Best Ever Gooey Butter Cake
Over several years, home baker Barbara Anderson has perfected this St. Louis classic, gooey butter cake.
Details are important to Barbara Anderson. As an accomplished home cook who raised two sons with her husband, Dave, while working for the Boeing Company, attention to detail became a necessary life skill. Fortunately, growing up in a family of six in south St. Louis, Missouri, Barb saw firsthand what went into running a large household.
“Mom was always in the kitchen,” Barb said. “She was a great cook and she had me help her. (I) started by peeling potatoes and watching her cook. We never had a dishwasher––that was me, or I was the dish dryer.”
After she married (the couple lives in St. Charles, Missouri), she had to feed “two hungry sons,” so Barb’s planning prowess naturally kicked in.
“I traveled a lot with my job and I would try to at least grill some meats so that Dave and the boys would have access to decent food when I was gone,” she said.
It’s easy to see how baking, which requires precision and detail work, would be this cook’s favorite thing.
“I love making cakes and cookies with the goal of giving them away. When I was working, I’d make cakes and desserts for my team. For retirement, they gave me a cake carrier that says ‘Cake Boss,’” she said.
“My team at Boeing was responsible for planning customer events—dinners, rollouts, ribbon cuttings, and air and trade shows. So naturally, most of them were foodies who loved to cook,” Barb said, adding there was a woman on her team who was an excellent baker.
“One day, she brought in her gooey butter and I fell in love. The filling was like a pudding and the crust was soft and golden brown, not at all like the commercially made gooey butter cakes that have a harder gel middle and tougher crusts,” Barb said.
Her team member shared her recipe and secrets, and Barb was determined to perfect her own gooey butter cake, which has been a St. Louis delicacy since the 1930s.
“I don’t know whether I’ve reached the same plateau as she has, but everyone raves about this cake. It’s one of my go-to recipes” Barb said.
I’ve eaten gooey butter cakes all my life (being born and raised in St. Louis, like Barb), and I can honestly say her cake is the best I’ve had. It’s better than most commercially made gooey butters and, while certainly sweet, it is balanced. If you’ve had gooey butter cake in the past but didn’t especially care for it, give her recipe a try.
Barb said her cake is a modified version of Paula Deen’s recipe. She said the most important thing is to bake the cake at 325 degrees; this reduced temperature (from the normal 350 degrees) protects the crust from getting tough, but allows the middle to cook to gooey perfection.
“Another secret to the gooey butter (and any doctored cake mix for that matter) is to add a cake extender,” Barb said. “I started doing this few years ago, after doing some reading on the internet, because I was frustrated at how thin my box cake layers seemed.”
Three-Ounce Cake Mix Extender
(Adapted from the Better Homes & Gardens new cookbook. This is for white or yellow cake recipes.) This makes six portions, which Barb keeps, proportioned in three-ounce amounts, in small jam jars.
1½ cups all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon baking soda
Directions: Whisk all ingredients together and store in a clean jar. Add three ounces to a 15¼-ounce cake mix.
(Note: For chocolate cake mixes, substitute approximately 25 percent (approximately 3 ounces) of flour with cocoa powder.
“I’ve become a big fan of doctoring cake mixes. It’s baking because you add a lot of your own ingredients but the results are so much more consistent,” she said.
In addition, she swaps two 8-inch or 9-inch pans for the traditional 9-by-13-inch pan when baking her gooey butter cakes. This allows for more crust in each cake and makes it easier for her to gift the second cake to friends and family. Barb said she always has a supply of foil pans from The Dollar Tree in her pantry, as well as all the ingredients for her signature cake.
“I put the new foils pans inside a set of old foil pans that I keep on hand. The thicker pan is stronger and bakes more easily. Once it’s cool, I separate the pans and keep the old set for another batch.” she said.
There’s that attention to detail again. And buying the one-pound box of powdered sugar at The Dollar Tree means less measuring; open the box, cut, and dump. “So much easier,” she said, adding most of her baking ingredients comes from either The Dollar Tree or Aldi’s.
I think this home cook’s straightforward and practical kitchen philosophy translates to other areas of her life. I’ve a longstanding friendship with Barb (we met in college). Maybe it’s because our families’ were “south side Germans,” working-class people who never skimped on generous hospitality, but I’ve always had a deep connection with her. We grew up with families who valued a good meal and loved sharing their food.
“My family gatherings always revolved around food. Barbecues with beer in the sauce during the summer, Christmas with my aunt’s bourbon balls and my mom’s Hungarian Horns,” she said. “Our family has a strong German heritage so there was lots of ‘pickled’ food and potatoes in every style.”
Her favorite meal featured her mom’s fried pork chops, mashed potatoes, gravy, and sweet sour green beans.
“Mom was always worried she would not have enough food. So when we’d have family over, she’d always tell us not to eat the mashed potatoes and save them for others. Of course, we ignored her! But it was her way of teaching us how to put others first,” she said.
And now that Barb and Dave are “empty nesters,” she said her biggest challenge as a cook is making a variety of food for two people without a lot of leftovers.
“I rarely cook dinner for us, maybe once a week or even less. It’s hard to cook for just two people and we have opposite tastes. But I love to host for family and friends for dinner or lunch; gives me a chance to experiment,” she said.
To new cooks, Barb’s recommendation is to invest in good equipment.
“And don’t put your pans and mixing bowls in the dishwasher. I hand wash all my cake and cookie sheet pans and my mixer’s bowl. The dishwasher can discolor the metal pans and pit the bowls,” she said.
It’s doubtful that the original German bakery employee on the south side of St. Louis knew their mistake in the kitchen would result in a cake that would become a favorite with generations of St. Louisans. Similarly, Barb Anderson may never knew how much happiness her gooey butter cakes have brought to folks over the years, but every bite reflects the love and care she pours into each one of them. And boy, are we grateful for that.
Gooey Butter Cake Cookies are ready in a snap. Find the recipe under the "Sweet Treats" tab.