Sunday, May 2, 2010

St. Louis-Style Gooey Butter Cake

Now that we have lived in the St. Louis area for over two and a half years, I figured maybe it was time for me to learn how to make a delicacy that is considered to be a regional treat. Now, gooey butter cake is something I had never heard of until we moved here. Around these parts, though, you can find it in every grocery store, and there are even bakeries in the city dedicated to this cake. It was supposedly created in the 1930s or 1940s by a baker who accidentally mixed up the proportions of sugar and flour in a cake recipe. This yummy treat was the result of that accident. Nowadays it is made in two forms. One, the easier of the two, involves the use of a standard yellow cake mix for the base. The top layer uses a block of cream cheese and some other ingredients I'm not entirely sure of. The second version of this recipe is the one I went with.

Naturally, I chose the more difficult version of the two. Why would I choose the easy way out? This way, in addition to being more challenging (and therefore, I figured, more fun!), was going to have me use yeast, and I really would like to feel comfortable using yeast. Practice makes perfect, right? So I went for it.

This cake has two layers: the bottom is a basic yeasted cake, not too sweet or heavy, and the top layer is a very sweet, buttery, and gooey (you see, it's not just a clever name) confection. The yeast cake part of the proceedings went fairly smooth, I have to say. I was very nervous about the whole endeavor, and I fretted the night before over the timing of everything, and where I should let the dough rise in my house, etc. It was actually very straightforward and very easy. When I rose the dough, I did so in my oven, with the heat turned off and a pan of just-boiled water on the bottom rack. It worked great! The pan of water kept the air in the oven at just the right temperature and humidity to proof the dough.

After the rising was a success, I felt awesome. I was totally ready to tackle the gooey butter topping. It comes together easily with a hand or stand mixer, and when I had it all mixed together I noticed that it resembled cookie dough. I've seen the grocery stores sell a gooey butter cookie, so I thought that maybe they make those cookies by whipping up this topping and baking it in dollops on a cookie sheet. Who knows? Maybe I'll have to try that sometime....

So you take your topping and drop it by spoonfuls all over the yeast cake layer. Spreading it turned out to be really tricky. The yeast cake is all sticky and squishy, so it becomes hard to spread the goo because it makes the yeast stuff slide and move around underneath. It took some work and some finessing, but in the end I managed to cover the entire surface with the gooey topping. My above three pictures show the yeast cake layer alone, the gooey topping dropped in dollops, and the cake with the topping spread all over the surface (in that order).

And here is the finished product. It looks funny, but looks can be deceiving. Once you taste it, it's not so funny anymore. It's just delicious. The top and bottom layer are a wonderful contrast of light, airy cake and dense, sticky goodness. And I was so proud of myself for making this thing completely from scratch. I could have taken the easy way out and done the yellow cake mix one, but no, sir. I tackled the yeast, and I won! Score another victory for me.

The version of the recipe that I used came from the blog of Deb, from Smitten Kitchen. I highly recommend a visit to her blog; it's so utterly chock full of wonderful-looking photos and recipes. I have gotten sucked in more than a few times, and there's tons of treats that I plan to make from over there. Her post on the gooey butter cake can be found here.


  1. I am having house guests next week and will be fixing this cake for everyone - I also decided to go with the yeast version. Thanks for sharing your recipe.

  2. Great! You're going to love this cake! One tip I forgot about in my post: when you are spreading the gooey butter topping onto the yeast cake layer, you'll want to drop the goo onto the yeast stuff in small dollops, all over the surface of the cake.

    I made the mistake of dropping it in large blobs mostly in the center of the cake. I had a pretty hard time spreading it out to the edges because of this. So just drop your blobs as evenly as you can, and it should be much easier to even the topping out.

    Have fun with it! Let me know how it turns out!