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After the year we have all lived through, food writer Nicola Miller says we should seek out pleasure, and delivers a large slice of pure hedonism with her recipe for a gooey butter cake



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I often wonder what the Ancient Greeks would have made of the early days of the first lockdown, one whole year ago. Would Homer have written epics about his search for icing sugar and flour? Epicurus would have fared well, I think, seeing as his philosophy was based on the idea that pleasure and pain are so important to human existence that all our actions are governed by a search for the former in order to evade the latter. Last spring, my own epic hunt to acquire what seemed to be modest ingredients by any stretch of the imagination said much about my capacity for both pain and pleasure. Never have I identified so strongly with my distant hunter/gatherer ancestors.

Screeds have been written about comfort food during lockdown. It has been a time of loss, pain, fear, and – to a certain extent – boredom and this is where baking to console comes into play and why, despite the lack of icing sugar and flour in local stores, I embarked on my own odyssey to make a regional American recipe that I think has one of the maddest names I have ever heard – the St Louis Gooey Butter cake. If comfort is sugar and fat loaded with the sweet baby scent of vanilla, then this cake (which is really a traybake) is its platonic ideal. It involves the moulding of soft, squidgy dough, Pat-a-Cake style, and a metronomic stirring of a sweet, custardy topping that even after baking, slips and slithers and squidges each time you take a bite. This is messy play for adults who are tired and do not want to be adults anymore because the world has been a binfire of late. St Louis Gooey Butter Cake is my epicurean moment in its purest expression. I make it because I seek pleasure.

The birth of the Gooey Butter Cake involves one of those lovely and quite possibly apocryphal stories whereby an overworked chef messes up a recipe he or she has otherwise executed perfectly and by rote for many years. Go back to the Depression years in the city of St Louis, Missouri, and a German American baker who (possibly) transposed the proportions of butter to flour to sugar and made the best of the resulting baked and sticky mess by selling it anyway. He birthed a hyper-local phenomenon and to this day, commercially baked St Louis Gooey Butter Cake is rarely seen away from its home region. This is as perfect a metaphor for lockdown as I can imagine. Originally, I referred to it as a St Louis Ooey Gooey Butter Cake, but I have been advised by the journalist Emily Christensen, a native of the city, that she has never heard of it being called anything other than butter cake. (She also told me how Harry Connick Jr shared a pan of the cake with the audience at a concert he gave at Powell Hall.) I still have a soft spot for the alliterative ridiculousness of ‘St Louis Ooey Gooey Butter Cake’ but for the sake of accuracy, I have dropped the ‘Ooey’ even though Dr Denise Low, the former Kansas Poet Laureate and academic, told me about a version she had heard about called ‘Ooey Gooey OOO! St Louie’ so now that is in my head too.

Saint Louis Gooey Passionfruit and Butter Cake (45418584)
Saint Louis Gooey Passionfruit and Butter Cake (45418584)

St Louis Gooey Butter Cake is regional Americana at its most nostalgic and charming and its evolution offers a case history of changing kitchen habits and tastes as seventies food columns from a local newspaper, the St Louis Post-Dispatch, were collated into cookbooks in the early eighties showcasing recipes from Missouri. It was these books that took Gooey Butter Cake from its original inception (scratch-baked in commercial kitchens possibly with a yeast-raised dough reflective of the German-influenced baking industry in the city), to something more time-economical as St Louis natives and the city’s diaspora attempted to recreate the flavours of home in their own kitchens. Eventually, boxed yellow cake mix or, as Richard Sax says in his book Classic Home Desserts, “store-bought yeast coffee cake or Danish that’s cut up and snugly fit into a buttered cake pan” became acceptable to use as a base over which the wibbly top layer was poured then baked. Nowadays, recipes seem to be split between a made-from-scratch yeasted dough base (Shauna Severs’ version in her book Midwest Made is baked this way), a shortcake-style base (Gabrielle Langholtz’s recipe in America: The Cookbook uses this technique), or the afore-mentioned cake mix, the darling of church cookbooks. Furthermore, some commercial bakers in St Louis do not use cream cheese in the top layer, whereas quite a few home bakers do, but the versions sold by St Louis grocery chains might use a slightly different recipe based on corn syrup, glycerine and powdered eggs. It is important to point out that no two recipes are the same which, for me, is the very definition of a hyper-local food; lots of variations on a theme and passionate arguments as to what is the ur-version. I make no claims for mine; it contains passionfruit which is totally inauthentic.

I have tried several recipes and those enriched with cream cheese over a shortcake-style base are my favourite because what you end up with is a kind of cheesecake-custard hybrid. Initially, I was reminded a little of an English custard tart so my original recipe, which was published in The Lockdown Cookbook edited by Catherine Gleave, was flavoured with nutmeg and lemon. This updated version contains the aforementioned passionfruit which cuts the richness to a degree, but you’ll still need to serve St Louis Gooey Butter Cake in tiny squares. It freezes well – some people eat it straight from the freezer and I can confirm that this has its charms too. I did think about reducing its sugar, but the last year has not been the time to feel guilty about a small square of rich gooey indulgence.

SAINT LOUIS GOOEY PASSIONFRUIT AND BUTTER CAKE

Make this cake the day before; it needs some time to settle into a squidgy, custardy glory.

Ingredients

For the base:

160g plain flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

¼ teaspoon salt

110g granulated sugar

110g soft salted butter

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

¼ teaspoon lemon oil extract

1 large egg beaten (you will need 4 eggs in total; 1 for the base, 3 for the topping)

60ml milk

For the topping:

3 large eggs, beaten

225g cream cheese, softened

Finely grated zest of one medium lemon

The pulp and seeds of 2 small passionfruit

450g icing sugar

Method

Preheat the oven to 350F/180C degrees and prepare a 24cmx24cm baking pan by lining it with parchment paper. Leave the excess slightly hanging over its edges so you can grasp the paper to lift out the bars easily once they are baked and cooled.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside. In the bowl of an electric stand mixer (or by hand), beat sugar, butter, vanilla, lemon oil and one egg together on medium-high speed until pale and fluffy. Reduce the speed to low, and gradually add in the flour mixture, along with the milk, until just combined and a soft dough is formed. Press the dough into the bottom of the baking dish.

Wash out the mixing bowl and then add cream cheese. Beat on medium-high speed, adding the remaining three eggs one at a time, mixing well in between. Turn the mixing speed to low and slowly add the icing sugar, mixing until smooth. Stir in the passionfruit pulp and seeds and the finely grated lemon zest. You can mix by hand too.

Pour the cream cheese mixture over the dough, spreading it to the edges evenly. It will be quite runny.

Bake at 350 degrees for 40-50 minutes or until the top is golden brown and retains a little wobble. Keep an eye on it because ovens vary.

Cool completely at room temperature. Lift the cake out of the pan then cut the cake into squares as big or small as you like.

Follow Nicola on Twitter: @Nicmillerstale

Winner of the Guild of Food Writers Online Food Writer Award 2020