St Louis’ gooey butter cake takes many forms. The classic recipe is built on a Danish-like coffee cake dough topped with a generous amount of chewy, vanilla buttery gooeyness. Other versions are built on everything from a shortbread crust to a dense cake that becomes the platform for the gooey filling. Which version is right? It depends on what you grew up eating and how thick you like the filling.
I grew up eating the coffee cake version with a 50/50 spilt of dough and filling that was baked by the Haas Bakery, a South County commercial bakery that operated since 1925 and sadly closed last week. Thankfully, the gooey butter tradition in South County continues.
“You’re not a St Louis bakery if you don’t have a gooey butter cake,” said Slice of Heaven Bakery owner Catherine Kidder, who mastered the art of the gooey butter after moving to St Louis. “I grew up in Michigan and didn’t come to St Louis until 1984. When people talked about the gooey butter cake I thought 'gooey butter? Seriously?'”
Kidder learned quickly that gooey butter was no joke and people are passionate about them. According to Kidder, the hard part of making gooey butter is finding the happy medium. Some people like it crisp while others like lots of gooey filling.
“We sell at least a few dozen a day,” said Kidder who makes a variety at the Fenton bakery that includes the original vanilla flavor, chocolate caramel pecan, along with caramel apple and such seasonal fresh fruits as cherry, blueberry or raspberry.
Russell Ping’s version of gooey butter is not the norm but it has won rave reviews and fans since he opened Russell's Cafe & Bakery in Fenton.
“Our gooey butter is a little bit different than others, which is why I think it gets a lot of attention,” said Ping, another St Louis transplant who added the local confection to his menu to satisfy customer requests. “We don’t call it a gooey butter cake. It’s just gooey butter because we make ours on a shortbread cookie crust — my own variation of the recipe that sets it apart from the traditional gooey butter cake.”
Russell is a talented baker who says his background is in fine dining and considers baking is a hobby. However, as a professional chef, his dedication to using fresh, seasonal ingredients is reflected in his gooey butter recipes.
“I’m big on seasonal cooking and I reflect that in my baking,” said Russell. "In the spring and summer we feature a triple-berry gooey butter and in fall we have pumpkin.”
Russell’s standard gooey butter flavors are the original, chocolate chip, peanut butter with a chocolate ganache drizzle and toasted coconut, which Russell describes as similar to a Mounds candy bar. There’s also lemon that was created was a result of a customer request.
“We get inspiration for flavors from our customers," Russell said. "People have asked us about a key lime flavor but we haven’t done it yet.”
Ping and Kidder both guard their gooey butter recipes but offered the following advice. Ping’s recommendation for best results is to find a simple recipe. Kidder's advice? “The trick to a good gooey butter is in the process and lots and lots of butter.”