For years, I thought the best monkey bread I’d ever eaten was at the celebrated Fearrington House, outside Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Then, a member of the Junior League in Memphis exposed me to this Tennessee cheese version at a gracious luncheon, and I was instantly converted. The origins of this strange bread couldn’t be more obscure but can most likely be linked to the African bakers on plantations. Some say the bread is so named because the layered balls of dough look like a pack of monkeys; others say it’s because you have to “monkey around” so much to put it together. In the South, monkey bread can be either savory or sweet (flavored with raisins, nuts, and spices), but no matter the style, it has to be one of the most distinctive breads ever conceived. Note that you never slice monkey bread; simply tear if off with your fingers.
The day before you plan to serve the bread, combine the water and yeast in a large mixing bowl and let proof till bubbly, about 5 minutes. In a saucepan, scald the milk, add the sugar and shortening, and stir till the sugar is dissolved and the shortening melted. Pour the milk into the yeast mixture, stirring. Add the mashed potatoes, cheese, eggs, and salt and stir till well blended. Gradually add the flour and stir till a soft dough forms. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm area 2 hours. Punch down the dough, cover, and refrigerate overnight.
Turn out the dough onto a floured surface and knead about 10 minutes or till the dough is elastic and pliable. Grease a Bundt pan with butter. Pinch off small amounts of dough, shape into balls the size of a walnut, dip in the melted butter, and layer the balls in the prepared pan about two-thirds full. Cover with a clean towel and let rise 2 hours longer.
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