Monkey Bread

When I started this blog, I thought it would be all about family-friendly recipes that could be knocked up in a few minutes, and enjoyed by the whole family, small babies included. So far, that hasn’t really happened – I’ve found it hard to resist including recipes for chocolate mousse, cakes, brownies, etc and some other things that aren’t particularly quick or family friendly. I think that this is because, while my main cooking task is to make healthy delicious meals everyday for me, Jon and Joe, I can’t just do that, and I also want to experiment and try random new things, even if they ultimately turn out to be pointless.

Pointless. What is a pointless recipe? As long as it tastes OK and fills a hole, then how can a recipe be pointless? That is what I thought, until I made Monkey Bread. It’s not that it doesn’t taste nice – it does. It’s not that it’s difficult – it’s not. It’s just that I can’t quite see why anyone invented this food and what purpose it serves in the general culinary canon.

Monkey Bread is (of course) an American invention. Essentially, it is a “tear’n’share” bread, made from balls of dough stuck together. In its original form, it is sugary and cinammony and buttery, but I made its less common savoury sister, using olive oil and herbs. I love cinammon, but I feel like it is an overused spice in the US. When I was in DC, I felt like the months of September to January were shrouded in a cloud of cinammon – as you walked part the pumpkins outside Whole Foods, as you stepped into Starbucks with their red “Christmas” cups – it was like they pumped cinammon through the air vents everywhere to give you a warm, autumnal and festive sense. It sort of worked, but it also made you feel like you were being played, very obviously, by these big consumer giants, into believing that you were skipping merrily through autumn leaves into your village market to exchange silver coins for fresh marrows grown on your neighbour’s farm. Also, I can’t think of any particular place for a sweet, cinammony bread at my table so I thought that at least the savoury one would be something to snack on with our meals. Obviously all the recipes I saw for savoury monkey bread involved cheese, so that is definitely something you can do, but clearly not what I would do. Pointless as this bread is, the cool thing about it is that you can do anything you want to it, flavour-wise.

The picture you see above is attempt number two. We first tried this the week before, and I was running late so I sent Jon an email with the ingredients and told him to stick it all in the Kitchen Aid and make a dough, and then put it into a greased bowl to rise. I got home to find that he’d done it and dilligently sought out the warmest place in the house to let the dough rise, i.e. by the boiler. What he hadn’t done was added anything to the dough that would make it rise. This was because I’d forgotten to include yeast in the list of ingredients. Jon said, “Yes! I noticed that and thought it was funny that there was no yeast. But then I thought, perhaps there’s something else in here that would cause it to rise magically!” A+ to Jon for noticing the lack of yeast and considering its effect on the rising. B+ to Jon for thinking that there may be a magical ingredient in the dough. F to me for forgetting to include the yeast in the recipe. (We’ve made this mistake with bread before, by the way – about two weeks after Joe was born I made a bread with no yeast or salt, which unsurprisingly turned out to be a small baked rock).

So – what are the advantages of this bread? It’s quick and easy to make without any special equipment (though if you have an electric mixer it takes a lot of the pain out of kneading). Depending on what you put on it, it can certainly be a good bread for babies as it’s easy to eat and tasty. It would also be a fun thing to make with children, who would probably love rolling the dough into balls and squishing them together. If you’re having a dinner party and you want bread to be part of it (maybe to go with soup), then this would look cool on the table and it’s fun that everyone can just reach over and pull a piece off (which always looks a bit animal-like if it’s done on a normal loaf of bread).

Give this a try. But don’t be surprised if, after you’ve made it, you think, WHY?

  • 450g bread flour (you can use a combination of different flours, but make sure that at least 300g is strong white flour. We did 350g white and 100g rye)
  • 1.5 tsp salt
  • 1 packet of dry yeast
  • 250ml warm water
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 egg
  • Herbs, spices, etc of your choice, plus more olive oil or melted butter or whatever you choose. We used olive oil and fresh thyme, since that was what we had, but garlic and rosemary would be nice, and so would caramelised onions. You could also use grated cheese – I think you would need about 50g grated cheese.
  1. Combine the dry ingredients in a large bowl or the bowl of your electric mixer.
  2. Combine the wet ingredients in a smaller bowl, and then add to the dry ingredients. Mix with your hands, or beat with the electric mixer. Add more flour if necessary to get to the desired consistency, which is a smooth, soft, elastic dough.
  3. If doing by hand, knead for around 10 minutes. Alternatively, use the dough hook of the mixer and keep it on low for 10 minutes.
  4. Lightly oil a big bowl (which should allow the dough to rise to around double its size) and put the dough in it. Grease a piece of clingfilm and cover the bowl tightly, and then put the bowl somewhere warm.
  5. If you don’t have anywhere warm in your house, then you can put a small saucepan of water on the hob, bring it to a simmer, then turn off and put your bowl on top of that.
  6. Allow the dough to rise to double its size – it can take 30-60 minutes for this to happen.
  7. In a small bowl, combine the extra olive oil, herbs, cheese or whatever you want.
  8. Prepare your baking dish. You could use a cake tin, or a glass dish, or anything you like. I used a glass dish which had a base of about 18 cm)
  9. Divide your dough into 32 pieces, and roll each into a ball. (I did half the dough, then half again, then half again, then half again – but I’m sure you worked that out for yourself.)
  10. Dip each ball into the bowl of oil and herbs, and then place it in the dish, forming a layer of balls all squished next to each other, and then on top of each other.
  11. Cover the dish with the greased clingfilm, and leave it to rise again in a warm place for another 20 to 30 minutes.
  12. Pre-heat the oven to 180C/350F.
  13. Put in the oven and bake for around 35 mins, or until golden brown.

*Approximate nutritional values (1 “ball”)*

  • Calories: 63.5kcal
  • Carbs: 9.5g
  • Fat: 2g
  • Protein: 1.75g
  • Sugar: 0.2g
  • Sodium: 86.3mg

Multiseed Bread

A few years ago, Jon and I watched a Heston Blumenthal programme about MSG. The gist of it was that MSG isn’t some terrible chemical added to bad Chinese food, it is a naturally occuring salt found in many foods that we enjoy for their “umami” properties, such as cooked tomatoes, parmesan (well, I don’t enjoy parmesan, but I hear that it’s quite popular), kombu and dashi. In the programme, Heston experimented with adding extracts of foods high in umami, like kombu (seaweed) to different foods to see what effect it had, and he concluded that it just made food taste more tasty. Tomatoes tasted more tomatoey, apples tasted more appley, and so on.

A couple of weeks later, we sat down to supper at home – I think it was grilled fish and we had oven-baked potato wedges with it. When we had finished, Jon leant forward expectantly. “What did you think of those potatoes?” he asked. “Yeah, pretty good,” I said.

That would have been the end of that, because he does make very good potatoes and I’m not naturally that suspicious. But “did you notice anything different about the potatoes?” he insisted. “Dunno… they were nice, as always…” I said, non-committally. With a glint in his eye, he said, “But did you think they tasted particularly potatoey?” I drew back, starting to regret the speed with which I’d inhaled the potatoes. “What did you put on them?” I asked, nervously. “Just a little secret ingredient!” He went to the cupboard and took out a little sachet with Chinese characters on it and gleefully shook it: “MSG!!!”

For the next few weeks, every time he made anything and I said I liked it, he would get an evil glint in his eye and say, “But did you think it tasted particularly lemony/gingery/peachy?” and he would wave his packet of MSG triumphantly about. Even though I’d watched the Heston programme and realise that there’s nothing particularly wrong with MSG, the weird powder freaked me out a bit. Luckily, the packet split and spilled everwhere, leaving a dust of MSG over all our spices, and that put him off enough not to buy any more, so that was the end of our MSG habit.

What didn’t stop, however, was his love of secretly adding ingredients to things and then saying, with a naughty-toddler style smile, as I try it, “do you taste anything different about this?” And then the big reveal – “mustard seeds!” (in the challah), “fenugreek!” (in the rice), “lemongrass oil!” (in the burgers). I’m not complaining – it’s nice that he likes to try new things, and none of them taste bad. Many of them can’t be tasted at all due to all the other flavours going on, but it’s good to experiment with cooking and through his experimentation and recipe refinement we have together arrived at some really great recipes.

Mustard seeds in challah is one of the few secret additions that has lasted (and if I make the challah and forget the mustard seeds, he’s horrified “It won’t be the same without them!”) I’ll post the challah recipe another time – any time, really, because we make challah and other bread every week. When people say they make bread it always sounds incredibly impressive, I think, until you hear that they’ve got a breadmaker. Well, we have a breadmaker, and as recently as this evening Jon declared it a “must have” kitchen appliance. We make non-Challah bread much more frequently than we used to because Joe has bread most days – peanut butter sandwiches and French toast (no sugar) are two favourites for his supper. He obviously can’t get through a loaf himself, so then we both take sandwiches to work sometimes, and then when the bread is too hard even for toasting, we slice it, put it in the oven to crisp, and then blend it with garlic and herbs and make breadcrumbs. We have a bag of these in the freezer at all times, and it is incredibly useful – I’ll blog about favourite things you can do with breadcrumbs another time.

Jon is generally in charge of breadmaking, and he has honed the basic recipe I gave him down to a perfect multiseed loaf. He has experimented with various random ingredients but the final version doesn’t contain any surprises. It can be jigged around as you like, but don’t use less than 250g of strong white flour because that keeps it from being too dense.

As we have a breadmaker, this is a breadmaker bread recipe. I’m not sure exactly how to change this for handmade bread; if you’re interested in how to convert this let me know and I will find out.

The only real rule with breadmakers is to find out whether yours is one in which you put the wet ingredients first or the dry ingredients. Whichever it is, don’t deviate! Ours takes the wet ingredients first, so you put all of those in first and the yeast last of all.

  • 340 ml water
  • 2 tablespoons olive (or other) oil
  • 1.5 teaspoons salt
  • 550g flour, made up of around 250g and 300g strong white flour, around 150g rye flour and 100g wholewheat flour
  • 2 tablespoons mixed seeds (sunflower, pumpkin, sesame, linseed)
  • 1 packet of dried yeast
  1. Add all the ingredients to the machine in the order listed above.
  2. Turn the machine on (we put this on the wholemeal cycle in our machine)

*Approximate nutritional values (1 slice)*

  • Calories: 135 kcal
  • Carbs: 21.9g
  • Fat: 3.4g
  • Protein: 3.4g
  • Sugar: 0.4g
  • Sodium: 160mg