Real St. Louis Gooey Butter Cake

Gooey Butter Cake

I’ve mentioned before on these pages my darling Grandmother Bathe; my dad’s mom. Her married name was Lizette Bathe and we all called her Grandma. She was 4’11″ and through a genetic pool on my Grandfather’s side, I was her granddaughter that stood at 5’11” and we were teased about being like Mutt and Jeff. Though I often consider her a greater influence in my kitchen than my own mother; the truth is we didn’t live close to Grandma so it was a very special occasion for me to visit with plans to spend the night and, of course, bake with her in the kitchen.

She and my Grandfather lived in the most charming little home on St. Louis South Side. Through the magic of Google Maps I was able to find their home and it’s funny how it seemed SO much larger to me as a girl but the influence of that woman, the sweetness she always showed me and the experience of spending time in her kitchen left a big imprint on me. As a young woman I moved into a small home closer to her so that I was able to visit her more regularly; usually to take her out to dinner one night each week after I got off work and then always to visit on Sunday afternoon after church.

South St. Louis was the heart of Gooey Butter Cake territory when that area was a treasure-trove of family-owned, German-style bakeries. Despite it’s beginnings there, by the time my parents started a family, it was sold at almost every bakery in town and was available freshly baked in grocery cases in the largest supermarkets in the city and the suburbs where we lived. Despite being a St. Louis tradition it’s renown has spread much further today and bakeries all across the country tout the availability of Gooey Butter Cake. Fair warning? If you have a recipe for this treasure that includes either boxed cake mix or cream cheese, well, you might be able to make a cake with those ingredients but it is quite simply NOT the real deal. The traditional Gooey Butter Cake is not a cake so much as a sweet yeast dough that is covered with a sugar and butter mixture that becomes the ‘gooey’ part after baking.

I can never recall anyone ever making this treat at home; not even my grandmother. I will admit that as a girl; it was the Gooey part that held my attention. I might have scooped off that topping and fed the yeast dough to our dog hiding under the table. Somehow that combination of ingredients melded together to become a thick, buttery and yes, gooey topping that was just perfect. Now I enjoy the juxtaposition of the two components; one just slightly sweet and yeasty that is the perfect foil to the sweeter, almost toffee like baked topping. It’s perfect; you’ll see!

I love that my dad continued the tradition of bringing home a string tied box for us to open every Sunday after church and I can never remember a Sunday that we didn’t have Gooey Butter Cake. No matter how many years passed; we looked forward to this treat every single time. Shortly before I moved from St. Louis to Raleigh, NC when I was 28 years old, I decided it would be fun to make a Gooey Butter Cake for my Grandma; my way of commemorating all of our fun times both in and out of her kitchen and with the one thing I knew I could count on being in that kitchen but that she had never made. I was not an experienced bread maker; as a matter of fact I do believe it was the first time I used yeast so it was a huge leap of faith and I was a very fortunate girl; it turned out perfect and I know she really got a kick out of it. By that time she was close to 90 years old and rarely cooked anymore so for me it was so satisfying to do for her what she had done for me my entire life and for that one day we made her kitchen come alive again.

I’ve never forgotten that day and I love that each and every time I pull out this recipe I am reminded of my Grandma; not just that day but the many days when she so patiently helped me decorate Spritz Cookies, let me stir a favorite soup or stew and more than anything made magical a place that has stayed dear to my heart my entire life; the kitchen. The heart of her home and of mine. Much like I remember my Grandma’s time with me; I hope I have touched others in the same way.

Maybe most meaningful for me was my daughter’s friend who had no experience in the kitchen at all; her mom was a busy executive and meals were always from restaurants. She wondered if I would help her make a cake for her Dad’s birthday. She was 22 years old and he had never had a homemade birthday cake! Her sense of accomplishment over something as simple as a cake actually made me a bit teary but even more than that? Her surprise at how easy it really was and how enthused she was to try more. I’m not going to tell you she went on to become a world class chef; that kind of story is for the movies, but if that one experience inspired her to be less fearful of the effort and actually enjoy the process, then my job was done and in ways much more relevant than a simple birthday cake.

It’s just a Gooey Butter Cake…and SO much more!

Real St. Louis Gooey Butter Cake
 
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
 
Serves: Yield: 2 cakes; 16 to 18 servings
Ingredients
  • For the sweet dough:
  • ¼ cup whole milk
  • 2 teaspoons active dry yeast
  • 6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for pan
  • 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • 1 egg
  • 1¾ cups all-purpose flour
  • For the filling:
  • ¾ cup (1½ sticks) butter, softened
  • 1½ cups granulated sugar
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ cup light corn syrup
  • 1½ teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 2 eggs, at room temperature
  • ¼ cup whole milk, at room temperature
  • 1 cup cake flour
  • Powdered sugar, for dusting
Preparation
  1. Make the dough. Heat ¼ cup milk until barely lukewarm, about 100 degrees. Put milk in a small bowl; sprinkle yeast evenly over milk. Let sit for 5 minutes, then stir to dissolve. Set aside.
  2. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat 6 tablespoons butter, 3 tablespoons sugar and ¾ teaspoon salt on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add 1 egg and beat until incorporated, 1 to 2 minutes. Scrape down the bowl.
  3. Add all-purpose flour in three additions and the milk mixture in two additions, beginning and ending with the flour. Be sure to scrape the bowl of the milk mixture so that all yeast transfers to the dough. After each addition, beat on the slowest speed to combine, scraping the bowl occasionally. After the final portion of flour has been incorporated, increase the speed to medium-low and beat for 5 minutes or until dough is smooth and slightly elastic.
  4. Butter two 8-inch-square pans; and press and stretch the dough into the pans. (If the dough resists stretching, covering the pan and allowing the dough to rest for 15 minutes or so should help.) Cover loosely with plastic wrap and allow the dough to rise for 2 hours.
  5. Make the filling. Shortly before the dough is done rising, combine ¾ cup butter, 1½ cups sugar, ½ teaspoon salt and corn syrup in the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat on medium speed until light, about 3 minutes.
  6. Scrape down the bowl; add the vanilla extract and 1 egg. Beat until combined, then beat in the remaining egg. Add ¼ cup milk and cake flour and mix to combine on low speed. Scrape down the bowl and give the mixture a final stir.
  7. When the dough is done rising, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cover the dough with dollops of topping, dividing evenly between cakes. Spread topping almost to the edges. Bake for about 20 to 25 minutes, until topping is crisp and golden brown. (Topping will melt and spread as it bakes.)
  8. Let cake cool in the pans on a rack. Sprinkle with powdered sugar just before cutting and serving.
Notes
I only had 9" square pans so neither the cake or the filling is as deep as I love it but use 9" if that's what you have; just adjust the time a bit and take the cake out when you see the top starting to brown.

Old St. Louis Bakery Style Recipe from Chris Leuther's Collection

Comments

  1. Liz B says

    I took a few extra minutes to read through many of the comments posted here. You and I are on the same team, for sure! Cake mix is not gooey butter cake. It has to be sticky, sweet, and have that wonderful yeast dough.

      • Kat says

        Amen!
        I agree with you both, Traditional Gooey Butter Cake is definitely Not made with Cream Cheese and a Cake Mix.

        Thank you for posting a recipe that true St. Louisan’s can relate too.
        I sure do miss all the old time corner bakeries.

  2. Liz Borth says

    Love this story! I am a St. Louis native transplanted in Central Florida. I just finished making what I call “Almost St. Louis Gooey Butter Cake” for a school auction. The kitchen smells sweet and heavenly and the taste is pretty close to what you’ve described…thick buttery, toffee like. I assign the disclaimer “almost” because nothing will ever capture the memories of Sunday morning breakfast with gooey butter. Little O’s Soda Shop in St. Charles sells a good gooey butter cake. One bite and I went back decades.

  3. DBC says

    Hi Barbara!!!
    Thank you soooooo very, very, very much fo posting this recipe! Words cannot express….
    You see, I grew up in Philadelphia and as a child, Sunday’s after church were the bomb, as far as food! We stopped at the same German bakery on our way home. Butter cake was Always on the list as well as shiny, sweet brown and yellow rolls for sandwiches. Oh my…… I live in Califfornia and believe me when I tell you, just to find something that even resembles what we know as a “Bakery”, forget it!

    For many years I have tried to make this wonderful, nothing like it in the world butter cake and have never come close. I just knew there had to be yeast! Those recipes all over the place with cake mix involved are just horrible! I cannot wait to make this!!

    I just love your site and feel as though an angel was with me today when I happened upon it! Don’t go away!

    Thanks again,
    DBC

    • Creative Culinary says

      DBC,

      Maybe you’re my angel…doing what I love and putting all of this work online is such a labor of love. Having someone find something and be excited about; ESPECIALLY if there is a story like yours? Absolutely priceless. Thank you so much for sharing; you’ve made my day!

  4. Ariel says

    Hola soy de Argentina tenemos una pequeña pasteleria artesanal en mi ciudad natal, vi por primera vez este pastel en el programa dulces de america, e intentado la receta y resulto ser maravillosa es asi que la hemos puesto a la venta en nuestro local, un abrazo DIOS LA BENDIGA, Ariel.

  5. kelly says

    Thanks for sharing!
    I’m originally from St. Louis, although I haven’t lived there in about a decade stories like this one always make me home sick.
    No one makes better gooey butter cake than South St. Louis
    I love the Missouri Baking Co. I go back every chance I get.

    • Creative Culinary says

      I don’t even make it as good as they do…like you it can make me homesick and I haven’t lived there for over 30 years!

    • Liz Borth says

      Me too Kelly. My husband and I used to bicycle from Forest Park to Missouri Baking company to justify the delicious cheesecake. Yes. Very homesick.

  6. Susan says

    My husband’s family was German and there were always stories about how good the baked goods were (always done from scratch), this may have been one of them. There was always talk of a butter cake of some sort. He is diabetic now and I am wondering if it will be just as good using a sugar sub. or a half and half. I want to make this for him and hope to surprise him with it. Also would like to use the gluten free flour if possible. Was wondering, thoughts?
    Thank you for the recipe, if it comes out well I am going to make it for my nieces also. Now I am going to check the rest of your recipes cake recipes they all look yummie, thanks.

    • Creative Culinary says

      Susan…without doing my own trial I can’t offer any advice on substitutions. I’m sure the GF flour would be fine if you’ve used it for yeast doughs before but I just don’t know about using a sugar substitute for that gooey part. I think you should try it…I’ll be over here crossing my fingers!

  7. Jane Bauer says

    I’m not from St. Louis and it doesn’t matter. This cake sounds fantastic. Every weekend I make some type of breakfast cake or pastry for the week. I know what I’ll be making this weekend.
    And for those who use cake mix….a yeasted cake like this stands heads and tails above in taste and texture. Just my honest opinion…and Barb, you know I’m opinionated!!

    • Creative Culinary says

      I read an article by a blogger FROM St. Louis talking about Gooey Butter Cake and it’s history as a St. Louis tradition, etc., etc. and then she made the damn cake box version. I about died. I’m thinking that is the Paula Deen bastardization of something good; that’s all…but not that I’m opinionated at all. :) What time should I be there?

      If you have them…do use 8″ pans…I’m still craving a bit more ooey gooey with each bite!

    • Creative Culinary says

      That is just so wrong. I ‘think’ Paula Deen might be credited with that revision but it’s not a revision. It’s a yeast bread people!! :)

  8. Nancy Deutman says

    Barb,

    Sorry, although my grandmother was a southsider also, I never had this version. In the west county bakeries they made a GOOEY butter cake – no cream cheese but a lot of powdered sugar and eggs so that’s what my memories are made of. Still make it for friends in Spain but they all declare it TOO sweet (even my New York Cheesecake is too much for them). Glad you posted a photo to set the record straight (next time I make it I will try to remember to take a photo and send to you). There will always be an argument over which is the real thing, but not to worry, there is room for the both!

    • Creative Culinary says

      This recipe is from one of the original bakeries that made the cake and it’s all we ever had no matter where we were in the city. This was just it. No doubt it’s changed a lot over all of these years but as you mention; available in West County but not the same? No surprise to me!

  9. says

    Love reading about your Grandma and her cooking, Barb! Food memories are just the best. I’ve always found St Louis Gooey Cake to be very enticing both in its name and description, but haven’t had the pleasure of trying it yet. This will have to change soon! Your photos are making me very hungry this morning!
    Hannah Most Recent Post: One Spice, Two Spice

    • Creative Culinary says

      I still love it after all these years too but there are those memories; not a bite is taken that moments of family don’t fill my head!

  10. says

    Yup, this is the real deal. Those versions with cream cheese are good, but they should be called something else. This is one of those dishes we almost never make — it’s so easy to buy, since we’re here in St. Louis. But homemade ones rock. At least yours does!
    John@Kitchen Riffs Most Recent Post: Irish Potato Candy

    • Creative Culinary says

      Just got another comment that this is not what she knew growing up in St. Louis. Maybe we’re a generation apart after everyone decided to make it; albeit not always authentically! This recipe is from a treaure trove of recipes collected from some of those original south side bakeries and it’s the same that I recall making all those MANY years ago. :)

    • Creative Culinary says

      So I would have to call you shorty and guess you get to choose. Amazon Woman or Jolly Green Giant. That’s my legacy! :)

    • Creative Culinary says

      Hope you love it too; surprising not teeth hurting sweet unless you do what I did as a kid! :)

    • Creative Culinary says

      That is one person quick and easy version; I fail to see how it could begin to compare. I’ve never done it and never will. It would be sacrilege!

    • Creative Culinary says

      It would be…it was always meant to be a breakfast cake with coffee…so you’ve got the first half going on! :)

  11. says

    Mmmmmm, sounds wonderful. This kind of reminds me of 24 Karat Gold Bars or those wonderful things from Panera Bread called gooey butter pastries that for one reason or another I can only find at their stores in Kansas City. Food from childhood just seems to transport you right back doesn’t it? Thanks for sharing.

    • Creative Culinary says

      Sort of makes sense…maybe the legend of gooey butter traveled across MO as far as KC? I’ve never hear of 24 Karat Gold Bars; are they a layered yeast and sweet topping treat too?

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