How a Glorious Mistake Resulted in Gooey Butter Cake: A St. Louis Tradition Since the ’40s

updated Aug 9, 2020
Gooey Butter Cake

A recipe for homemade Gooey Butter Cake, complete with its signature crispy-chewy foundation, fantastically sloppy, sweet filling, and snowy blanket of powdered sugar.

Serves15 to 20

Cook40 minutes

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Credit: Paul Strabbing

A little while back, I began research for a cookbook about the roots of American baking. (Shameless plug: It’s here! It’s called Midwest Made.)

I spent countless hours paging through old PTA and church cookbooks. I traveled across a dozen Midwestern states, dug through dozens of family recipe boxes, and collected thousands of recipes. But I didn’t want to simply curate a recipe list. I wanted to update the recipes as well — to refresh them, so modern bakers could enjoy them, while keeping their roots intact.

That called for eliminating a lot of the pre-packaged ingredients — which were a staple of many midcentury recipes. Let me tell you, navigating the sheer volume of cake mixes, day-glo gelatin packets, and non-dairy whipped toppings, even as a born-and-raised Midwesterner, was really something else. 

For the most part, updating these recipes was tricky, but doable. But I knew there would be a handful of iconic Midwestern recipes that presented more of a challenge than others. One of those was the beloved Gooey Butter Cake, which hails from St. Louis.

With its unique hybrid structure — a crispy-chewy foundation, a fantastically sloppy, sweet filling, and a snowy blanket of powdered sugar — it just wasn’t possible to create a book of home-baked Heartland favorites without it. The problem was that the majority of available recipes call for boxed yellow cake mix, pudding mix, and other instant ingredients many bakers would rather do without.

Now, I’m not a snob about boxed mixes (I blew half my bank account on Betty Crocker Triple Fudge Brownie Mix during both my pregnancies), but my goal for the book was clear, and a Gooey Butter Cake formula full of powder packets wasn’t going to cut it. Luckily, history was on my side. As it turns out, the most common versions of “gooey butter cake” are just shadows of what this Midwestern classic was truly meant to be. 

“Real-Deal” Gooey Butter Cake

As it turns out, Gooey Butter Cake was never really meant to be at all. Although the exact details are unclear — and highly dependent upon who you ask — it’s estimated that the cake first appeared in the city sometime between the late 1930s and early ’40s, when St. Louis’s German population was booming, along with the number of bustling bakeries.

It was a glorious mistake when one baker, intending to make one of his bakery’s traditional German yeasted coffeecakes, made a ratio-swapping error. Far too much butter was added to the coffeecake topping in proportion to the sugar and flour. Now, the baker might have simply tossed out the ingredients and started over. But this was the war period and the cake was full of what were, at the time, likely highly rationed ingredients. Surely that contributed to the need to sell it, no matter how it turned out. And sell, it did. 

It became a must-have in no time. People in St. Louis and beyond have celebrated the deliciously wonky concept ever since, and when you make it from scratch — like the original with a yeast-based dough — it becomes more balanced in sweetness and texture, and even more lovable. Some folks serve it as a coffeecake, some as dessert. I’ll eat it whenever, especially with a few modern tweaks to improve levels of sweetness, richness, and crave-worthy chew. 

Gooey Butter Cake

A recipe for homemade Gooey Butter Cake, complete with its signature crispy-chewy foundation, fantastically sloppy, sweet filling, and snowy blanket of powdered sugar.

Cook time 40 minutes

Serves 15 to 20

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

For the dough:

  • 2 1/4 teaspoons

    instant yeast

  • 2/3 cup

    warm whole milk (110° to 115°F)

  • 4 tablespoons

    unsalted butter, melted

  • 1/4 cup

    granulated sugar

  • 2

    large eggs, at room temperature

  • 1 teaspoon

    vanilla extract

  • 2 teaspoons

    finely grated lemon zest 

  • 2 cups

    unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting

  • 1/2 teaspoon

    fine salt 

  • Cooking spray

For the topping:

  • Cooking spray

  • 8 tablespoons

    unsalted butter, at room temperature

  • 4 ounces

    full-fat cream cheese, at room temperature

  • 1 cup

    granulated sugar

  • 1/3 cup

    packed light brown sugar

  • 1 tablespoon

    vanilla extract 

  • 1/2 teaspoon

    fine salt

  • 1/4 cup

    light corn syrup

  • 1

    large egg, at room temperature

  • 1 cup

    unbleached all-purpose flour

  • Powdered sugar, for dusting

Instructions

Make the dough:

  1. In the bowl of an electric mixer, whisk together the yeast and milk. Set aside for a couple of minutes. Whisk in the melted butter, sugar, eggs, vanilla, and lemon zest. Add the flour and salt. Fit the bowl onto the mixer along with the paddle attachment. Mix on medium speed for 3 to 4 minutes, or until shiny. It will be a very loose dough-batter hybrid. Stop the mixer and scrape down the bowl well about halfway through the mixing time. 

  2. Spray a medium bowl with cooking spray or oil it lightly. Scrape the dough into the bowl and dust the surface of the dough with a couple of teaspoons of flour. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap. Let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, 45 minutes to 1 hour. 

For the cake and topping:

  1. Position a rack to the center of the oven and preheat it to 325°F. Spray a 9x13-inch glass baking dish with cooking spray. 

  2. Flour your hands, transfer the dough to the baking dish, and pat dough into an even layer. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise a second time for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare the topping.

  3. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat together the butter and cream cheese on medium-high speed until smooth and creamy. Add the granulated and brown sugars, vanilla, and salt, and beat until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the corn syrup and egg and beat until smooth. Reduce the mixer speed to low and gradually beat in the flour. Fold the batter by hand a few times with a large flexible spatula until well blended. 

  4. When the dough has finished its second rise, dollop the topping over the dough. Use a small offset spatula to spread it evenly. 

  5. Bake until puffed and golden, but still quite loose in the center, about 40 minutes (it will appear almost liquid under the surface in spots, but will quickly set upon cooling. Have a peek at the bottom of the cake through the glass dish; if it’s deeply golden, you’re in good shape). Let cool completely in the pan set on a wire rack. Dust with powdered sugar before slicing and serving. 

Recipe Notes

Reprinted with permission from Midwest Made by Shauna Sever, Running Press, 2019.