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Table set with plaid plaid placemats and four monkey breads on plates: Bundt cake-like rings of golden brown balls of dough.

Four monkey breads made for the holiday season, baked by my grandmother.

Photo courtesy of Dayna Pilger

  • Monkey Bread’s Journey from Hungary to Hollywood to Home on Christmas

    How do your childhood memories of Christmas begin? Mine began with loud, pleasing thuds: my dad splitting open cans of biscuit dough on the edge of the kitchen counter.

    We would set a pan of butter, vanilla extract, and sugar on the stove, and the boiling would unleash the most alluring caramel aromas. As my dad finished with each can, my younger sister, Megan, and I sliced the dough into discs. We rolled each of these into a ball. Megan made sure that I knew how uneven my dough balls were, but to me that didn’t matter. We were spending time together.

    My dad would check the bowl of sugary glaze he had prepared. He would whisk the glaze until it was nice and smooth. Megan dropped each ball, one at a time, into a mixing bowl half filled with cinnamon and sugar, then roll it this way and that. She gave each a quick once-over to make sure it was covered in the mixture. Amidst the busted biscuit cans sat a white Bundt pan with a reflective patina, the key to my Christmas. My dad buttered the inside of the pan, and we pressed the balls of dough into that.

    The final product, a ring-shaped cluster of sticky, sweet bread balls, goes by many names, including bubble loaf, pinch-me cake, and sticky bread, but we call ours monkey bread. The idea is that it’s easy to pull apart and to eat around the table. Ours was, and remains, the simplest, most child-friendly of family recipes.

    *****

    For years, I believed that this monkey bread recipe was something passed down through family. My grandmother broke this dream, and left me feeling utterly naïve, when she reported that it came from a dear friend of hers.

    I’m a bit obsessive. So when I tried to learn more, I was frustrated that the friend failed to respond to my emailed questions. I wanted to know how she came to create our favorite Christmas treat. I channeled this irritation into my notebook where I scribbled keyword search phrases, such as “monkey bread history,” “monkey bread origins.” Luckily, my laptop was more responsive than my grandmother’s friend. I was met with a variety of results that both assuaged my irritation and led me on an unexpected, international journey.

    Close-up on a monkey bread: globs of golden brown dough baked together into a cake-shaped mass.
    Monkey bread
    Photo by jamailac, Creative Commons

    How did the dessert become engrained in America’s cultural psyche? The trail first led to, of all places, Hollywood, where in the 1940s and throughout the 1960s, actresses such as the prolific ZaSu Pitts made the dish central to their lavish parties. She brought the recipe back from Nashville after visiting friends. But it didn’t stop there. In the early 1970s, Betty Crocker included a recipe for what the cookbook’s editors labeled “Hungarian Coffee Cake,” another alias for monkey bread that never really stuck. But it was Pitts’ friend and fellow actress Nancy Reagan who, years later, as the wife of the fortieth president of the United States and hostess-in-chief, brought the dish into the White House for Christmas, thus sealing the deal. In a society that loves its sugar, monkey bread was suddenly a holiday dish.

    But in my limited research, I picked up reverberations of something more. Although most articles suggested the dessert first popped up in the United States, I noticed references to a similar dish called aranygaluska, often translated to the same name of Betty Crocker’s variation.

    For more Hungarian history, I enlisted the help of two experts: Márta Fazekas, a scholar of Central European history and program director for the Hungarian Tourism Agency, and folklorist Zsuzsanna Cselenyi, coordinator for the Hungary program at the 2013 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Together, they helped me paint a picture of a pastry that traveled continents and stomachs across the globe.

    When I spoke to Cselenyi about monkey bread, she instantly switched to the word aranygaluska, which she translated as “golden dumpling.” Of Hungarian heritage, Cselenyi called aranygaluska a mainstay in school cafeterias throughout her childhood in Bratislava, Slovakia. She heard the name monkey bread only after moving to Arkansas as a college student.

    Fazekas traced the dessert back to the 1880s, claiming that it was Hungarian immigrants who introduced it to the United States. Fazekas named Hungarian Jewish bakers as the heroes of the story. In the middle of the twentieth century, it was they who made aranygaluska popular with American society.

    Today, aranygaluska remains popular in the United States, especially in California where specialty bakeries in Hollywood and Beverly Hills continue to place it front and center in their shop windows. You’ll find the gooey dessert at after parties celebrating Emmy Award victories and, of course, in kitchens across the country during the holidays.

    Close-up on a clear glass bowl with a few chunks of monkey bread.
    An individual portion of aranygaluska
    Photo by Illustratedjc, Wikimedia Commons

    Recipes far more complicated than the child-friendly version you’ll see below abound. Baking with Babish produced a whole slate of them. Moms Need to Know’s version drops everything into a crockpot. Even John Whaite, winner of the Great British Bake Off got into the game.
    Here’s a particularly good recipe for Pesto Monkey Bread. I had always known monkey bread as a sweet dessert that goes great with a glass of whole milk. But as bakers prove, this is not always the case. It turns out that monkey bread has a life of its own.

    For those who prefer to find their way back to the source, Joan Nathan returns to aranygaluska its name through this Kosher recipe. Nathan conducted fieldwork for the Folklife Festival in 1984 and served as guest curator of Food Culture USA in 2005.

    For many years, I relished monkey bread as a family tradition, but now I understand it as much more. My grandmother’s admission instigated a process that helped me see that innocuous-sounding monkey bread had both popular and deep cultural roots. As I shovel in my next bite of aranygaluska—or my family’s version of it—this Christmas, I will say thank you to the spirits of the Hungarian immigrant bakers and home cooks who brought their food culture with them to the United States, and to my grandmother, Patricia Pilger, and Márta Fazekas, and Zsuzsanna Cselenyi, who showed me how magical and meaningful “monkey bread” can be.

    My Grandmother’s Monkey Bread

    Ingredients

    3 cans buttermilk biscuits
    2 cups sugar
    1/2 cup cinnamon
    1 stick butter
    2 teaspoons vanilla

    Preparation

    To make cinnamon-sugar mix, stir together 1 cup sugar and all the cinnamon.

    Generously grease Bundt pan with butter. Open the biscuit cans, and pull apart or slice each one into six pieces. Shape dough into balls and coat in cinnamon-sugar mix. Arrange pieces in the Bundt pan.

    Melt butter, 1 cup sugar, and vanilla over medium heat in a pan until just boiling. Remove from heat and pour over biscuits.

    Bake at 350 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes. Top will be golden brown and slightly bubbly. Remove from oven and immediately invert onto large plate.

    Enjoy!

    A grandmother in pink vest stands between two young women, seated, inside a home.
    From left to right: my younger sister, Megan Pilger; my grandmother, Patricia Pilger; and me.
    Photo courtesy of Dayna Pilger

    Dayna Pilger is an intern for the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a third-generation monkey bread enthusiast. With backgrounds in history, anthropology, and Spanish, she always strives to understand the importance of cultural development and its connections to the past and present.


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