The first time I heard of monkey bread, I was driving my daughter to her Brownie meeting and she was excitedly telling me of the troop's plan to bake this gooey, sticky-sweet, pull-apart pastry in the kitchen of a nearby church. I couldn't wait to pick her up, and taste it.
When I returned to the church an hour and a half later, the parking lot was filled with fire trucks and the girls were standing on the lawn. The building had been evacuated when dripping caramel burning on the bottom of the oven set off smoke alarms. I rushed to my daughter and sighed with relief. I grabbed the still-warm, disposable pan she was holding. "Thank God you saved the monkey bread!"
Is it called monkey bread because it is more fun than a barrel of monkeys? Or because it is picked apart the way monkeys pick at things? Or because it looks like monkey brains (Troop 432's preferred explanation)? Food historians can't say for sure. Descended from 19th century pull-apart savory yeast breads and sweet versions that began to appear in women's magazines in the 1950s, modern-day monkey bread owes its ongoing popularity to former first lady Nancy Reagan. Before moving into the White House, she obtained the recipe from a bakery near the Reagans' California ranch, and it became a well-publicized White House Christmas cake, adopted by Americans of all political persuasions who shared President Ronald Reagan's sweet tooth.
The Sag Harbor Brownies made their monkey bread by forming refrigerated biscuits into balls, arranging them in a pan, and pouring a caramel mixture on top. It was pretty good. But I thought I could do better with homemade dough. I mixed up a batch of buttermilk biscuit dough, rolled balls of dough in cinnamon sugar and layered them in a Bundt pan with nuts. I poured a caramel mixture made with melted butter and brown sugar over the assembled cake just before baking. A Bundt pan is important because it allows the biscuit dough to bake quickly all the way through.
Be sure to use a nonstick pan, because the caramel is quite sticky. Make sure you cool the butter before you mix it with the brown sugar and pour it over the cake, so the biscuits stay nice and cool until they hit the oven. And place the cake pan on a rimmed baking sheet to catch any caramel overflow -- unless you want to share your monkey bread with the volunteer fire department.
For the topping:
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
3/4 cup light-brown sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
For the cake:
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
9 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons buttermilk (plus more if necessary)
1/2 cup pecans, chopped
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a nonstick, 12-cup Bundt pan and dust with flour. Make the topping: Whisk together the melted butter, light-brown sugar, vanilla and salt. Set aside.
2. Make the cake: Combine the granulated sugar and cinnamon in a zipper-lock bag. Dice the butter into 1/4-inch pieces. Place the butter in a small bowl and set it in the freezer while you gather the rest of the cake ingredients.
3. Combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt in a large mixing bowl. Add the chilled butter pieces and, with an electric mixer, mix on low until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Stir in the buttermilk until the mixture just comes together, adding a little extra if it seems too dry.
4. Use a small ice cream scoop or spoon to scoop up balls of dough and transfer them to the zipper-lock bag. Shake the bag to coat the balls with cinnamon sugar.
5. Place the coated balls of dough in the prepared pan, sprinkling pecans over them as you go. Pour the melted butter mixture over the cake. Bake until the cake is firm and well risen and the caramel is melted, 35 to 40 minutes. Let the cake cool in the pan on a wire rack for 10 minutes. Invert onto a serving platter and serve immediately. Makes 8-10 servings.