Okay, so I know how people feel about bragging about things from St. Louis here in Kansas City — the Cardinals, toasted ravioli, the Cardinals.
Oh wait, I already said that one.
I lived in St. Louis for a time, met and married my wife there, my son goes to college there and yeah, I like the Cardinals.
I even root for the Blues though they’re an annual disappointment. But, I’m notfrom
there. I’m a Chicagoan and I feel no real reason to extoll St. Louis’ virtues.
From a culinary standpoint, St. Louis is a lot like Kansas City, minus the good barbecue. The restaurant scene there is good, and getting better, driven by passionate local chefs just like here.
But there’s one item, a baked tradition from the Gateway City that stands above the pack and exceeds anything I’ve had here with the possible exception of Craig Adcock’s Rum Cakes.
I’m talking about Gooey Butter Cake, a St. Louis concoction that’s so sweet and so addictive you should be forced to get a license to sell it. Okay, I’m exaggerating but only a little.
For the origins of Gooey Butter Cake, I went to the always reliable Wikipedia, from which I gleaned the following:
According to a cookbook published about 20-years ago, “Saint Louis Days … Saint Louis Nights,” the first gooey butter cake was an accident made by a St. Louis-area German-American baker who was trying to make regular cake batter but reversed the amount of sugar and flour. This was the 1930s.
Here’s the skinny on how the fattening mistake was made. Apparently there are two types of butter “smears” used by bakers: a gooey butter and a deep butter.
“The deep butter was used for deep butter coffee cakes. The gooey butter was used as an adhesive for things like Danish rolls and Stollens.”
It seems the baker in question, a new hire, mixed up his “smears,” and the mistake wasn’t caught until after the cakes came out of the proof box.
Rather than throw them out, owner John Hoffman went ahead and baked them up. The new creation sold so well, Hoffman kept turning them out. Other bakeries followed suit and before long a St. Louis classic, the Gooey Butter Cake, was born, according to Wikipedia.
And the legend continues with this tidbit. Another St. Louis baker, a guy by the name of Fred Heimburger, liked the Gooey Butter Cakes so much, he used to take samples with him when he traveled out of state to visit other bakers.
The bakers liked them, but they couldn’t get their customers to buy in. The common response was that the cake looked like a mistake, “a flat gooey mess.” So it remained, and remains, St. Louis’ and St. Louis’ alone, according to Wikipedia.
Through the years, Gooey Butter Cakes haven’t changed all that much. They do offer flavors these days including chocolate and chocolate chip. But I’ve never cared much for those. Call me a Gooey Butter Cake purist. I was introduced to them when I lived in St. Louis in the early 80s, and back then there was only one flavor: creamy, sugary and super sweet.
As for their usage, it’s been my experience that Gooey Butter Cake is generally served as a coffee cake, cut into square pieces like brownies. They arenot
considered a formal dessert cake, though don’t tell my kids that as they love it before, after or during the meal.
My son has even requested my wife’s Gooey Butter Cake as his birthday cake.
So, how exactly does a good Gooey Butter Cake taste? Well, it’s difficult to describe as it truly is unique. But, just consider the name and the fact that you use an outrageous amount of butter and sugar to make one — five cups of powdered sugar and a full stick of butter, according to my wife’s recipe.
By the way, don’t ask for that recipe, which was passed down from my wife’s grandmother to her mother to her. She won’t give it up.
I don’t blame her as her Gooey Butter Cake is a masterpiece, a guilty pleasure and a tradition dating back to her childhood and decades before that. It is a St. Louis gem!
Dave Eckert is the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS-TV and Wealth TV for 12 seasons, or nearly 300 half-hour episodes produced on six continents. Eckert is also an avid wine collector and aficionado, having amassed a personal wine cellar of some 2,000 bottles.