Since no one ever seems to invite me to a pig pull or a crab boil, I miss eating communally. I don’t mean sitting at a communal table in a restaurant, staring down strangers while we all nibble at our seasonal small plates. I mean everyone digging into the same dish at the same time. I mean the warm feeling I get sharing French fondue or Korean barbecue.
That effect is what makes monkey bread perfect for a family or holiday brunch: People have to congregate around it (in fact, they want to). They get to pull out the piece with the most sauce, or the fewest nuts, or whatever they like best. They have to stay at the table instead of wandering off to their screens. And they have to get sticky.
Monkey bread’s first American incarnation was as a mass of buttery dinner rolls, baked together so they could be pulled apart at the table. (Pull-apart bread was another common name.) The recipe became popular in California, where Nancy Reagan was a fan. Her recipe made the rounds in the 1980s.
It quickly picked up sugar and cinnamon, possibly from a Hungarian coffee cake that many bakeries made at the time. This was back before matcha and açaí, when Americans regularly — even daily — sat down for coffee and cake.
Pastry chef Claudia Fleming, who runs an inn on the North Fork of Long Island, said that monkey bread was now decidedly in the breakfast pastry category, and that she occasionally tries to put one on the buffet.
“People are too shy to go for it in public,” she said. “I think it’s one of the things that really is better at home.”
Judging by social media, American home cooks are enamored of monkey bread, having come up with pepperoni and peanut butter, banana and bourbon versions. Fleming’s favorite has a maple-bacon glaze. The recipe I like best is a modern classic. It has the sandy-sweet filling of a cinnamon roll, the crunchy pecans and rich caramel of a sticky bun, and the plump majesty of a Bundt cake.
With all those sweet extras and toppings, you might think it doesn’t matter what the bread component tastes like. But it does. So I’ll get this out of the way: There’s no store-bought refrigerated dough in this recipe. All the things that are lovable about it — the cheerful pop, the whoosh of air, the instant results — are absent. Also not here: the salty flavor, the preservatives and the chemical aftertaste of commercial dough.
That aftertaste comes from the baking powder used to make the dough rise. There’s nothing wrong with baking powder, per se, but manufacturers use a lot of it to replicate the slow-rising effect of yeast. So the minerals it’s made of push their way forward.
If you already like monkey bread, and you’ve had only the kind made with supermarket dough, this one will make your hair stand on end (in a good way).
The best monkey breads need the spring and savor of real bread, to balance the sweetness. If you have a stand mixer and have never made bread, consider this your gateway recipe. It’s a basic dough — no scary starters, long risings or unfamiliar flours — and the heavy lifting is done by the machine. The same dough can go into savory version of monkey bread, using just melted butter to coat the dough balls; what you end up with is a delicious mass of pre-buttered dinner rolls, with a caramelized edge. Or swap in melted garlic butter for the coating, and Parmesan cheese and parsley for the filling, for a garlic bread version.
Sticky Bun Monkey Bread
Yield: 8 to 12 servings
Total time: 1 1/2 hours, plus rising
For the dough:
2 1/4 teaspoons active dry yeast (1 package)
1 1/2 cups lukewarm milk (about 105 degrees, or just warm to the touch)
1/3 cup sugar
1 tablespoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, more for greasing bowl
2 eggs, at room temperature
5 to 6 cups all-purpose flour
For the sauce:
1 cup unsalted butter (2 sticks)
2 cups packed dark brown sugar
1/2 cup heavy cream, more to taste
1/2 cup unsalted butter (1 stick), melted and cooled to room temperature
1 1/4 cups light brown sugar or maple sugar, or a combination of dark brown sugar and white sugar
2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
About 3/4 cup chopped toasted pecans or walnuts, more for garnish (optional)
1. In the bowl of a mixer, dissolve yeast in 1/4 cup of the warm milk. Add the remaining warm milk, sugar, salt, butter and eggs.
2. Add 5 cups flour and mix with paddle attachment until smooth, about 2 minutes. Switch to hook attachment and knead on low speed, adding flour if necessary until dough is stiff and slightly tacky, 10 minutes.
3. Grease a large bowl with butter and turn dough out into the bowl. Flip over dough so greased side is up, cover loosely with a kitchen towel and set in a warm, draft-free spot until doubled in size, about 1 1/2 to 2 hours.
4. Make the sauce: In a saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Add sugar and stir constantly until simmering and the butter has melted. Pour in cream (it will bubble up) and cook until thickened, 3 to 5 minutes. Taste and add cream and pinches of salt to taste. Turn off heat and set aside.
5. Brush a medium or large Bundt pan, preferably nonstick, with some of the melted butter. Combine the sugar, cinnamon and salt in a bowl and mix well. Rewarm the caramel sauce over low heat.
6. Once dough has doubled in size, turn it onto floured surface and knead for 3 minutes. Cut or pull off small pieces, each weighing about 1/2 ounce/15 grams, and roll them gently into balls. Set aside on a baking sheet.
7. To assemble, dip about half of the balls in melted butter, roll in sugar mixture, and fit them snugly into the pan, occasionally adding a sprinkle of pecans. Pour about a quarter of the sauce over the sugared dough balls. Repeat with remaining dough balls, pecans and another quarter of the sauce. Reserve the remaining sauce.
8. Cover and let rise at room temperature for 30 minutes to 1 hour, until puffy. (The monkey bread can be made up to this point up to 24 hours in advance and refrigerated overnight.)
9. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until golden and bubbling around the edges. Let cool on a rack for 5 to 10 minutes, then invert onto a platter.
10. Meanwhile, reheat the remaining caramel sauce and drizzle or spoon it over the top of the monkey bread until it runs down the sides. (Any remaining sauce can be passed at the table, for dipping.) Serve warm or at room temperature, with hot coffee or tea and plenty of napkins.