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.
St. Louis Gooey Butter Cake Reworked (unprocessed and gluten free)
Radically reworked from Melissa Clark’s St. Louis Gooey Butter Cake which was given to her by Molly Killeen, of Made by Molly at the Park Slope Farmers’ Market.
This reworked cake uses quinoa and amaranth flours, both of which have pretty strong grassy, herbal flavors. These flours aren’t for everyone, but I think they go really well with honey. Try to find superfinely ground brown rice flour if you can as the cake base tends towards a little gritty especially with the use of the sucanat. Either way the gooey butter cake tends to lean a little bit more to the crumbly side, but in a good way I think.
1/4 cup of buttermilk plus 1 Tbsp of cold buttermilk
1 3/4 tsp (1 envelope) active dry yeast (I used Red Star which is gluten free)
1/4 cup (35g) quinoa flour
1/4 cup (50g) brown rice flour (superfine if you can find it)
3 Tbsp (25g) Amaranth flour
1/4 cup plus 2 Tbsp (65g) glutinous (sometimes called sweet or mochiko) rice flour
1/4 cup (45g) potato starch (not potato flour)
1/4 cup (36g) arrowroot flour
6 Tbsp salted butter
1/4 cup sucanat (see note)
1 large egg plus 1 egg yolk
1. Pour 1/4 cup of the buttermilk into a small saucepan and heat up gently. Once the buttermilk starts to separate and curdle (this will be fast as it doesn’t take long for this little amount to heat up so pay attention), pour it out into a glass measuring cup or small heatproof bowl. Mix the cold reserved 1 Tbsp of buttermilk into the hot buttermilk to cool it down to a warm temperature. Add the yeast and mix with a fork to gently dissolve it. Put aside.
2. Add the flours into a medium bowl and take a whisk and whirl it around vigorously to blend the flours and aerate them.
3. Place the butter and sucanat into a standing mixer bowl with the paddle attachment fitted on. Beat the butter until it starts to look creamy and the sucanat has dissolved a bit, about three minutes or so depending on how warm the butter is.
4. Scrape down the sides and add the egg and egg yolk. Beat for two minutes, until the eggs starts to incorporate in. It will look curdled, and all the egg won’t completely incorporate but don’t worry, once you add the flour it will come together.
5. Add half the flour mixture and beat to full incorporate the flours. Repeat with the buttermilk scraping down the side and then the rest of the flour. Beat the batter for about 5 minutes until it looks fluffy and light.
6. Spoon mixture into an ungreased glass 9 x 13” casserole dish. Spread and cover with plastic wrap and let it rise for three hours in a warm place. By the end of the three hours it won’t have risen that much but don’t worry about it.
Gooey Butter Topping
1/4 cup honey (try to use a local robust flavored one)
1 Tbsp vanilla
12 Tbsp (1 1/2 sticks) salted butter at room temperature
1 1/2 cup (280g) sucanat (see note)
1 large egg
1/4 cup (50g) brown rice (super fine if you can find it)
2 Tbsp (18g) amaranth flour
2 Tbsp (20g) quinoa flour
1/4 cup (50g) glutinous (sometimes called sweet or mochiko) rice flour
2 Tbsp (22g) potato starch (not potato flour)
3 Tbsp (24g) arrowroot flour
optional confectioner’s (powdered) sugar (this is the only processed ingredient, so don’t feel like you need to add this if you don’t want to) for dusting
1. Preheat the oven to 350˚F.
2. Mix the honey, vanilla, and 3 Tbsp of warm water together until the honey has dissolved into the water.
3. Add the flours into a medium bowl and take a whisk and whirl it around vigorously to blend the flours and aerate them.
4. Place the butter and sucanat into a standing mixer bowl with the paddle attachment fitted on. Beat the butter until it starts to look creamy and fluffy, about five or six minutes or so depending on how warm the butter is.
5. Scrape the sides of the bowl and then beat in the egg. Add half the flour mixture and beat to full incorporate the flours. Repeat with the honey, scraping down the side and then the rest of the flour. Beat the batter for about 5 minutes or until it lightens up a little bit and the sucanat looks like it has dissolved into the batter.
6. Spoon the gooey topping onto the risen cake batter and using a knife or offset spatula, spread it evenly over the cake. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes (do not overbake) where the center is still liquidy. Cool in pan and sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar if you using.
Note. Sucanat is evaporated cane sugar that can be found at natural food stores like Whole Foods as well online. It’s probably the most nutritious variant of cane sugar you can find as it is relatively unprocessed. It is sometimes called Rapadura. If you can’t find it you can substitute in Muscavado sugar 1:1 which is an unrefined brown sugar, but the gooey butter cake might taste a little bit more sweet.