Bundt pans aren’t just for cakes. 

That’s one takeaway from the research I conducted while writing a story on the 50-year relationship between the made-in-Minnesota Bundt pan and the Taste section.

Sure, dozens and dozens of Bundt cake recipes have been published in Taste since the section's debut on Oct. 1, 1969.

But starting in the late 1970s, another phenomenon began to appear: a quick Bundt pan version of Monkey Bread, the gooey, caramel-ey, pecan-packed, pull-apart treat. Between its first appearance in 1978 and its last in 1993, recipes for this oddly named but easy-to-prepare favorite were published at least seven times. 

In that Betty Crocker era, two descriptives mattered most: speed and ease. The recipe was dependent upon a pair of inexpensive supermarket shortcuts: frozen bread dough (from Rhodes Bake-N-Serv), and yes, butterscotch pudding mix.

At first, I laughed. And then I was intrigued. When I was a kid, my grandmother Hedvig made the most extraordinary caramel rolls; my siblings and I still talk about them, decades later. Could they be replicated this easily, without actually going through the fuss of preparing bread dough?

I know, I know: You can’t be bothered to make a yeasted bread dough? A stand mixer with a bread dough hook -- or a food processor fitted with a metal blade -- will handle most of the work. Better yet, become a disciple of the life-changing “Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day” movement; the Twin Cities-based baking brain trust that is Zoe Francois and Jeff Hertzberg certainly make it easy to do so. 

But there’s a reason why this 1970s and 1980s formula was so popular: relying upon premade, frozen dough is a pretty easy formula for approaching homemade status. In my remake, Rhodes was in.

But a line has to be drawn somewhere, and that demarcation is spelled p-u-d-d-i-n-g-m-i-x. With the right ingredients, the oven will handle most of the caramel-making duties. So why bother with the original recipes’ lowbrow version of caramel sauce, a mixture of margarine and butterscotch pudding mix? Yikes.

A few staples and a few minutes will make all the difference. The time investment is minimal, and the payoff is enormous. Drop the margarine and buy the best butter your budget allows. Ditch the pudding mix and replace it with toffee-inducing dark brown sugar. Oh, and toasting the pecans is a valuable flavor-booster. 

(For those looking to boost the caramel flavor, add a teaspoon of vanilla extract to the melted butter. And while I didn’t try it, I like the sound of a suggestion that appeared in Taste on Nov. 13, 1988, which added 5 oz. of orange marmalade to the melted butter. I’ve got a jar of blood orange marmalade in the cupboard that I’m going to devote to that idea). 

Rhodes suggests cutting each roll in half; instead of rolling 24 dough balls in butter and that brown sugar mixture, you’ll be dealing with 48. Go ahead if you’d like, but keep this in mind: it’s double the workload, but the laced-with-caramel results aren’t twice as delicious. This is about convenience, remember?

Another observation: a plain tube pan – the kind used for baking angel food cakes – works just as well as a fluted Bundt pan, although the latter will give the finished product a more sculpted profile. 

Would I bake this again? In a heartbeat. If I had a cabin, I’d keep an “at the lake” Bundt pan reserved for this very purpose. 

I have one request: Please don’t shame me should you bump into me at the supermarket and spy a bag of Rhodes frozen white dinner rolls (don't buy the Texas-size version, they're too big) in my shopping cart; at least there won’t be a box of Jell-O pudding mix. Someday I’ll get back into my “Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day” mode, but for now I’m going to cheat. 

OVERNIGHT MONKEY BREAD

Serves 10 to 12.

Note: This recipe must be prepared in advance. Adapted from Rhodes Bread and Taste. To toast pecans, place the nuts in a dry skillet over medium heat, and cook, stirring (or shaking the pan frequently) until they just begin to release their fragrance, about 3 to 4 minutes. Alternately, preheat oven to 325 degrees, spread the nuts on an ungreased baking sheet and bake, stirring often, for 4 to 6 minutes.

24 frozen Rhodes brand White Yeast Dinner Rolls

2/3 c. dark brown sugar, packed

2 tsp. ground cinnamon

1 c. chopped pecans, toasted (see Note)

10 tbsp. (1 stick plus 2 tbsp.) butter, melted, plus extra butter for pan

Directions

Spread rolls about an inch apart on a piece of wax paper or parchment paper and thaw until slightly soft, about 45 to 60 minutes. 

Butter a 12-cup Bundt pan.

In a medium bowl, combine brown sugar, cinnamon and pecans.

Dip rolls in the melted butter to coat, then roll them in the brown sugar mixture until thoroughly coated. Place dough in prepared Bundt pan. Continue with remaining rolls, arranging coated dough to evenly fill Bundt pan. Pour any remaining butter and brown sugar mixture over the top of dough.

Cover pan with a light cloth, set in a warm place and allow dough to rise, doubling in size (until it’s at the top or just over the Bundt pan's edges), about 8 hours.

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Remove cloth, place Bundt pan on a rimmed baking sheet and bake for 20 minutes. Cover Bundt pan with aluminum foil and bake an additional 10 to 15 minutes. Remove pan from oven and transfer to a wire rack to cool for 10 to 15 minutes, Carefully run a knife around the pan’s edges to loosen the bread, then carefully invert onto a serving plate. Serve warm.

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