Garlic and Thyme Monkey Bread with Spicy Tomato Sauce
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This past fall, a friend who was traveling, cooking and eating her way through Italy, sent me the loveliest book: Pasta, a collection of recipes from the kitchen of The American Academy in Rome. She had learned about the book and the story of the Rome Sustainable Food Project during her travels, and found the recipes in the book, many of which she made during her stay, matched the food she was eating out and about on a daily basis.
The story of the RSFP begins in 2006, when the AAR decided it was time to step up its game in the kitchen, which had been surprisingly poor given its location in a city with traditions deeply rooted in its food. And so the AAR reached out to Alice Waters, who said she would help provided her efforts would lay the foundation for a movement, a sustainable model other institutions could replicate. And so was born the RSFP, a teaching kitchen in which interns learn the basics of Italian and seasonal cooking.
The layout of Pasta mirrors how the RSFP teaches interns, beginning with simple pasta dishes, graduating to more complex. I have made several recipes now, including a macaroni with slow-cooked cauliflower, anchovies, garlic and rosemary, a baked pasta with tomato sauce and mozzarella, and this spicy tomato sauce with onions and guanciale — the sauce for the book’s bucatini all’amatriciana — all of which have been delicious.
Soon I will make the bucatini all’amatriciana, but in the meantime, I will continue polishing off skillets of this garlic-and-thyme monkey bread, each bite accompanied by a dollop of smoky, spicy sauce. Here I’ve put to use past-prime Lahey pizza dough, which always feels like a win, but any pizza dough, store-bought or otherwise, will work.
These little bites would nicely complement any pasta dish (for all of you carb lovers that is) but would be wildly received at any sort of Super Bowl gathering. Go Football! Who’s playing? TheSkimm hasn’t told me yet.
Making monkey bread requires understanding a method more than a recipe. Essentially, you take cold pizza dough, divide it into small balls, roll those balls into a flavored butter, cram those balls together into a vessel, top with grated cheese if desired and bake until golden. I’ve been using two small cast-iron skillets, each of which holds about a half-pound of dough. So if you’re looking to feed a crowd, I would suggest estimating a pound of dough for a standard-sized cast iron skillet. You can bake monkey bread in Bundt pans, too — you might need as many as two pounds of dough for a Bundt pan. Adjust butter, garlic, thyme quantities to taste.
for the tomato sauce:
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 6 oz. guanciale, pancetta or bacon, cut into ½-inch dice
- 1 large onion, diced
- coarsely ground black pepper to taste
- 28-oz can canned whole San Marzano-style tomatoes, puréed with hand blender or food processor
- 1 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes (or less if you are sensitive to heat)
for the monkey bread:
- 4 tablespoons butter (this is enough for about ½-lb of dough)
- 2 cloves garlic
- pinch red pepper flakes
- fresh thyme leaves, a tablespoon or more
- pizza dough, store-bought or your favorite recipe (I’m partial to the Lahey recipe, see notes above re quantity of dough)
- sea salt
- parmigiano reggiano
- Make the sauce: Put the olive oil and guanciale in a 14-inch sauté pan over medium heat.
- After 3 minutes, add the onions. Cook, stirring occasionally, until they are translucent and the guanciale has started to brown. Season with coarsely ground black pepper.
- Add the tomatoes and the hot pepper flakes and simmer the sauce at low heat until it has reduced by about two-thirds, or until it’s a consistency you like. Turn off the heat. Taste. Salt may or may not be necessary depending on the bacon and tomatoes you are using. Set sauce aside.
- Meanwhile, make the monkey bread: Preheat the oven to 450ºF. Place butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Finely mince the garlic — I suggest using your garlic press here if you have one — and add to the butter. (The more finely minced the garlic, the less it will burn.) Add a pinch of red pepper flakes. Mince the thyme leaves and add to the butter. Once butter is melted, remove pan from heat.
- Remove pizza dough from fridge and turn out onto a lightly floured work surface. Cut into small pieces (about the width of 2 fingers in diameter) — it’s best to do this when the dough is cold so that it easy to work with. Shape the small pieces into small balls using flour as needed. Note: These balls are about ½-oz (16 g) in weight — each baked ball can be eaten in two bites.
- Butter a baking vessel — any oven-proof vessel will work. I’ve been using mini cast iron skillets, but you could use a standard cast iron skillet, a pie plate, a square brownie pan, etc. See notes above.
- Grab a large shallow baking dish such as a pie plate, and pour in half of the butter mixture. Drop half of the balls you shaped into the pie plate. Use both hands to roll balls around then transfer each to prepared vessel. This is messy. Repeat with remaining balls adding more butter as needed. Make sure balls are snugly tucked into vessel. Brush or spoon or pour more of the seasoned butter (if you have any left) over the bread balls. Season with a pinch of nice salt. Grate a thin layer of cheese over top — I used my microplane here.
- Place baking dish on a sheetpan and bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until balls are puffed and beginning to brown. Let cool briefly before serving with spicy tomato sauce on the side.