Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Monkey Brains, Yes, Very Good!

It is 1935, Indiana Jones, his orphaned sidekick, Short Round, and nightclub singer, Willie Scott, have just escaped Shanghai via cargo plane.  Being forced to “jump ship” over northern India, the trio make their way to a palace.  They are treated most respectfully and asked to dine with the young Maharajah, wealthy merchants and government officials.  Anyone who has seen this movie knows that the dishes served to the diners are definitely not the usual fare the trio is used to.  Dessert is next, and dessert is always something decadent and sinfully delicious, right?

A lovely white chalice is placed in front of each diner, containing a monkey's head, skull cap lifted off and....

            Merchant: "Ah, dessert! Chilled monkey brains!"

Now for the disclaimer, at no time were any cute monkeys harmed, dismembered or eaten in any way shape or form to obtain the recipe in this article.

Depending on the era you learned to bake in, and location, a common name for the featured recipe could have been: bubble bread, bubble loaf, jumble bread, pull-apart bread, pinch-me cake, pluck-it cake, monkey puzzle bread, monkey brains, and monkey bread.  Basically, it is pieces of yeast bread dough, rolled into balls, dipped in melted butter, and covered with sugar, brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, apple bits, nuts or whatever little treat was the baker’s delight.  It is all layered in a pan, preferably a Bundt pan, but an angel food pan (outside well covered in aluminum foil) will do also.  After baking, a slight rest, the “bread” is flipped out onto a platter, and the liquid created by baking cools to a sticky oh-so-delicious glob.  A glob?  Sorry, best way to describe it…ok, maybe glob with perforations?

Anyway, it is eaten by picking and pulling pieces of the baked dough, eating as is, or dipping into icing, or cream cheese mixed with vanilla and confectioner’s sugar.  So, when referred to with the name “monkey” attached is comparing to monkeys when they are picking bugs out of the hair of another monkey.  Not an appetizing sight, unless you are a primate of sorts.

Origin of this baking technique has been traced back, in America, to the 1880s, when cooking was done in a Dutch oven, a covered pot with feet, set over a fire with hot coals underneath and on top.  During World War 2, General Mills promoted “Hungarian Coffee Cake”, a Hungarian treat, arany galuska (“golden dumplings”), consisting of balls of yeast dough dipped in melted butter, then in sugar and mixed with cinnamon and/or chopped nuts. Nancy and Ronald Reagan loved monkey bread, from their local bakery, and served it every Christmas holiday.  Once Ronald became President, it became a tradition to serve it at the White House.  It became so popular among the American people, the Reagan recipe (obtained from their favorite bakery) was included in The White House Family Cookbook by Henry Haller (New York, 1987, p 332-333).

I call my recipe “Apple Pie Monkey Bread”, as it begins with the typical coating of butter, brown sugar and cinnamon, but I add diced Granny Smith apple over each layer.  There is always a bit of ingredients left over, so I make sure to coat the remaining apple bits to top it all off.  Eating it, just close the eyes, savor the scent and flavor, and you will swear it is like eating an apple pie.

Sometimes though, the dough pieces in the center do not bake out as firmly as the rest.
  Is this a loss?  Oh heck no it is not!  Take an 8-inch skillet, medium-high heat, and spread out the gooey pieces to the inside bottom edge of the pan.  Let it sizzle for two minutes, flip over, and two minutes on the other side.  The excess butter/caramel moisture firms it all up, creating a crispy on the outside, tender on the inside dessert.  Top with whipped cream or ice cream, and dive right in!


Ah, the bread dough; yes, you can use fresh dough, but thawed frozen will work very well too.  Many recipes use canned bread or biscuit dough, but these completed monkey breads tend to dry out faster than using fresh or thawed bread dough.

Unfortunately for me, someone had borrowed my Bundt pan and never returned it.  No big deal I thought, as I had stopped making Bundt cakes long ago.  Then suddenly I got the bug to make monkey bread, and no Bundt pan!  I called around to several shops, and the closest I could come to was an angel food pan with a center piece that loves to pop out if not careful.  I wrapped up the outside with layers of aluminum foil, as I knew the caramel sauce created would leak all over the place.  I also placed aluminum foil at the bottom of my oven, just in case, and good thing I did too!

Anyway, I have purchased a new Bundt pan, and I will leave the other pan to the angels.  This was a cooking adventure of “Can I really make this?” to “How in the world can I make this!?!” with the fun far outweighing the frustration.

Now the recipe…


Apple Pie Monkey Bread


10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter, melted (if begins to harden, microwave)

3/4 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup packed brown sugar (light or dark)

3 tsps. ground cinnamon

¼ tsp. salt

2 pounds frozen white bread dough, thawed, but cold

all-purpose flour to dust hands and board

2 cups diced Granny Smith apple


Brush sides and tube of a 12-cup Bundt pan with a very thin layer of the melted butter; or use nonstick butter flavored spray, but real butter is better.  The butter should be in a wide, about 1-inch deep bowl.

In another wide, about 1-inch deep bowl, whisk together the sugars, cinnamon and salt; set aside. 

On a flour dusted board, cut the bread dough into 6 pieces, and work out, into 10-inch strands, with flour dusted hands; cut each strand into 10 pieces to get 60 total.  Roll each piece into a ball, lightly roll in the melted butter, and then the sugar mixture. 

Space out 20 around bottom of pan, wall edges to center stem; sprinkle 3/4 cup of diced apple over the pieces.  Repeat until you have 3 layer of dough balls, however, with last ½ cup of diced apple, mix into remaining melted butter, then into remaining sugar mixture.  Sprinkle over last layer of dough balls.


Note: if melted butter or sugar mixture begins to get too low, simply make a little more.  Depending on amount of dough balls remaining, it could be ¼ to ½ of the initial ingredients.

Now, cover the pan with plastic wrap, place in a warm area, and let rise for 1 and ½ hrs.  20 minutes before rise time is finished, preheat oven to 350F, and set rack in center of oven.  Remove plastic wrap, place pan in oven and bake 30-50 minutes (dependent on altitude), or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean.

Remove pan and place on cooling rack for 5 minutes.  Make sure to have a serving platter, much larger than the diameter of the pan ready.  Be careful, the caramel sauce will be hot and can cause a severe burn!  Carefully flip the pan over onto the platter, and the monkey bread should slide right out.  Or, before flipping, run the flat side of a knife around the wall edges, and center tube wall.  Let the monkey bread cool for 20 minutes, so the caramel can completely harden.

Sampling is a necessary evil.
Makes 12 servings.

To create a cream cheese dipping sauce, mix together 8 oz. softened cream cheese, 1/3 cup milk and 2 tsps. pure vanilla extract until fluffy.  Add 2 cups of confectioner’s (powdered) sugar and mix again until smooth.  Or simply use softened icing as a dip.

The monkey bread can be stored in the refrigerator, wrapped in plastic wrap, or in an airtight container for up to 5 days.  Warm up in the microwave for 15-20 seconds, or fry it up in a skillet as I have mentioned previously (but if cold, melt a teaspoon of butter in the skillet first).

Mary Cokenour


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