This post is a long time coming. I am from St. Louis, and it seems to me that people from St. Louis feel very strongly about St. Louis; they have a fierce pride in their city, and all the cool things about it. I am no exception.
I don’t think that I always felt that way, but certainly as I have gotten older, I have come to cherish all the things that I used to take for granted. Like the St. Louis Arch, for example. It really is pretty stunning.
Last year when we visited St. Louis, we went up in the arch with my sister Linda. You go up in these teeny tiny elevators, and you have to wait in a cramped hallway for the elevators to arrive and unload.
And here’s one of the views from the top…
As a kid growing up, the arch was always there, and I didn’t think much of it. But now, I find it awe inspiring. It is imprinted in my being, and somehow part of me. And it is beautiful.
Another St. Louis memory that is hardwired into me is the famous Gooey Butter Cake. I won’t go into too much detail about its origins, but rumor has it that it was created by mistake by a St. Louis baker, who somehow screwed up the ingredients in his cake, and was so frugal that he decided to serve it in his bakery anyway, cut into squares like brownies, and it was an instant success.
I remember getting this cake at many different bakeries in St. Louis… the Famous-Barr bakery stands out in my mind. Famous-Barr was a department store where we did most of our shopping. And Famous-Barr was truly “famous” for many things, including French Onion Soup. My sisters and I would walk to Famous-Barr just to sit in their café and eat their delicious French Onion Soup. But other days, we would make the trek on foot and go to the bakery, sometimes to buy a pound of floury chocolate chip cookies, and eat practically the entire bag on the walk home. And of course, there was the Gooey Butter Cake. This cake oozes St. Louis, no pun intended.
This cake is not meant as a dessert. It’s more of a Sunday brunch item. I remember many discussions with my sisters about this cake… about the gooey-ness of it, the sweetness of it, the weirdness of it. How the corners of it were so good because they had more edges, which were crispy and chewy. How the middle had extra “goo”. As I got older, in my twenties, I may have decided that it was too sweet for me. Too gooey. Too something. But now that I have kids, I somehow long for it. I want them to have this experience too.
We actually just got back from another trip to St. Louis. While there, I stopped at Trader Joe’s, and picked up the “St. Louis, Missouri” bag. They have bags featuring every state, and I couldn’t wait to pick up my St. Louis bag while there.
One unusual thing about St. Louisans is that when we meet someone, and find out they are also from St. Louis, the first question is “Where did you go to high school?”! It’s true; it’s a thing, and has been for as long as I can remember, so I think it’s hysterical that they put that question on the Trader Joe’s St. Louis bag. I proudly used my St. Louis bag at my local Trader Joe’s here in Seattle, and got lots of “oohs and ahhhs” over how cute it was. I tried not to gloat. It’s cool to be from St. Louis.
So here’s the thing – when I got home from the store and was unloading groceries, something caught my eye on the bottom of the bag that I hadn’t noticed… I mean, who puts decorations on the bottom of a bag? But here it is:
Honestly, it took my breath away. Made me feel all warm and fuzzy and miss St. Louis horribly, even though I had just come back from a visit there. I made this version of Gooey Butter Cake last year and brought it to a potluck, expecting everyone to gasp in horror at how weird and gooey and sweet it was. I expected to take it back home with me. Well, it was a huge hit, and people tried to be subtle as they sidled up for a second piece. Or a third. This particular version is made with cake mix (I kind of don’t believe in doing that), and although it’s pretty awesome in its own way, it’s not the Gooey Butter Cake that I grew up with. It’s not the one that came from older, traditional St. Louis bakeries, with a barely sweet yeast dough offsetting the sweet, gooey topping, that came in a white box tied with string. So after seeing this recipe on the bottom of the Trader Joe’s bag, I decided it was time to make the real thing.
I went to Deb Perlman’s blog, Smitten Kitchen, and looked at her recipe for St. Louis Gooey Butter Cake. I had been wanting to make this recipe for years. And it was now time. I did indeed make it (tweaked only a few things), and it was delicious! Although not exactly how I remembered it. But as I said to my sister Jane, it’s hard to compete with a memory.
St. Louis Gooey Butter Cake
(Slightly modified from Smitten Kitchen)
For the cake
1/4 cup warm whole milk (at about 100°)
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
6 tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature
3 tablespoons sugar, plus a dash more
1 teaspoon salt
1 large egg at room temperature
1 3/4 cups (8 ounces) all-purpose flour
For the topping
3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon light corn syrup
1 Tablespoon vanilla extract
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 large egg
1 cup plus 3 tablespoons (5.5 ounces) all-purpose flour
Confectioners’ Sugar for sprinkling
For the cake: In a small bowl, mix warm milk with a dash of sugar. Sprinkle the yeast on top and let sit for 5 minutes. Whisk gently until it dissolves. Set aside.
Using an electric mixer with paddle attachment, cream butter, sugar and salt. Scrape down sides of bowl and beat in the egg. It won’t look completely mixed in, but that’s ok. Alternately add flour and the milk mixture (start and end with flour), scraping down sides of bowl between each addition. After the final addition of flour, mix until dough is well combined – a minute or so. At this point, switch to a dough hook and continue to mix on medium speed for about five minutes, until the dough is smooth and easy to handle (soft and a tiny bit elastic).
At this point, lightly butter two 8″x8″ metal cake pans. (You can use just one 9″x13″ pan if you choose, but the cake tends to over bake that way, so it’s worth it to use the two 8″x8″ pans. I ran out and bought two Magic Line pans just for this purpose, and I have no regrets.)
Next, divide the dough in half and make into two balls. Press and carefully stretch the dough into the pans with your fingers, pressing the edges a bit up the sides of the dish to create a kind of crust.
Cover pans with plastic wrap or clean tea towel, put in a warm place, and allow to rise until doubled, 2 1/2 to 3 hours. Here is what they look like after rising.
For the topping: When dough is just about done rising, preheat oven to 350 degrees. To prepare topping, in a small bowl, whisk corn syrup with 2 tablespoons water and the vanilla. Using an electric mixer with paddle attachment, cream butter, sugar and salt until light and fluffy, 5 to 7 minutes. Scrape down sides of bowl and beat in the egg. Alternately add flour and corn syrup mixture (start and end with flour), scraping down sides of bowl between each addition. Do not over mix!
Spoon topping in large dollops over risen cakes.
Use a spatula to gently spread topping in an even layer, leaving about a 1/4 inch of the edge dough showing.
Bake for about 30 minutes on the center rack in your oven; topping will begin to melt immediately. It will then bubble and turn a golden brown, but will still be slightly liquid in center when done. A toothpick test does not work with this cake, so you have to gauge it by color. When you take the cakes out, the center will still jiggle. Don’t worry; the cake will set as it cools. Do not over bake!
Place on cooling rack and let cool completely (this can take up to an hour and a half… longer if you used one larger pan…).
You should know, the corners are the very best part. They are extra chewy and crispy. The edges have the same appeal. This is one more reason to bake these cakes in two 8″x8″ pans – more edges and corners!!
Sprinkle liberally with confectioners’ sugar before serving. This cake is best served the day it is baked, but it still tastes good the day after, if there’s any left…
And just for the fun of it, another picture from our most recent visit to St. Louis. The train at the fabulous St. Louis Zoo has been a tradition for our family since I was little.