Growing up, one of my favorite things to eat for breakfast was my grandmother’s Monkey Bread. It was always such a treat when she pulled that sweet, sticky, pull-apart pastry (made from biscuit dough) out of the oven, the little segments of warm bread oozing butter and cinnamon, pecans stuck to the sweet glaze. Similar to cinnamon rolls but more fun to eat since you just pluck hunks of it off, it’s a dessert that a kid can’t help but love.
I hadn’t thought about Monkey Bread for decades—until last night. We’d had dinner in Queen Anne and decided to go somewhere else for dessert. That’s my favorite practice of late. I’m a picky dessert eater. I tend to like classic desserts and baked goods best. But right now in Seattle, the dessert trend is more towards reinventing and reinterpreting – something that I think works great for cocktails, appetizers and entrees, but not so much for desserts, where precision and classical training are truly fundamental. On the flip side, if the restaurant isn’t engaged in new twists within the canon, they’re usually just neglecting dessert altogether – calling it in from an outside source. It should go without saying, but this is obviously a generalization. There are, of course, restaurants doing a swell job with desserts.
That aside, it’s also just more fun to mix up your night a little by hopping over to another place (maybe even in another neighborhood) for dessert. To find the desserts that I relish, I’m likely to go to a great bakery, a French joint or a comfort food style place, which is why we ended up at The 5 Spot on Queen Anne Avenue last night. A restaurant that serves regional American cuisine, they change up their locale every few months. Depending on which part of the country they’re serving up, dessert can be a real winner (though there’s always brownies and ice cream sundaes as an alternative). Last week, we stopped in as Boston was winding down and had a delicious brown bread pudding with apples. It was then that the server mentioned that next up was Missouri and Monkey Bread! I never associated Monkey Bread with Missouri – and Wikipedia has no reference to the state in conjunction with the sweet. In fact, the page says that the origins are “uncertain” but that recipes for it showed up in women’s magazines in the 50s.
Some sources credit its popularity to Nancy Reagan serving it in the White and, indeed, an article about it being a favorite of the Reagan family appeared in the New York Times in 1982. In that same year, the Times also published a recipe for it. A Chowhound post says the New York Times printed an earlier recipe in 1976, though that one didn’t turn up in a Google search.
I called up The 5 Spot to ask them about the Missouri connection and the chef said it was a tenuous one. He basically just loves making Monkey Bread and decided that peanuts and the bourbon give it a Midwest feel (read: Missouri).
At any rate, the monkey bread we had at the 5 Spot wasn’t quite like the kind I had growing up, or that you’re likely to see in most recipes. Instead of a cake-like structure, they nestled about five or six biscuit chunks (which are rolled up in brown sugar) on the bottom of a baking dish. Then they thread a few glorious pieces of bacon through it (while I’m sick of the bacon craze, it really works in this dessert), drizzle it with a honey bourbon sauce and add candied peanuts and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. It was delicious – and still “pick-able” to my daughter’s delight. It’s made fresh to order, so expect about a ten-minute wait for it.
Also in debate is the name of the confection. Nancy Reagan is quoted as saying: “Because when you make it, you have to monkey around with it.” Other sources claim that it’s named as such because you pick at it as a monkey picks at himself.
A search for Monkey Bread recipes pulls up quite a lot of them. While I haven’t tried this particular recipe, it’s a popular one and looks very straightforward. What seems to vary most in recipes are additions like apples or raisins, or the use of differnent types of nuts, like pecans or walnuts. Some go very treacly and introduce caramel or butterscotch. Personally, I like it less sweet, more of a bread than a cake, which is exactly how The 5 Spot treats it. Biscuit dough, cinnamon and brown sugar are what keeps it squarely in the Monkey Bread realm. Check it out at there anytime between now and May…
1502 Queen Anne Ave N, Seattle, WA