Sweet, salty, meaty, cheesy, monkey
I am a fifth generation Chicagoan, and my husband’s family has been in Kentucky at least that long. Becoming Southern-by-marriage has been a series of wonderful gifts, from learning firsthand that Southern hospitality isn’t just real, it is a glorious commitment to warmth and welcome, to embracing a pace that is languid, not because of laziness, but because of a willingness to be present in the moment. There is a generosity of spirit to the people I have come to know and love south of the Mason-Dixon that has made my heart grow three sizes—along with my recipe repertoire.
Yes, of course, the tried-and-true dishes like fried chicken and biscuits and greens and macaroni and cheese never disappoint. But I’ve also been increasingly acquainted with the other cultures that have influenced Southern cookery, from the Southeast Asian to Mexican to Caribbean, all blending seamlessly into the dining experiences with the most delicious results.
And as I have spent more time there, and gotten to be close with people who cook this food, my own cooking has changed, and for the better. I feel a particular pride in making a great biscuit or a killer pot of greens that gives my husband a taste of home. On a recent trip to Mississippi, some dear friends invited us for a Sunday brunch to send us homeward with full bellies. And as we were waiting for the biscuits to bake and the bacon to fry, we were presented with a basket of sausage balls to nibble on, to whet our appetites.
Sausage balls are a thing all over the South, but I had never had one before. A mixture of breakfast sausage meat, cheeses and Bisquick pancake mix, the little nuggets are essentially a perfect one-bite snack. My hosts were tickled at my wide-eyed delight at discovering this taste sensation, something as common to them as the eggs that were scrambling in the cast iron pan. I immediately demanded the recipe.
And then, as I do, I started to imagine not just when I would serve them, and to whom, but how I might also make them something else. Which is when it hit me: monkey bread. I don’t really love monkey bread, in part because I find it to be sweet on sweet on sweet with nothing to cut it. Making balls of dough, tossed in cinnamon sugar and baked in a caramel glaze is not really up my alley. But if the balls weren’t just dough, but were sausage balls—then we start to get that salty-sweet thing that I so dearly love.
Since it is the holiday season, when we have a tendency to not only be hosting in the evening, but then again the following morning as visitors and houseguests and family rise expecting yet another meal, I thought a recipe that would do double duty was in order. Essentially you make a giant batch of the sausage balls, serve half as an appetizer, and take the other half and plop them into a cake pan with brown sugar and butter and bake it off in the morning for a monkey bread unlike any you have ever tasted.
The pull-apart loaf is pretty enough to sit in the center of your breakfast table or on your brunch buffet, and since it is sausage and dough all in one, a pile of eggs is about all you need alongside. This recipe makes enough for appetizers for 10-12 people plus one monkey bread which will serve 8-10. Multiply as needed. The dough balls can be made ahead, frozen raw on cookie sheets and then stored in a zip-top bag in the freezer until you need them. Bake from frozen, just add a few minutes to the baking time.
Sausage Balls Monkey Bread
3 pounds breakfast sausage meat (I sometimes use hot to add a little spice, but anything you like will work)
3 8-ounce packages cream cheese at room temp (must be soft to blend)
3 cups shredded cheddar cheese
6 cups Bisquick
3 sticks butter
3/4 cup dark brown sugar
½ cup granulated sugar
In the bowl of your stand mixer with the paddle attachment, blend the softened cream cheese with the sausage meat until well combined. Add in the cheddar cheese and mix until cohesive. Transfer to a large mixing bowl. Then add the Bisquick and blend with your hands, kneading until just until combined, don’t overwork, but you want to be sure that there are no dry streaks of flour.
Using a cookie scoop or a tablespoon, drop balls of the mixture one inch apart on parchment lined cookie sheets. You can keep chilled in the fridge for up to 24 hours if you don’t want to bake right away.
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Bake the sausage balls for 15-25 minutes (depending on how large you made the balls) until golden brown and a bit crispy on the outside and cooked through. Just pull one out and cut in half, the sausage meat should show no pink. Serve half of the sausage balls hot from the oven as an appetizer.
Take the other half of the sausage balls and let cool completely before storing in a zip-top bag in the fridge. In the morning, preheat the oven to 350°F and add the granulated sugar to the bag of sausage balls and toss until they are all coated. Pour them into a bowl.
Grease a cake pan with at least a 2". Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium low heat, and then add the brown sugar, stirring until fully dissolved and a caramel forms. Pour the butter sugar mixture over the sausage balls, tossing until all of the balls are well coated with the caramel mixture, then transfer to the prepared pan, pressing down a bit to ensure they are tightly packed. Bake for 30-40 minutes until golden, then let cool in the pan for a minimum of 30 minutes before turning out onto a serving plate. Serve warm.