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There’s a Mystery in St. Louis: Who Invented the Gooey Butter Cake?

Rich, sweet Gooey Butter Cake is a proud local staple of Missouri’s St. Louis, but where did it come from?

There are desserts famous for the way they look, like the dainty fruit tart or the gourmet mousse. There are some known for their intricate recipes; others beloved for their exotic, sophisticated flavors. Then there’s the Gooey Butter Cake. The St. Louis staple looks like a sort of heap on a plate. It’s a yellow slab of wobbly ooziness, a creamy mound of a concoction that resembles nothing else. And it’s absolutely delightful.

Head to St. Louis, Missouri, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a bakery that doesn’t sell Gooey Butter Cake by the flat, dense trayful. Market stalls across the city pack it and restaurants serve it up on plates–even the fancy ones. In its traditional form, the local delicacy combines a cookie-like bottom layer of sweetened yeast dough or cake mix, with a gooey middle section of butter, sugar, and eggs. A crunchy crust finishes it off, often with a dusting of powdered sugar. It’s an unusual texture with a sweet, rich taste, similar to creme brulee or a super gooey brownie without the chocolate. Mostly, the Gooey Butter Cake, or GBC, is enjoyed as a coffee cake (a strong, black beverage is often recommended to offset the sweetness) or at breakfast or brunch, and it comes as more of a bar than a cake slice.

Gooey Butter Cake purists swear by its humble simplicity, but a new generation of hybrids are growing in popularity with flavors from blueberry or lemon to peanut butter, and even red velvet. Local favorite Park Avenue Coffee famously sells 73 flavors (including “Mom’s Traditional,” of course) while Gooey Louie bakery sells nothing else. Why bother, right? There’s even a milkshake manifestation at Little O’s Old Time Soda Fountain and GBC ice cream flavors popping up. Over the years, adoration for the humble pud has generally remained in St. Louis, with other states and countries not quite getting it. But the gooey love is slowly spreading (like a plate of wobbly butter, if you will) with sales popping up in New York, Texas, and even Walmart. Thank you, Paula Deen.

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Pretty much every St. Louis bakery has its own proud recipe and locals have a loyalty to their favorite. It’s not just the establishments, either. Residents of the Gateway City have a long tradition of serving up Gooey Butter Cake at celebrations: it’s like Missouri’s answer to pumpkin pie. You’ll find a tray of the lovely dessert at family Thanksgivings, christenings, and birthday parties. Heck, McArthur’s Bakery even offers GBC wedding cakes.

It isn’t uncommon for families to have their own recipes, tweaked to taste and passed down through generations. Some use a base of yellow cake mix and a cream cheese topping, while others insist on a scratch recipe involving yeasted dough, sugar, eggs, a whole load of butter, plus several hours of prep time. And don’t get anyone started on where the best bit of the traybake is: oozing center or crusty corner? I hope you’ve set aside an afternoon.

Dale Schotte, CEO and founder of Park Avenue Coffee (and Ann & Allen, which ships GBC mix nationwide) told Fodor’s, “We hear stories every day from customers about how they remember staying over at grandma and grandpa’s house, and grandpa would go to the corner bakery and have a gooey butter cake warm from the oven for breakfast. It is a beloved STL dessert because it seems to bring back memories.”

It’s safe to say there really isn’t much else like GBC. But stranger still than its moreish texture, stickier and messier than the pudding itself, is the ongoing debate over the origins of this beloved creation. It’s thought it began in South St. Louis where a German community had settled and had become an important part of the city’s growing baking industry. One common tale dates back to the 1930s when it’s thought one baker was trying to make a standard coffee cake but accidentally reversed the amount of sugar and flour in the recipe. The fateful mistake allegedly saw the birth of this Missouri marvel. Another account says it was an ingredients mix-up for yellow cake with too much sugar, butter, shortening, or all three. As it was the Great Depression, bakers weren’t in line to waste anything and so they tried to flog it anyway. Unsurprisingly, it sold like hotcakes–gooey ones at that. Customers loved the texture and taste so much, the bakery was soon selling 250 per week. Federhofer’s Bakery claims to use the original recipe.

Another account says local baker Johnny Hoffman was making a deep butter cake when he accidentally added too much glycerin and not enough leavening. He was so enamored by the result, he called his friend Herman Danzer and the two bakers spent all day mixing and baking to try and recreate his new invention. When Herman’s wife Melba arrived amid the trials, she tried a spoonful and said, “It sure is gooey.” Thus, the unusual name. Sadly, Herman Danzer died in 1997 and neither his wife Melba nor son Richard has evidence to prove their story. But this is the tale that Park Avenue Coffee goes by. In fact, in October 2008, they invited Melba Danzer to their shop for her 91st birthday. Dale Schotte says, “She tried our Gooey Butter Cake and has given her approval for our recipe. She said, ‘This is very close to the original cake that was made by my husband.’ She also said ours was the ‘Best Gooey Butter Cake I’ve had, besides my own of course.’”

A third tale takes us back to World War II when three bakers–one allegedly being Bill Ozenkoski, who ran three bakeries in St. Louis and whose son Brent started Little O’s Old Time Soda Fountain–ran out of ingredients due to rationing. Improvising, they tried powdered sugar instead of granulated sugar and the mix went, you guessed it, brilliantly gooey.

Meanwhile, the daughter of John Koppe–a baker who owned St. Louis’ Knoppe Bakery in the 1940s and went on to work at St. Louis Pastry Shop, passing on the recipe–says her father was the original proprietor. She recalls childhood memories where customers spilled into the shop to get their hands on the gooey goodies.

In short, the sad truth is that we don’t, and may never know the definitive origins of this regional masterpiece. It’s never been historically verified despite many strong claims and opinions. For now, we reckon the only thing to do is head down to St. Louis, hit up the nearest bakery, and spend a gluttonous afternoon debating the birth of this lip-smackingly gooey plate of buttery delight, mind open and spoon firmly in hand.