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!
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- Let cake cool in the pans on a rack. Sprinkle with powdered sugar just before cutting and serving.
Old St. Louis Bakery Style Recipe from Chris Leuther's Collection