Ain’t nothing like the real thing baby…nothing like the real thing. Real St. Louis Gooey Butter Cake is a yeast bread layer topped with the namesake ‘gooey’ layer. Walk away from the cake mix and try this legacy treat instead!
I first posted this recipe several years ago but it was lost in that dark hole called ‘Archives’ and seen by few. When the Food Network theme for this week called for ‘Cake’ I decided it was time to refresh this post and share it with more than me, myself and I.
My Grandparents 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 were huge. As a young woman I rented a small house 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. I just loved going to her home and I remember lovingly the Sundays spent there that included a trip to the bakery after church for a string tied box of St. Louis’ own Gooey Butter Cake.
South St. Louis was the heart of Gooey Butter Cake territory when that area was filled with German immigrants and was a treasure-trove of family-owned, German-style bakeries. Legend has it that Gooey Butter Cake was originally an accident in the 1930’s when a local baker mixed up the proportion of butter in a standard coffee cake. His thriftiness wouldn’t let him pitch the product so he decided to sell it by the square and it was such a hit that his accident eventually became an iconic signature of the entire city.
There are multiple families of bakers who lay claim to the origin of this treat and the truth is that the exact story of who invented it will forever remain a mystery. It’s amazing how far into a rabbit hole I had to go to find the perfect recipe but the one I use had been discovered in 2003 by a St. Louis baker named Chris Leuther who discovered a bound notebook of recipes during the demolition of an old bakery; this is one of the few that he downsized for the home baker to use. Thanks Chris!
As important as it is to know what it is, it’s also relevant to know what it is not. While decades of bakers have been making a quicker version for home cooks (Paula Deen even claims it as hers!), the truth is that a version using cake mix for the base and cream cheese for the topping will make a totally different treat. I admit I’ve never had it but those I know who hold onto this tradition with me as something important from our ‘homeland’ have told me it’s just not the same and that the result is something far too sweet. The slightly sweetened yeast dough of the original is a great balance for the topping which really is gooey…and perfect and there is not a drop of cheese in sight!
More important facts? I read an article in the New York Times (where our recipes are almost identical) that said this cake was often next to pumpkin pie on the Thanksgiving dessert table. Whoa…really? Gooey Butter Cake is a breakfast pastry; think coffeecake, not dessert cake. Heck I saw another recipe in the Times from 1989 that would have you cut a purchased cake into pieces and fit it into a pan and then cover it with the topping and bake it. NO!! Why yes I do get a bit passionate; this is after all the stuff of my childhood; it’s hard to see so many, for lack of better words, screw it up!
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 those topping ingredients melded together to become a thick, buttery and yes, gooey topping that was just perfect. Where I might typically avoid the outside edges of a dessert baked in a pan, with this cake it’s the best part. The sugar and butter caramelize next to the pan and create not just ooey and gooey but a bit of chewy as well!
The gooey part of the recipe I found was the only disappointment when I made mine in 9″ square pans instead of the suggested 8″ square ones. Trying a 9″ round pan was the answer but I still need to find the small square pans; we never brought one home from the bakery in a string tied box that had a round cake inside of it! As an adult 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 but there has to be enough of that topping too. It’s perfect; you’ll see!
It may seem to just be a Gooey Butter Cake to you but for me it’s SO much more! In the same tradition as my Grandma; my dad made a trip every Sunday to a local bakery and brought home a paper and a Gooey Butter Cake; still in a bakery box tied with a string. We never tired of it (and neither did the dog!). Walk down memory lane with me and try this original version. Yes it takes longer but I’m betting there is no going back; nothing else compares to the real deal!
Real St. Louis Gooey Butter Cake
- 1/4 cup whole milk
- 2 teaspoons active dry yeast
- 6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature, (plus more for greasing pan)
- 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 large egg
- 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) butter, softened
- 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 cup light corn syrup
- 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- 2 large eggs, at room temperature
- 1/4 cup whole milk, at room temperature
- 1 cup cake flour
- Powdered sugar, for dusting
To Make the dough:
- Heat the 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 the butter, sugar and salt on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes.
- Add the egg and beat until incorporated, 1 to 2 minutes. Scrape down the bowl.
- Add all-purpose flour in three additions and the milk/yeast 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 or two 9-inch round 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 the butter, sugar, 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 the 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 the topping, dividing evenly between cakes.
- Spread topping almost to the edges (leave about a half inch uncovered with topping). Bake for about 20 to 25 minutes, until topping is crisp and golden brown; do not over-bake. (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.
So important to not overbake; the center will be gooey so a toothpick test won't help; just take it out as soon as the top starts to get a light golden brown and more importantly if you see the edges start to brown. That yeast layer is thin and overbaking 5 minutes can make it too dry.
I suggest running a knife around the edge after letting it sit for only a minute or two; that sticky gooey best part is also inclined to stick to a pan, even non-stick.
Old St. Louis Bakery Style Recipe from Chris Leuther's Collection