St. Louis Gooey Butter Cake Reworked with Gluten Free Unprocessed ingredients and a holiday visit back to St. Louis for AJ and me

by Irvin on January 13, 2011 · 13 comments

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I haven’t visited St. Louis since 2008 and two years is pretty long time for me not to visit my hometown. I usually go back once a year for the holidays, though I did go back four times in 2007 (two weddings, my mom’s 70th surprise birthday party, and Christmas). But last year, my mom and dad decided to come out and spend time in California for the holidays (partly because they are thinking of retiring out here, partly because they are now grandparent’s with my little niece who lives in Sacramento, born back in November of 2009). So two years passed since I had a chance to go back to St. Louis and that meant two years passed since I had one of my favorite indigenious St. Louis treats, the Gooey Butter Cake.

Now in case you have never been to St. Louis, I want to say that you aren’t missing much. In fact, I often tell people that St. Louis is a great place to be from. St. Louis is one of those cities that people usually overlook. It’s dead center in the country, which means it tends to be lumped in with the rest of the “flyover states” and unless you have relatives to visit, St. Louis is often not very highly thought of as a tourist destination. But I’d be remiss to not tell you that St. Louis currently has a lot going for itself.

First off, there are a number of great free or cheap cultural attractions, which I totally took for granted growing up, like the St. Louis Art Museum, The St. Louis Zoo, Laumeier Sculpture Park and the Municipal Theater (affectionately called the Muny). But the one attraction people associated most closely to St. Louis is the Arch, which is quite a spectacular piece of architecture. Most St. Louisans are dismissive of it, as they see it EVERYWHERE they go, it being THE iconic symbol of St. Louis. But if you don’t grow up with it as part of the background, seeing it in person, is pretty awe inspiring.

AJ has a pretty special relationship to the Arch, so we visit try to get to it at least once every three or four years. Around the age of three or four, AJ pestered his mom and dad as much as he could (and you all know what a three or four year old is capable of) that he wanted to go to Disney World. AJ’s family lived in Indiana and they didn’t fly. Well, his mom doesn’t fly. Being relatively sane people, they didn’t think a three year old could handle a drive down to Florida for Disney World. So they told AJ that they were going to “St. Louis, Florida” and drove over to my hometown and then over to Six Flags – St. Louis.

Six Flags isn’t a Disney theme park, but they had Looney Tunes characters sprinkled throughout the park. And though AJ would occasionally ask his parents where Mickey was, they always told him that “Well Mickey can’t be everywhere in the park! Oh look over there! It’s Bugs Bunny!” which, with a three-year old attention span, probably did the job.

Regardless, AJ had it in his head most of his childhood that he had gone to Disneyland and Florida, and even at age six when they actually WENT to DisneyWorld in Florida and asked him if he was excited about going to Florida, he replied back “But we already went there! To St. Louis, Florida!”

AJ loved this Pepsi outfit as a child. I guess it WAS the choice of a new generation.

“Oh yes.” They replied. “Well…this is a different part of Florida and a different part of Disney World we’re going to!” It wasn’t until a few years later that AJ finally figured out that he had been duped.

That said, when he was in St. Louis, his family visited the Arch (like all good tourists) and though they actually didn’t go UP in the Arch (his mom being afraid of heights) they visited the museum at the base of the national monument and then bought AJ a plastic model of the Arch. From there on out, AJ required his mom to take a Polaroid photo of himself with his model arch every single night for about a year.

AJ was utterly adorable as a child.

Did I mention that AJ was rather precocious as a child?

We never made it to the Arch this year, but we did drive by it, on our trip back from Indiana and AJ was ever so pleased to see it as we returned (the route we took from St. Louis to Indiana bypassed downtown so we didn’t see it then). In fact, AJ and I didn’t do much in terms of sightseeing in St. Louis, though we did take my mom to the St. Louis Art Museum where my friend Stephanie works which was fun.

Stephanie looking sassy as ever.

That said, I totally have a confession to make. Even though there are numerous indigenous food items in St. Louis that are only specific to St. Louis (including toasted ravioli, pork steak, St. Louis style pizza with provel cheese, and Ted Drewes’ Concrete – which Dairy Queen knocked off with their Blizzard) the one that I never had growing up was Gooey Butter Cake. In fact Stephanie was the one that introduced it to me AFTER I had moved away from St. Louis and was visiting, proclaiming it the perfect combination of salty and sweet.

An example of indigenous food that you cannot get anywhere outside of St. Louis.

Gooey Butter Cake pretty much what it sounds like, but less sickly sweet than you think as the top of the cake tends to harden and the carmelization of the starches cuts the sweetness more than you’d think. More of a coffee cake, than an after meal dessert cake, a lot of recipes use a commercial cake mix (box cake? no thank you) or cream cheese but there’s an article originally published in the New York Times a few years ago by the amazing Melissa Clark (author of In the Kitchen with a Good Appetite) and that was later blogged about by Smitten Kitchen, whose post got an astonishing 400+ comments. Apparently there’s something about Gooey Butter Cake that makes people want to profess their love, or at least comment about it.

Having missed out on this treat growing up, I try to make up for lost opportunity by buying some Gooey Butter Cake at the grocery store when I went there as an errand to pick up stuff for my mom after my parent’s car accident (that’s a story for another time, but rest assured my mom and dad are relatively unscathed, though that cannot be said about the car). And as I took a bite of the sweet, relatively bland, grocery store cake, I remembered the New York Times recipe and decided I need to make it at home.

Here’s the thing though. I came back to San Francisco, had a late holiday dinner party with my siblings (my mom and dad were scheduled to come out too, but they couldn’t travel due to the car accident) and baked up two different cakes (yet another story for another time). After my dessert extravaganza from December, as much as I wanted to bake up the Gooey Butter Cake, I wanted something a little bit healthier, and a little bit less sweet and something I could enjoy in the new year after the sugarfest that happened at the end of last year. So, as is typical me, I radically reworked the initial recipe.

Gone are the corn syrup (which just adds sweetness without any depth of flavor) and all-purpose white flour (which also tends to be devoid of flavor). Instead I went with nice rich floral honey and sucanat (evaporated cane sugar) and used quinoa and amaranth flours, both known for their grassy herbal notes. I figured it would help cut the sweetness even more and, as an added bonus, would make the cake gluten free.

The resulting cake isn’t the traditional St. Louis Gooey Butter Cake that I grew up with. Of course, I didn’t really grow up with Gooey Butter Cake, but you know what I mean. And if you are from St. Louis, you’ll have to forgive my heresy for doing what I did to it. But trust me, as AJ said after he took one bite of it, “that there cake is definitely blog worthy.”

While baking, I listened to Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs which may be one of my favorite albums of 2010.

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Alanna Kellogg January 13, 2011 at 1:09 pm

Wow – now that's an overhaul of gooey butter cake. I've been in St. Louis since 1993 but still 'don't get' the stuff.


Irvin January 26, 2011 at 8:47 am

Yeah, I think it’s a bit sweet, but I do like it. I like the slight carmelization you get on top. If you’re in St. Louis, I hear one of the best ones to get is at Kaldi’s. Which has the best coffee in St. Louis anyway…


onewetfoot January 15, 2011 at 12:45 am

It's great that you post gluten-free recipes so often. And I love the St. Louis, Florida story.


Irvin January 26, 2011 at 8:48 am

Isn’t that a great story? I actually never get tired of hearing AJ tell it. And he’s told it a lot. Look for more gluten free recipes in my new blog. I love baking gluten free. It’s so much fun!


Xai January 15, 2011 at 7:54 am

i want to make this coz it looks oh so delicious… and AJ's Pepsi overalls, HOT! haha.


Irvin January 26, 2011 at 8:49 am

Right? AJ look awesome in those Pepsi overalls! He said they were one of his favorite outfits to wear when he was a kid.


Mariko January 15, 2011 at 10:01 pm

You're right. I want to profess my love here, and we've only just met.
Maybe I'm fickle, though, because I also want to profess my love to that Pepsi outfit. Reminds me of my own "I'm a Pepper!" shirt which I wore, religiously, although I'm not sure Dr. pepper deserves my devotion.


Irvin January 26, 2011 at 8:51 am

Why thank you for the love! And see my comment to Xai above. Those Pepsi overalls rock.

But I’ll also tell you a secret, I used to love Dr. Pepper. I think because it was something I couldn’t get as easily as Coke or Pepsi, because no one ever thought to buy it. ‘Course I haven’t had it in ages. If I had owned a “I’m a Pepper” tshirt, I probably would have worn it all the time too.


The Duo Dishes January 25, 2011 at 6:49 am

Really interesting take on this one! And awesome that you went gluten free with it. This is a totally sweet and sticky (but so good) cake. We made one with pumpkin puree, and it rocked. Seems like it’d be worth a visit to St. Louis to taste a traditional version!


Irvin January 26, 2011 at 8:52 am

Oh the pumpkin version sounds awesome! It is really sweet and sticky, but sometimes you just want that. You should visit St. Louis. It’s actually a great city to visit. Growing up, I wasn’t sure, but now that I’ve been gone for 12 years, I can totally see the charm.


Priyanka January 26, 2011 at 1:19 pm

Wow………its looks so delicious and yummy……..


Elizabeth January 26, 2011 at 4:13 pm

YUM! I remember seeing this on an episode of Food Feuds on Food Network and it looks delish!! Also that St. Louis, Florida story is hilarious, I could totally see my parents doing that to me. Classic.


Stephanie January 27, 2011 at 5:07 am

Fantastic! I love it when you work over your recipes to be healthier, ie gluten free! Never had gooey butter cake, but I’m so ready for it now!


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