Who created it? When? Where? Who makes the best? What are acceptable ingredients? Which is most authentic?
Whether it’s French ratatouille, Italian ragu Bolognese, Mississippi ribs or New York reubens, regional specialties inspire passionate loyalties and provoke arguments that could rival a debate between Sarah Palin and Ralph Nader.
So it is with gooey butter cake.
Few doubt that St. Louis gave birth to gooey butter cake. Who gave it birth is another story.
Indignant St. Louisans complain that the Food Network’s Paula Deen’s claim of ownership is false, and they have a long record of verifiably venerable St. Louis bakeries that made gooey butter cake for decades to prove it. St. Louis legend says that a German baker (probably in the 1930s) discovered the cake by happy accident, either reversing the proportions of flour and butter or simply using the wrong proportions for the filling/topping.
The website whatscookingamerica.net has testimonials from two St. Louisans who each claim that their father created gooey butter cake.
The first is from Richard Danzer, who wrote in 2006:
In late 1942 or early 1943, Johnny Hoffman of St. Louis Pastries Bakery… made what eventually turned out to be Gooey Butter Cake. … it was a mistake! He subsequently called Herman Danzer, my dad, and told him he thought he may have something and asked to come to my dad’s shop[Danzer’s Bakery] … to see if they could duplicate it.
… through many trials and errors [they] got it pretty good. The final batch they made, my dad suggested they add glycerin to get it really gooey. When [my mom, Melba Danzer] tried it she said “this sure is gooey” subsequently, the name.
The information I have is from my mother who worked with him from 1939 to 1957. This is the best I can do, so the true story will remain a matter of conjecture.
The next came from Marilyn Koppe Galati in 2008:
My father, John Koppe, a St. Louis baker… developed the Gooey Butter Cake in the early 1940s. My father was a Master Baker, and he owned Koppe Bakery during World War II.
The Gooey Butter Cake was a smash hit with customers. The lines of customers spilled out the door and around the block. This cake was very gooey, rich, and exceptionally delicious! You could eat it with a spoon! The top was sprinkled with powdered sugar and the edge was slightly crispy to hold it together – almost like a pudding.
As far as I know, my father “created” the gooey butter cake. I was a child then and do not remember the year but it was well before 1950. There is no proof that I know of about the creator of the recipe, but it could have been an accident… my parents are deceased and no records were kept. It’s all just childhood memories. I… remember how the store would be packed with customers, and the popularity of the Gooey Butter Cake. The cakes produced today do not taste anything like dad’s.”
These days the base layer often is made with a cake batter – a variation developed to make it easier for home bakers that also often uses cream cheese in the filling. But there’s general consensus that the bakery originals used a yeast dough base. Everyone also agrees that gooey butter cake was – and is – typically eaten as a coffee cake, not as a dessert – at least in St. Louis.
Before long it migrated to Springfield, and gooey butter cake – sometimes simply called butter cake – was being made by several local bakeries and developing a host of devotees. One of the most popular was Rechner’s. “That gooey butter cake from Rechner’s is one of my best childhood memories,” says Ed Selinger. “We’d get two on a Sunday morning, and by the time we got home there’d be just one left. My mom wouldn’t let us get it every week, but when she did – boy, that was as good as going to the State Fair!”
After Rechner’s closed in the 1980s, there were many requests for the recipe. The Rechner family did give it out, as did others claiming to have spinoffs of their recipe, but apparently none included the actual yeast dough – frozen bread dough was most typically called for. Donna Rechner (whose husband, Bill, came from a branch of the family that was not associated with the bakery) laughs when she recalls an incident that happened several years after Rechner’s had closed:
“We belonged to the Telephone Pioneers [a charitable group of phone company retirees, back when there was just one phone company], and we were asked to contribute to a bake sale at the Willard Ice Building. They told us to put our names on our items. I made my butter cake recipe – it wasn’t related at all to Rechner’s bakery, and I didn’t think a thing about it at the time – but when people saw that name, there was just a stampede!”
The Rechner descendants with whom I spoke were surprised to learn that gooey butter cake originated in St. Louis. Not so Harold and Becky Figge. That’s because the Figges moved from their native St. Louis in 1958 and bought Springfield’s B and Z Bakery. Harold brought along his recipe for gooey butter cake. “People here were used to a version that was thinner than the St. Louis style, so I made them both.” The two were similar – using a yeast dough base – and were among his best sellers until the Figges retired and closed B and Z in 1988.
Last November, gooey butter cake hit the big time in the Big Apple when New York Times food writer Melissa Clark wrote about negotiating for the last piece at the Made By Molly stand at the Park Slope Farmers Market in Brooklyn. A friend had told her about it, saying “It’s yeasty on the bottom, like a babka, and sweet and gooey on top, like cheesecake but stickier,” she said. “It melts in your mouth.” The guy in line ahead of Clark had bought the last piece; she traded a brownie and two coconut bars for it. Readers who made the gooey butter cake recipe included in the article swooned with delight in online posts; a couple months later it appeared on The Hungry Mouse, a website recommended by Saveur magazine, and received equally rave reviews.
These days the cake batter/cream cheese version – sometimes with flavor variations – is as common in bakeries as with home cooks, and often has its own history. The family recipe used by St. Louis’ Gooey Louie dates back four generations. “It’s more home-style” says co-owner Debbie Stieferman. “We use the best quality ingredients, and everything – both the base and the filling – is made from scratch; not like Paula Deen, who uses a mix.” Gooey Louie (http://www.gooeylouiecake.com/) makes 10 different varieties from traditional, blueberry, nut, amaretto, to chocolate raspberry. The cakes are sold at their store at 6483 Chippewa (conveniently located just a half mile east of Ted Drewes Frozen Custard stand, so you can get two of STL’s sweetest traditions in one visit) and can also be ordered online or by phone and shipped.
Contact Julianne Glatz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Molly Killen’s St. Louis gooey butter cake
Molly Killeen, owner of Made By Molly, is a St. Louis native who for years was pastry chef at NYC’s renowned Amy’s Bread. Her recipe harks back to the original bakery gooey butter cakes; she also reworked hers to be somewhat less sweet – something I appreciate, having found several versions I’ve tried cloyingly sweet.
FOR THE BASE:
- 1 3/4 tsp. active dry yeast
- 3 tablespoons sugar, divided
- 5 T. milk
- 6 T. unsalted butter at room temperature
- 1 tsp. salt, preferably kosher
- 1 large egg
- 1 3/4 c. all-purpose flour OR substitute King Arthur white whole-wheat flour for all or part of the all-purpose flour
FOR THE TOPPING:
- 3 T. plus 1 tsp. light corn syrup
- 1 T. pure vanilla extract
- ¾ c. (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1 1/2 c. sugar
- 1/2 tsp. salt, preferably salt
- 1 large egg
- 1 cup plus 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- Powdered sugar, for sprinkling.
In a small bowl, mix the yeast and 1 T. of the sugar. Warm the milk for a few seconds in the microwave, and stir into the yeast/sugar mixture. Let stand for about 5 minutes. It should start to bubble up. If it doesn’t, the yeast is inactive. Discard it and begin again with fresh yeast.
Using an electric mixer with paddle attachment, cream the butter, remaining sugar and salt. Scrape down the bowl and beat in the egg. With the mixer on low, add the yeast/milk mixture and the flour. Raise the speed to medium and beat until it forms a smooth mass and pulls away from sides of bowl, 7 to 10 minutes.
Lightly spray a 9-inch x13-inch baking pan or dish at least 2 inches deep with cooking spray. Press the dough evenly into the bottom of the pan and form a slight edge of dough around the rims. Cover with plastic wrap or lint-free towel, put in a warm place, and let rise until doubled. This can take anywhere between 1 to 2 hours, depending on the ambient temperature.
Preheat oven to 350º.
While the dough rises, prepare the topping: In a small bowl, mix corn syrup with 2 tablespoons water and the vanilla until they are thoroughly combined. Using an electric mixer with paddle attachment, cream butter, sugar and salt until light and fluffy, 5 to 7 minutes. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and beat in the egg. Turn the mixer to low and beat in the corn syrup mixture and then the flour, scraping down the sides of the bow as needed.
Spoon the topping in large dollops over risen dough, then use a spatula to gently spread it in an even layer. Bake for 35 to 45 minutes; cake will rise and fall in waves and have a light golden brown top, but will still be liquid in center when done. Cool in the pan before sifting powdered sugar over the top for serving.
Yield: 16 to 24 servings.
This recipe is adapted from one that appeared in the Nov. 4, 2009, edition of the New York Times.