Linda explores food facts, folklore, and fabulous recipes one ingredient at a time.
What Do These Three Things Have in Common?
- Silent movies
- Monkey bread
All of them are part of the life history of the actress Zasu Pitts. Now, if you are younger than the baby boomer generation, you’ve probably never heard of Ms. Pitts. I'll share a bit of her story with you.
Zasu (pronounced Zay-Sue) was born in 1894 in New York City to a Civil War soldier and his wife, but she grew up in Santa Cruz, California. In her early 20s, she was discovered by the pioneering screenwriter Frances Marion and he helped launch her career in silent movies at Paramount and Universal Studios. Her mannerisms made her a natural for the silent screen, but the advent of motion pictures with sound didn’t stall her career. In fact, she was a natural comic and easily made the transition to talking roles. Throughout her career, she also worked in vaudeville, radio, and in television.
When the comic strip Thimble Theatre became the animated cartoon series Popeye, the producers used Zasu's willowy frame, signature hand-wringing, and nervous speech pattern to characterize the on-screen persona of Olive Oyl.
But there is yet another side to Zasu. In addition to being a gifted actress and comic, she was respected in Hollywood as a talented cook and hostess, well known for lavish parties in her Brentwood home. And in that community in the 1940s, Zasu’s next-door neighbor employed Ann King as a housekeeper. Ann King and Zasu became friends, sharing a love of cooking and working out new recipes together. One day they collaborated and created “monkey bread.”
Why Is It Called Monkey Bread?
Why Is It Called That?
Miss Pitts—she’s gone now—was a good cook. She helped me during the experimenting that finally resulted in monkey bread. Why did we call it that? Well, when we finally found the just right recipe we were being deviled by some young children. So we named it for those little monkeys.
— Ann King
In 1945, the actress was promoting her traveling play Ramshackle Inn and was interviewed by the Winnipeg (Canada) Free Press. That interview and her recipe for monkey bread appeared in the February 8 issue of the newspaper under their “Culinary Clinic” column.
Soon recipes for monkey bread began to appear in other publications, women’s magazines, and in American diners. When refrigerated biscuit dough became nationally available in the early 1950s (thank you Pillsbury Baking Company), monkey bread was easy enough to be made by anyone.
Ann King went on to gain her own fame, not for acting, but for monkey bread. For this next part of our story, allow me to introduce Frank X. Tolbert, a Texas journalist, historian, and chili enthusiast. He wrote for the Dallas Morning News and relates this story:
Mrs. Vivian Hartman, a Dallas friend to whose good taste I genuflect, said:
When you go to Albany be sure and pick up some of Ann King’s monkey bread. You can buy it, I think, at the Piggly Wiggly store in Albany.
— Vivian Hartman
So, when I was in Albany, Texas, last week I did buy some monkey bread … (it) turned out to be just great. At the store, it comes frozen in a 1-pound ring, like an angel food cake in conformation. You just brown it, and then become an addict.
Mr. Tolbert got a chance to talk with Ann King and shared this quote from her:
“When it got so popular, and stores began carrying it here and in Abilene and other towns around close, I took out a patent,” said Mrs. King. “I understand some restaurant in Dallas is serving what they call monkey bread, but one of my customers say it doesn’t taste nearly so good as mine.”
The Original Monkey Bread Recipe by Zasu Pitts and Ann King
Makes 2 to 9-inch ring loaves (or one large Bundt pan and a smaller loaf pan)
- 2 cups water
- 2 medium-sized russet potatoes, peeled and quartered
- 1 package active dry yeast
- 1 teaspoon plus 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 5 1/2 to 6 1/2 cups unsifted all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 2 eggs, lightly beaten
- 1 cup lukewarm milk (110°F to 115°F)
- 1/2 cup solid vegetable shortening (such as Crisco)
- 1 tablespoon butter, softened, plus
- 1/2 pound unsalted butter, melted and cooled
- Bring water to a boil in a small heavy saucepan. Drop in the potatoes and boil briskly, uncovered, until a piece of potato can be easily mashed against the side of the pan with the back of a fork.
- Drain potatoes in a sieve set over a bowl and pat them dry with paper towels. Measure and reserve 1/4 cup of the potato water. Puree the potatoes through a food mill set over a bowl, or mash them with the back of a fork. You should have about 1 cup of puree.
- When the reserved potato water has cooled to lukewarm (110°F to 115°F), pour it into a shallow bowl. Add yeast and 1 teaspoon of the sugar and let the mixture rest for 2 to 3 minutes, then stir well. Set the bowl in a warm, draft-free place (such as an unlighted oven) for 5 minutes, or until the yeast bubbles and the mixture almost doubles in volume.
- Combine 5 1/2 cups of flour, the remaining 1/2 cup of sugar, and the salt in a deep mixing bowl and make a well in the center. Add the potato puree, the yeast mixture, and the eggs, milk, and vegetable shortening.
- With a large spoon, mix the ingredients together and stir until the dough is smooth and can be gathered into a soft ball.
- Place the ball on a lightly floured surface and knead pushing the dough down with the heels of your hands, pressing it forward, and folding it back on itself. As you knead, sprinkle flour over the ball by the tablespoonful, adding up to 1 cup of flour if necessary to make a firm dough.
- Continue to knead for about 10 minutes, or until the dough is smooth, shiny, and elastic.
- With a pastry brush, spread the tablespoon of softened butter evenly inside a deep mixing bowl. Place the ball in the bowl and turn it around to butter the entire surface of the dough. Drape the bowl loosely with a kitchen towel and put it in a draft-free place for about 1-1/2 hours, or until the dough doubles in volume.
- With a pastry brush, spread 2 tablespoons of the melted butter evenly over the bottom and sides of two 9-inch tube pans.
- Punch the dough down with a blow of your first and place it on a lightly floured surface. With your hand, pat and shape the dough into a rectangle 14 inches long, 12 inches wide, and about 1/2 inch thick. Using a ruler and a pastry wheel or sharp knife, cut the rectangle into diamonds about 2 inches long.
- To assemble the monkey bread, immerse one diamond at a time in the remaining melted butter and arrange a layer of diamonds side by side in a ring on the bottom of each buttered tube pan. Repeat with two more layers of butter-coated diamonds, arranging each successive layer so that it fits over the spaces left in the previous ring.
- Don't worry that the diamonds do not fill all the available space; as they rise and bake they will expand.
- Drape the pans loosely with towels and set them aside in a draft-free place for about 1 hour, or until the loaves double in volume.
- Preheat oven to 375°F. Bake the monkey bread in the middle of the oven for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the loaves are a golden brown. To test for doneness, turn the loaves out and rap the bottoms sharply with your knuckles. The loaves should sound hollow; if they do not, return them to their pans and bake for 5 to 10 minutes longer.
- Turn the bread out on a wire rack and let cool slightly before serving. Monkey bread is never sliced. Instead, each diner pulls a diamond-shaped piece from the loaf.
Mrs. King and Miss Pitts' original recipe has been adapted in countless ways. There are both sweet and savory versions. Let’s examine a few of those, shall we?
Pillsbury "Grands" Monkey Bread
Pillsbury Baking Company made the creation of monkey bread achievable by anyone. Their recipe makes the original sweet and sticky with the addition of brown sugar and cinnamon spice.
Apple Pie Monkey Bread
Here the Pillsbury version is updated with the addition of apple chunks. We’re just one step away from an apple pie, right? I think this is the perfect evolution of a classic. Yes, it's as good as it sounds.
Berry Monkey Bread
In 1958 Herbert C. Rhodes founded the Rhodes Bake-N-Serve Company and began marketing frozen yeast dough products. Finally, “home-baked” bread was achievable by anyone—fast, convenient, and oh so very good! The recipe for bits of bread dough layered with fresh blueberries and strawberries relies on Mr. Rhodes's bake-and-serve rolls, but could easily be adapted to any frozen bread dough.
Blueberry, Honey, and Goat Cheese Monkey Bread
Creamy goat cheese keeps this bread from being oh-too-sweet. Chevre would be a perfect match with plump blueberries or huckleberries in this treat.
Other Recipes: Savory Treats
Let's take a look at some savory monkey bread recipes!
Savory Monkey Bread From Scratch
Seasoning mixes, dried herbs, and cheese coat easy-to-make-your-own bread dough to create this flavorful treat. This would be great to have with a steaming bowl of chili or chowder, or for snacking on in front of the TV while watching your favorite game.
Buffalo Chicken Monkey Bread
Oh my goodness! Did someone say buffalo chicken? Cooked diced chicken, buffalo wing sauce, and blue cheese crumbles are wrapped inside flattened balls of refrigerated biscuit dough, layered, and baked.
Pepperoni Pizza Monkey Bread
If your family likes pepperoni pizza, they will love this bread. However, I do have a few words of warning—if you have hungry teenagers in your house (is there any other kind?) you might consider baking two of these.
Sausage, Egg, and Cheese Monkey Bread
Crumbled cooked breakfast sausage, scrambled eggs, and cheese combined with flakey refrigerated biscuits to make an easy meal for breakfast, brunch, or (my favorite), breakfast-for-dinner.
© 2018 Linda Lum