It all started because of Monkey Bread. For almost 2 years, while attending Columbia University, I lived on 125th Street and Broadway. Around the corner from where I was staying was a small and humble bakery called The Bread Shop. (Sadly, I’ve learned through a quick google search that The Bread Shop has closed down — another victim of the gentrification of Morningside Heights and Harlem that’s raised rents and forced out dozens of great “mom & pop” shops.) It was a real neighborhood hangout, a place where local residents and students would stop in for a fantastic baked yummy or idle away an hour over coffee and cake. The two biggest reasons that I went to The Bread Shop were the delicious and cheap Indian vegetarian lunches they served every Tuesday and Thursday and their Monkey Bread, baked fresh daily. Before The Bread Shop, I had never eaten Monkey Bread before, let alone heard of it. There, it was a deliciously sticky “pull apart” bun, smothered in a white icing and flavored with sugar and cinnamon. It was, over those 2 years, one of my favorite sweet carb-laden treats.
Last week, I told my wife S that I wanted to try making Monkey Bread. Eyebrows raised, she looked at me skeptically and then remarked that the only Monkey Bread she’d heard of was savory. Maybe I had gotten the name wrong, she gently suggested. She even showed me a recipe for an herbed and savory version in the King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion. Determined to find a recipe, I tore through several books in S’s baking and dessert cookbook collection (some 2 dozen volumes). None of the ones I looked in had anything called Monkey Bread listed. I epicurioused it and came up empty. I googled it and this time I found several recipes on cooks.com, but none of them sounded appealing. Most of them called for pre-mixed (canned) biscuit dough.
At S’s suggestion, I decided instead to try making Sticky Buns, which seemed like a good idea until I started reading the recipe she recommended I follow — Pecan Sticky Buns from Baking with Julia by Julia Child and Dorie Greenspan. To make these buns, which sounded divine, I would have to make brioche dough for the very first time. Yikes!
Anyone who knows me or reads this blog regularly knows that I’m not too skilled a baker. When it comes to anything that requires exact measurements, patience and a hot oven, you’ll usually find me hollering for S to take over. Unfortunately, with S’s doctoral thesis deadline just a month away, I was on my own. Making the brioche dough was nerve-wracking work. Brioche dough is a sticky dough. But baking-novice that I am, I didn’t know that. To me, it just looked and felt odd. I was constantly worried it was too wet, too sticky… basically too wrong. Add to this neurosis the process of rolling out the dough, adding butter, rerolling it, chilling it and repeating the process a couple of times and you get one very discombobulated boy. After what must have been the 10th or 11th time bothering S to ask her if I was doing it right or should I add more flour or do something that was not in the book, she chastised me, telling me to stop being such a ninny and just follow the recipe. I should, she said, trust that the famous Ms Child and the fantastic Ms Greenspan weren’t going to lead me astray. Turns out (of course), S was right. (Because the recipe I used covers 3 pages, I’m going to forego transcribing it. You can buy the book or just use another brioche recipe that yields around 2.25 lbs of dough.)
The filling for the buns was a combination of sugar (1/4 cup), cinnamon (1/4 teaspoon), and pecans (1 cup, chopped). The dough is divided into two portions. Each one is rolled out to around 11 inches by 13 inches and a quarter inch thick. An egg wash is applied to the lower 3/4 of the dough and the filling sprinkled over it. It’s then rolled up into a log, starting at the lower end, wrapped in plastic and frozen for 1 hour. While the logs were chilling in the freezer, I prepared my pans; the recipe calls for two 9 inch round cake pans with high sides. Spread 4 ounces of softened butter on the base of each pan. Then sprinkle 1/2 cup of brown sugar over each pan. Once the logs are hard, slice each one into 7 pieces, each approximately 1.5 inches wide. Lay the slices flat side down and press 3 pecan halves into the top of each. Then place them, pecan sides down, into the prepared pans. Place 6 of them in a circle, with the 7th slice in the middle. Let these stand uncovered for 1.5 to 2 hours. The buns will rise and grow to touch each other.
Pop them into an oven preheated to 350ºF/180ºC for 35 to 40 minutes, or until golden brown. When done, quickly invert them onto a serving dish, let cool for a few minutes, then serve.
Given that I’d never made these before, I have to say that despite her making considerable fun of me, S was impressed. My neurosis over making the brioche dough had me yelling for her advice throughout the whole process, but pretty much I had managed to make these on my own. A considerable feat for a very undomestic husband. The only problem is that now S expects me to be able to make brioche for her whenever she wants.