes a fond Christmas memory for many as the balls are pulled off individually and eaten. The name “monkey bread” likely arises from this en masse grazing, since monkeys are known to happily pick and worry at anything and everything around. Around a breakfast table crowned with one of these beauties, sleepy and hungry humans must look a bit like a troop of monkeys, plucking at their food.
This recipe makes a quick and simple monkey bread, one that has a lovely crust of cinnamon sugar, and a dough rich with butter and milk. It’s fairly easy to make, and can sit in the refrigerator overnight after it’s been divided, rolled, and put in the pan, making it perfect for special and lazy mornings. Of course, if you have any children mucking about your house, this is a perfect recipe for them to help with, and the dough can take a bit of rough handling, and the balls of dough will turn out well now matter how well-shaped or not they are.
Whether you make this bread in the traditional bundt pan, or in individual muffins, it’s always a joy to pull apart and share with family. Anyone can help make it, and everyone enjoys eating it. It almost requires you to have friends or family around – can you even imagine making one of these for just yourself? So sad! And if there’s something more Southern than a sweet, over-the-top, might-be-breakfast, might-be-dessert food that necessitates a gathering of kith and kin; well, I just don’t know what that is, y’all. Enjoy!
Adapted from Emeril Lagasse
Makes 1 pan, or 16 muffins
16 to 18 ounces (3 1/2 to 3 3/4 cups) all-purpose flour, divided
1/4 cup granulated sugar, plus 2/3 cup, divided
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons instant yeast
1 cup milk
1/4 cup unsalted butter, plus 1/4 cup, divided
1 heaping tablespoon ground cinnamon
1 cup chopped toasted pecans (optional)
1. In the large bowl of an electric mixer, whisk together 16 ounces (3 3/4 cups) of the flour with 1/4 cup of sugar and the salt. Whisk in the yeast. In a glass measuring cup, microwave the milk and 1/4 cup of the butter cut into pieces, in 30 second increments, until the mixture reaches 120° to 130° F on an instant-read thermometer and the butter is melted.
2. Add the milk mixture to the flour mixture in the mixer bowl. Using the dough hook, mix on low speed until a rough dough forms. Add the egg, and continue mixing, scraping the bowl if necessary. When the dough comes together, and all flour is moistened, increase the speed to medium. Add the remaining flour by tablespoons as needed to form a cohesive ball of dough that will clear the sides of the bowl. Knead for 4 to 5 minutes, or until the dough is smooth.
3. Turn the dough out onto a work surface dusted lightly with flour. Knead by hand a few times, until the dough forms a ball. Transfer the dough to a large, lightly-oiled bowl, cover with lightly-oiled plastic wrap, and let rest at room temperature until doubled in size, about 1 hour.
4. Combine the remaining 2/3 cup sugar with the cinnamon in a small bowl, and mix to blend. Set aside. Melt the remaining 1/4 cup butter in another small bowl, and set aside.
5. Turn the dough out onto a lightly-floured surface, deflating it. Knead a few times to expel all the air in the dough. Divide the dough into fourths, then divide each fourth into 12 pieces, for a total of 48. Roll each piece into a ball. Dip each ball into the melted butter, and then coat in the cinnamon-sugar. If using nuts, sprinkle a layer evenly on the bottom of the bundt pan, or divide all nuts evenly between each muffin tin. Place the dough balls in a nonstick bundt pan, sprinkling more nuts around dough, or place in muffin tins (3 balls per cup). Cover the pan loosely with plastic wrap, and allow to rise for 30 minutes, or cover tightly and refrigerate overnight (let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes before baking).
6. After 30 minutes, preheat the oven to 350° F. When heated, uncover the dough, and bake for 30 minutes, or for 20 to 25 minutes if making muffins. Remove from the oven, and invert on a platter. Allow to cool a bit before serving and pulling apart the balls.
1. This bread is best served warm, fresh from the oven, but may be kept for a day or so at room temperature, in an airtight container. If not eating within that time, freeze the bread, wrapped well. Bake, unthawed, at 350° F until done (baking time will depend on how big the remaining portion is).