April 27, 2010

What Exactly Is Monkey Bread?

Seriously. Who came up with it, why is it called that, and why is it just one of the best comfort foods around??? My middle-schoolers made it in our baking class yesterday afternoon, and that's the first thing they asked me. And I had no idea! So I promised them I'd research it and get back with them at tomorrow's class. (Also, Zesty Lemon is still working on his restaurant review, and I thought this post would entertain you in the interim.)

This account at The Food Timeline provides the most detail I've ever read on the subject. The recipe itself derives from typical sweet roll yeast breads of yesteryear, and monkey bread (a.k.a. bubble bread or pull-apart bread) can be traced back to pioneer days, when cowboys on the range preferred one-pot cooking for just about everything, including their daily bread. Early 20th-century cookbooks described all kinds of "balled rolls," including Parker House rolls and clover-leaf rolls, with its first official mention in the New York Times coming in 1976. Nancy Reagan even began serving it at the White House in the '80s.

However, one thing's for sure--no one really knows why it was ever called monkey bread to begin with. There are several possibilities, including how it resembles "a bunch of monkeys" all jumbled together. Another account says it has to do with all the "monkeying around" you need to do with balls of dough to get this dish together!

All that said, it's a mighty tasty treat, and in these days coming into spring, where the evenings are just cool enough to still warrant some sweet-n-toasty baking, it's the perfect thing. You can get Nancy Reagan's recipe at The Food Timeline link, but try mine sometime and let me know what you think. The kids in class were all over it; so much so, I didn't even get a bubble of bread to myself!

1/4 cup warm water
pinch of sugar
1 package yeast (2 1/4 teaspoons)

3/4 cup warm milk
2 tablespoons butter, room temperature
1 egg
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
3 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1 stick butter (8 tablespoons)
1/2 cup chopped nuts (pecans or walnuts work best)
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
3/4 cup light brown sugar

2 cups powdered sugar
1/4 cup milk

Spray a Bundt pan with cooking spray and set aside. Spray a medium bowl with cooking spray and set aside.

Put the warm water and a pinch of sugar in a small bowl. Sprinkle yeast over top and allow to dissolve and get foamy (about 5 minutes). In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, place milk, butter, egg, sugar, and salt. Combine yeast mixture and mix well on medium for about 1 minute. Change to dough hook and add flour, kneading for about 2 minutes. (To do this by hand, combine yeast mixture with milk, butter, egg, sugar, and salt using a wooden spoon or spatula. Add flour and mix well with hands. Turn dough out onto floured surface and knead by hand for 5 minutes.) Place dough in oiled bowl, wrap with plastic wrap, and set aside. Allow to rest in warm place for 20 minutes.

Make coating: Melt butter in small bowl and set aside. In a separate bowl, combine cinnamon, nuts, and sugar. Sprinkle 2 tablespoons nut mixture into bottom of Bundt pan.

Cut dough into 1/2-inch pieces and roll into balls. Dip balls in butter, then nut mixture, and place in Bundt pan, layering as you go. Wrap pan in plastic and set in warm place to double in size (about 1 hour).

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Bake bread for 30-35 minutes. Allow to cool in pan for 15 minutes, then turn bread out onto wire rack. Cool another 20 minutes.

Make icing: In small bowl, stir milk into powdered sugar until there are no lumps. Drizzle over bread and serve!

NOTE: In the interest of time during class, we eliminated the 1-hour rising time in the Bundt pan, and our monkey bread still came out perfectly crispy on the outside and soft, warm, and sweet on the inside!

April 15, 2010

My First Cake Contest

I'm no Cake Boss or Ace of Cakes, but I tried my hand at a cake decorating competition last weekend here in the greater Chicago area. Cake decorating is just one of the many things I do; inherently, I'm more of a baker than an artist. I like texture and substance in food more than presentation and artistry.

But this was fun, and I was glad I participated. I didn't win anything, but I learned a lot. Like how much bigger is better at these sorts of things! I knew from the moment I entered the parking lot and saw all the massive SUVs that I would be outdone by size. My trusty Chouquette, the pint-sized MINI Cooper a.k.a. Pom-mobile "delivery truck" for the business, arrived carting not one but two little entries in its tiny boot, and I went up against Hummers and Suburbans carting massive 6-foot tall towers of detail and decor!

The judges weren't all that constructive (check out the new Flickr Photostream feature at right and see the captions for total cake contest coverage), but as in any competitive sport, it's not whether you win or lose, it's how you play the game. I was proud of my work, enjoyed having the chance to execute some crazy ideas swimming around in my head, and got to hang out with some really supportive friends who made the trip to way-the-hell-out-there Chicagoland to wish me well.

Throughout this blog post, I've included a few of the winners, with my own two posted at the bottom. The top left is Sunday's Best of Show winner; the one at right and directly below was Decorator's and People's Choice. But definitely check out the Photostream to get some close-ups on my own handiwork.

On a final note, I wanted to take this opportunity to introduce a new addition to the Spoonfoolery food blogging staff--my good friend The Zesty Lemon! Now our guest restaurant critic, he is a man about this food town, an experienced restaurant critic, and a very fabulous foodie. He's an expert home chef, regularly knocking anything French or Italian out of the ballpark. Zesty Lemon and I recently experienced a local eatery in my West Side Chicago neighborhood that's been all the rage this spring. Watch for his report on Longman & Eagle in the next post. Welcome Zesty Lemon!

April 5, 2010

Restaurant Review: El Cid

I've lived in Logan Square for four years and had yet to hit either El Cid 1 or El Cid 2, until this long holiday weekend. What a perfect way to spend Easter--with Mexican food! OK, OK, makes no sense really, but we managed to bookend the weekend with pretty days here in Chicago, which bode well for long walks in the 'hood and well, finally trying a restaurant we should have years ago. Neighbors have been singing its praises for years, and they couldn't be more right. It was terrific Mexican fare at a reasonable price with monstrous margaritas, a sunny patio, and a fun lounge for late-night snacking. Our service was a bit slow, thanks to the weather bringing out droves of sun soakers, but the food made up for it. I highly recommend the chicken enchiladas with mole sauce and the fish tacos, which we shared over a late lunch and then proceeded to need no dinner later. The tortilla chips are addictive, and the guacamole light and creamy with just the right kick. I think this will be a summer favorite on our list!

April 3, 2010

Cooking School: Shortening vs. Butter

I am a sucker for the check-out aisle baking magazines. My favorites are the Better Homes & Gardens Special Interest Publications, like Ultimate Desserts (on sale starting last month). But upon purchasing and studying this "bookazine," it left me wondering why so many cookie recipes in it called for shortening. As a cake decorator, I am stumped by the fact that so many of my brethren choose to make "Criscocream" frosting instead of real buttercream. Cheaper, I'm sure, but way too synthetic for my book. I do like going halfsies in pie crust. (See my post Pie Crust Primer for the perfect pastry crust.) But my affinity for using vegetable shortening in cooking and baking pretty much stops there. I'm all butter, all the way after that.

So I decided to do some research into why the BH&G kitchens use shortening sometimes instead of butter in baking, especially with cookies. Camilla at Enlightened Cooking investigated the dilemma in depth in this post. Butter naturally contains water and shortening doesn't, so shortening yields a higher, lighter texture and butter generates a flatter, crispier little number. But if it's flavor you're really going for, stick with butter. You'll notice the difference. She also conducted a comparison test using her double chocolate cookie recipe, which proved that although the shortening version had a lighter, puffier texture, the butter version was tastier and more flavorful. I guess it's really just what you go for in the end (or perhaps what's stocked in your fridge or pantry!).

My recommendation would be, as she suggests in her post, to make note of how much a role the butter plays in your recipe and go from there. If it's a central role (1 stick or more), you may want to go with butter. That much butter in a recipe means to be part of the flavor profile as much as the structure. Also, there's nothing wrong with going halfsies on buttercream too, if you're needing to save a buck or you notice your audience actually prefers Criscocream. That's what the grocery stores use, and sadly, what some people are used to these days. Real buttercream might throw your group for a loop, believe it or not!