"We hid Grandpa's pills in the middle. Only we took his pills out of the bottle, and replaced them with Tina's baby teeth."
Kind of like a Midwestern Croquembouche, everyone has a Monkey Bread recipe, or one for a Pull-Apart Ring, or Cinnamon Puffs or Lumps of Back Fat, whatever else people call it. Three or four years ago, my mom waved a recipe for one in my face, telling me about frozen bread rolls, butterscotch pudding mix, butter, and a bundt pan. If you added a cellar, trap door and inbred pit bulls, this recipe would be a murder documentary on A&E. If you added Morgan Freeman, this recipe would make $122 million domestically.
We made it, for a Christmas Morning Baby Jesus Brunch, and not only did it underwhelm it was kind of hideous. It was one of those instances where the result was so bad that I erased it from my mind, except for the bit that stuck around in my "Let's revamp!" files. My brain has files. And a secretary. Or a pencil box that smells like rotten sandwiches, forgotten in the bottom of a Jansport backpack. My brain is a rotten sandwich in the bottom of a Jansport, maybe left at Outdoor School and then shipped back, four months later, stained and heaving with the scent of a forlorn Lunchable. Crackers and mustard. Compartments. St. Andes Mint cannot save you now.
Anyway. When I think of a recipe I want to try, I search for pictures of the dish on Flickr. Sometimes this leads me to unwanted, unwittingly tagged photos of people that have nothing to do with the lone relevant picture I'll find in their feed, but most of the time I have a whole barnyard of photos, often with recipes or tips or little bits of information. And better yet, I have solid ideas of what something is supposed to look like, what I want/don't want it to look like and what it should never look like.
For monkey bread, I knew I wanted a syrupy, compact version with a lot of caramel and maybe some pecans to add visual interest. I didn't want something dry or crusty, overblown or burned -- every piece with available surface area should be drenched in goo.
So then the Google search started. Most recipes were similar to the one flung around by my mom, others called for more than two ingredients and no pudding, but packaged dough or biscuits, and a few included a recipe for yeast dough. I came across one from Cook's Country, and after a few minor tweaks, I had a recipe I was pretty excited about -- the revisions aren't massive, America's Test Kitchen/CC did the major work. I just threw in a few loops, then decided to be dumb about it and see how the almost-final product would fare after a night in the fridge.
I used to hate making things ahead, demanding that their flavor and texture suffered or that it wouldn't really save time. But though a few things are strictly day-of, many of my favorite recipes are just fine made in advance, or at least prepped. The issue with things like monkey bread, that I've faced, is the sugar, which goops and melts too far in advance, and the dough, which can dry out or develop a skin, and runs the risk of never fully rising to it's fully glory, even after being left out at to rise to room temperature before baking.
But this works, completely, and after a night in the fridge, an hour on the counter the next morning and a few extra minutes in the oven, a blissful, sticky dome of yeasty rolls cloaked in caramelized sugar and butter, with toasted pecans adding crunch, thumped and slurped out of its Pyrex dish (my preferred, Bundt-less pan of choice for the even browning it promotes) and was devoured by many fingers. Though the original recipe calls for a thin powdered-sugar based drizzle, I omitted it. There's no need, not when Morgan Freeman and the pit bulls are coming.
Make-Ahead Monkey Bread
Barely adapted from Cook's Country
3 1/4 cups AP flour
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 cup warm milk
1/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup warm water (Cooks says to heat both the water and milk to 'about 110 degrees'. If you're comfortable with the brand of yeast you're using, your judgment should suffice. Otherwise, head their advice -- it is worth it to take the temperature until you're fully comfortable judging it on your own. Mr. Cowell)
2 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled
1 packet plus 1/2 teaspoon Active Dry Yeast
3/4 cup muscavado (or light brown) sugar
1 cup granulated white sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) melted butter
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 cup pecans, left whole
Preheat your oven to 200 degrees F, then turn the oven off and keep the door closed.
Choose your weapon -- a bund pan will provide more surface area, but I don't have one and fared just fine with a Pyrex baking dish. You want something with moderately high sides and a solid bottom -- a tube pan will not work, even the best leak. Whatever you go with, grease it generously with a nice schmear of soft butter.
In a glass measuring cup (Pyrex, 2-cup should suffice) or bowl, whisk together the warm milk, water and sugar until dissolved. Add the butter and then the yeast, stirring and place in a warm place (I have a hanging lamp in my kitchen, and always park my yeasties under there, so they can bloom and foam happily) for three or so minutes, until yeast has bloomed. The original recipe, as linked above, called for instant yeast, which I didn't have on hand. With regular "Active" yeast, you need to let it foam a little and activate. Like a Jazzercise instructor, mainlining RedBull in the parking lot, listening to Avril Lavigne as loud as she can handle it and making the twin doors on her minivan slam open and shut simultaneously as she jitters in her leg warmers. "I DON'T WANNA HEAR YOU SAY HER NAME EVER AGAIN ever again EVER AGAIN."
Sift together the salt and flour, before making a well (an inverted volcano, basically) in the center of the bowl. Pour the yeast/milk/butter/sugar mixture into the depression, and stir, using a wooden spoon, until a shaggy, clingy dough begins to form. Turn out onto a well-floured board and knead for a good 7-10 minutes, until elastic, smooth and hefty.
Dump into the buttered dish of choice, cover with plastic wrap, and place in the warm-but-off oven for one hour.
Once risen, remove dough from the oven and dump out onto a well-floured surface. Gently shape and pat the dough into a free-form square, and using a knife or bench scraper, or floppy disk, or your license, cut the square into quarters. Then cut each quarter into at least ten smaller pieces, in a grid-like fashion (depending on how big you want your finished blobs of monkey bread to be -- CC says you can get sixteen out of each quarter, my average was around that). Roll each piece of dough gently, until rounded, but don't compress or squish too much air out of them.
With your fingers, pinch and grind together the two sugars and cinnamon until uniform in color and clump-free. Roll each dough blob in the melted butter and then in the sugar mixture. Drop into the greased pan, and continue, filling in any gaps and varying the size of the balls, dropping pecans in at random intervals. If you have any leftover butter (I didn't), pour over the top, and scatter any remaining sugar (especially the inevitable buttery clumps) over the whole thing. If you plan to serve today, cover with plastic wrap and let rise for 50 more minutes in a warm, calm place and then remove plastic and bake in a preheated 350 degree F oven for 30-35 minutes, until top is golden brown. Remove from oven, cool for 5 minutes (or until caramel stops bubbling), then turn out onto a large platter or plate. Cool for 10 more minutes, then serve warm.
If you plan to bake this tomorrow, after assembling cover tightly with plastic wrap and place in the fridge overnight. Remove from fridge at least one hour before you plan to bake it, allowing the dough to come to room temperature. Then place in an oven (that isn't on), underneath the pilot light or on top of the fridge and allow to rise for 30-45 minutes, until dough has puffed slightly and springs back lightly when poked. Remove plastic wrap, and bake in a preheated 350 degree F oven for 35-40 minutes, until a deep, crackly golden brown on top. Remove from oven, cool for 5 minutes, turn out onto a large plate and cool for 10 more minutes, before serving warm.
Edit: Thanks CRAFT (and Jenny!)!