Inside St. Louis' obsession with gooey butter cake

Photo via Flickr/James G. Milles

Inside St. Louis' obsession with gooey butter cake

Food

Inside St. Louis' obsession with gooey butter cake

A frosted layer cake is like a perfectly tailored little black dress: every curve is controlled, and every flaw is covered. Gooey butter cake is more like a favorite pair of sweatpants: cozy, unflattering and totally comfortable with itself, flaws and all.

This cake isn’t pretty, but that doesn’t stop establishments all over St. Louis – from neighborhood corner bakeries to chic urban bistros – from serving their own version of the local delicacy.

Gooey butter cake is unassuming, to put it kindly – bright yellow, fairly flat, lacking in fancy adornments, and traditionally served directly from a baking pan, covered with nothing more than a sprinkle of powdered sugar. But when you’ve got something that’s buttery, sweet, crunchy and creamy all delivered in each perfect bite, who cares about looks?

It is intensely sweet, but it’s really all about the texture. Aficionados argue about which piece is best: the crispy-and-chewy brownie-like corners or the soft, creamy sides. Regardless, the bottom layer more closely resembles the inside of a traditional cake than it does crust, and the top has a creamy, almost pudding-like texture, traditionally achieved with corn syrup, butter and eggs, and sometimes – in more modern versions – amped up with cream cheese. A perfect gooey butter cake is almost slightly underbaked in the center (the most highly prized piece is – after the corners – smack dab in the middle of the cake).

It’s a texture thing

Cravings is at Webster Farmers' Market

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Native St. Louisan Tim Brennan owns the James Beard Award-winning Cravings Restaurant and Bakery in the suburb of Webster Groves. He developed a taste for gooey butter cake when he was growing up in St. Louis’ Soulard neighborhood, where a trip to the now-closed Soulard Bakery was a weekend treat.  Brennan still remembers what might be the ultimate St. Louis indignity: One of his sisters used sneak into the kitchen when no one was around and cut the chewy perimeter from an entire freshly purchased cake. “She’d eat it all by herself, leaving the soft inner section for the rest of the family, and hoo boy, my mom was not very pleased about that,” Brennan recalls.

Why does gooey butter cake have such staying power on the St. Louis palate? “It’s very sweet, and I’ve learned from my many years of running a bakery here that this city likes things on the sweet side,” Brennan says. In addition to flavor, the point-counterpoint of the cake’s crust and filling also make it a winner, he says. “I love that contrast in consistency between the chewy crust and the creamy filling. The texture is what makes it so wonderful.”

The birth of gooeyness

To make sense of how this cake became St. Louis’ claim to baking fame, it helps to understand a little more about the city. St. Louis has historically been a place where the best things happen on the corner. Thanks to its heavily German immigrant population, the city (especially the south side) had a plentiful supply of corner bars (serving up lots of Anheuser-Busch products, as the brewery was founded here). And if there was one thing those Germans loved as much as beer, it was sweet baked goods, so corners of South St. Louis that weren’t populated by bars filled up with neighborhood bakeries.

The legend goes like this: The first cake was made sometime in the 1930s, the result of an accident by a careless baker named John Hoffman who worked at St. Louis Pastries Bakery in the south side of the city. He mistakenly reversed the proportions of butter and flour in his cake batter. With way more butter than flour in the recipe, the resulting cake was a buttery blob that spread out all over the pan. Unwilling to it toss out and lose the revenue, Hoffman instead named it “gooey butter cake.” People loved it, so Hoffman continued to recreate this “mistake,” and soon bakeries all over St. Louis were offering their own version. With so many bakeries, it didn’t take long for the cake to cement its reputation across the city.

Having so many bakeries to choose from encouraged residents to pick their favorite and remain loyal through generations. St. Louis native Julie Brown-Price says her family insisted on getting their cakes from the Missouri Baking Company on The Hill, which has been in business since 1924. “We had it on Fourth of July and for graduations, showers, first communion and baptisms,” she says.

Tom Bliss, who now lives in Minneapolis, remembers growing up convinced that Lake Forest Pastry Shop, in his hometown of suburban Clayton, was the only place to get “real” gooey butter cake: “My great aunt Marian used to visit us every summer from New Orleans, and her first stop was always to Lake Forest. It was only because of her that I realized it was a delicacy other people didn’t have.”

A new generation

While the city’s love for traditional gooey butter cake has continued, there’s a new generation of bakers in town who are putting a modern twist on the classic version, creating flavors like triple chocolate, white chocolate raspberry, peanut butter, chocolate chip, strawberry cheesecake, brownie, cinnamon, pumpkin, eggnog, gingerbread and red velvet.

There’s one bakery in town, Gooey Louie, that serves nothing but versions of the cake, in three sizes and more than a dozen flavors. McArthur’s Bakery sells gooey butter wedding cakes, and Little O’s Old Time Soda Fountain in suburban St. Charles even has a gooey butter milkshake on the menu.

Bakeries and restaurants around the country are starting to serve their own versions of gooey butter cake, too. Austin’s Chez Zee American Bistro serves double chocolate gooey butter cake, Merriment Social in Milwaukee has a version served with smoked blueberry jam and whipped creme fraiche, and the cake appears in its classic form on the menu at Sugar Couture in Brooklyn. At Ample Hills Creamery in Brooklyn, ooey gooey butter cake is one of the only ice creams that’s always on offer among a rotating cast of flavors. 

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