Welcome back to Spring Bake, our annual collection of delicious pastries, cakes, breads, and cookies-and tips for becoming a better home baker.
In the words of the great Alicia Keys, some people want it all. But I don't want nothing at all if it ain't dessert. Most days I can barely muster the energy to make dinner, but I do absolutely need a cookie or slice of cake each night.
On the unfortunate occasion when there's not much in my cupboard except for a few pantry staples, I make the most of what little there is by turning to gooey butter cake. My husband hails from St. Louis where gooey butter cake is not just a beloved dessert but an essential part of growing up. He introduced me to the wonders of this simple cake on my first visit to the city, a hot, humid August day nearly a decade ago. As we sat in a park across from a local coffee shop, he presented me with an unassuming slice of yellow gooey butter cake, cradled in a napkin. I bit into the sweet, sticky pastry, and I was floored by its contrasting textures: a dense, cookie-like crust, and a sweet, gooey filling reminiscent of a vanilla custard. Made of little else but flour, sugar, butter, eggs, and corn syrup, it's immediately satisfying and luxurious to eat.
In St. Louis gooey butter cake is everywhere. It's sold in bakeries, coffee shops, and grocery stores; it arrives at potlucks and many dinner parties. But no one knows exactly where the cake came from. Judy Evans, former Food Editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, tells me that the origins of the cake are shrouded in myth: "The story is that it stemmed from an accident," she tells me. "The baker was making, perhaps, a deep butter cake…and just messed up the proportions and voilà, gooey butter cake was born."
Josh Allen, owner of Companion Bakery in St. Louis, echoes a similar story. "There was a German baker," he says, "and there are a handful who have tried to take credit so I don't know that anyone knows specifically which German bakery it was." Some food writers, including Leslie F. Miller and Colman Andrews, believe it was the accidental creation of Johnny Hoffman, a baker at St. Louis Pastries Bakery, in the 1940s.
During Evans's time at the Post-Dispatch, readers frequently wrote in with questions about the cake, requesting recipes from bakeries they loved. "To say 'constantly' would be an exaggeration, but not much of one," Evans chuckles. "There were certain recipes that I knew would be requested a lot, and that was one of them."
Evans says there are two methods for making gooey butter cake. Traditionally, it starts with a yeasted crust, which gets filled with a mixture of butter, sugar, eggs, corn syrup, and vanilla, and baked until just barely set. The result is chewy, rich, and creamy, almost like a vanilla pudding that's been nestled into a blondie. While this is the version that most local bakeries make, many home cooks use a simpler method with a store-bought cake mix crust-which doesn't require proofing-and a cream cheese-based filling.
For James Beard Award-winning baker Tim Brennan, cake mix versions don't do gooey butter cake justice. The shortcut versions "lack that chewy quality completely," he tells me over the phone. "Part of the chewiness is a combination of a very high sugar ratio and a small amount of-but still important-corn syrup. It's those two together that create the chewiness." Like Brennan, Evans prefers the yeasted version; she believes it's a better complement to the sweet topping.
The recipe below comes from Evans, who acquired the recipe-once titled "Old St. Louis-Style Gooey Butter Cake"-from a local baker long ago. Evans shared it with Anne Byrn for her book American Cake, and it's the perfect combination of sweet, gooey filling and a rich, buttery crust.
A batch of gooey butter cake doesn't last long in my home; between me and my St. Louisan husband, it takes just a few days to demolish an entire tray. You don't need much to make gooey butter cake, and with just a few pantry staples, you could have a buttery, chewy dessert that tastes like a million bucks.