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Gooey butter - a taste of home goes big time

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: November 3, 2008 - When Dale Schotte took over Perk on the Park, a Lafayette Square coffee joint, in August 2006, the name change he implemented was a minor one; it became known, more straightforwardly, as Park Avenue Coffee. But the new slogan Schotte came up with spoke volumes: "Same good people, good coffee, good gooey butter cake. Good, good, good."

The clientele may have stayed the same, but Schotte's decision to begin selling house-made gooey butter cake was a newfangled, from-the-gut gamble on an old-fashion goody. And it paid off: By Schotte's estimation, Park Avenue Coffee has increased its cake production from 50 to 800 cakes a month in a little more than two years, selling its wares both in the shop and through the mail. Starting in October, Park Avenue Coffee also began supplying gooey butter cakes to all four local Straub's grocery stores, a deal that will ramp up that number to as many as 1,800 cakes a month. And then there's the upcoming holiday rush.

Says Schotte, hearkening back to his own slogan, "Gooey butter cake has been very, very good to us."

Schotte's not the only area entrepreneur benefitting from this evident renaissance. In the past two years, two bakery operations have opened, Gooey Butter Baker and Gooey Louie's, that offer the cake as their sole product. It has also begun to appear on the dessert menus of high-end restaurants, and earlier this fall, gooey butter cake debuted as an ice cream flavor in local Cold Stone Creamery stores. Clearly, St. Louisans are going gaga all over again for the gooey stuff.

What makes gooey butter cake stand out among the much-discussed pantheon of St. Louis foodstuffs - a list of culinary curios in turns vaunted and reviled by regional foodies that includes toasted ravioli, pork steaks, Provel cheese and St. Louis-style pizza - is that, until recently, it was difficult, if not impossible, to actually go out and buy a fresh gooey butter cake.

Folklore has it that gooey butter cake was invented in the 1930s in a South side, German-owned bake shop (by accident, when a baker screwed up the flour and sugar proportions for coffee cake). But with the general decline of independently owned bakeries over the past generation or two, it has become largely confined to home kitchens and hand-me-down recipes: a Mom-made specialty.

Simple twists and innovations on the traditional gooey butter cake have made it a more marketable product. The typical recipe includes a short list of basic, if diet-ruining, ingredients: flour, granulated sugar, eggs, cream cheese, butter, vanilla extract. Often baked in a nine-by-nine pan (the same dimensions as many coffee cakes), the result is a bottom layer of yellow cake (home recipes often call for yellow cake mix as a shortcut ingredient), a gooey layer above (derived from the butter, eggs and cream cheese), and a top dusting of confectioner's sugar.

When Lori Vargas, a.k.a. the Gooey Butter Baker, was making pastries for a West County cafe a couple years ago and was asked by her boss to start including gooey butter cake on the menu, she didn't know what that was. A native New Yorker, she relied upon her boss' home recipe as a jumping-off point. Quickly, she discovered that the recipe was "quite a platform that could be embellished upon. I found myself lying awake many, many nights thinking of new flavors."

She soon quit the cafe to found Gooey Butter Baker out of her home, which sells strictly through deliveries and mail orders, and has written recipes for 52 flavors - "plus a few more I haven't even published yet," she says. Many resemble other coffee cake flavors: apple cinnamon, pumpkin spice, caramel. A few are derived from candy bars: Heavenly Heath, Simply Snickers, Butterfinger and Almond Joy. Others just sound completely off the wall: Chai tea latte, Mango Madness, root beer float.

"Some people take exception to the fact that I've fooled with the norms of the original," says Vargas. " 'Gooey butter is gooey butter, how dare you,' they say, like I'm some sort of heathen. Others are like, 'I didn't know it came in 52 flavors.' I tell them they're right, it usually doesn't, I'm just some crazy person and this is what I came up with."

Starting out with his mother's recipes for traditional yellow and almost-as-traditional chocolate gooey butter cake, Schotte hired his sister away from Domino's Pizza to work as his "chief baker and culinary developer." They're now on par with Vargas' flavor output, having developed a stunning 64 varieties. (Many kinds, including Almond Joy, Butterfinger and that perplexing chai tea latte, are offered by both companies.)

Schotte notes that the traditional flavor is still his bestseller, if only because "that's what we recommend to anybody who has not tried gooey butter cake before." White chocolate raspberry, triple chocolate (made with Ghiradelli's chocolate) and pumpkin are also plenty popular.

Gooey Louie's, in contrast, offers only seven varieties, a few with clever-cute, locally inspired names, much like Ted Drewes' concrete creations just down the street: Chocolate Chippewa, Let's Go Blueberries, Highway 40: Driving Me Nuts. Debbie Stieferman, a former graphic designer who went into business with her husband in the fall of 2006 after their homemade cakes made a hit showing at that year's Best Of Missouri Market, says their limited menu is due to the fact that they're a walk-up, storefront business as well as a special-order one: "When we put a flavor out there, we want people to be able to come back in and get it anytime they want."

But what Gooey Louie's lacks in flavors, it makes up for in forms. The Stiefermans do strong business selling Gooey Butter Bites and brownie-sized Baby Louie's. In October, they began offering gooey butter cookies as well.

The changes make gooey butter cake an apropos item to serve as part of a dessert buffet or give as a wedding favor. (Single-size servings, it could be argued, also assuage the anxieties of the calorie conscious who may be too tempted by a whole cake.) Says Stieferman, "One of the problems with serving gooey butter cake is that it can get really messy, so these are nice ways to present it at a party."

Nostalgia is clearly another commodity in the gooey butter cake game. On Gooey Louie's website, there's a page for customers to share their gooey butter cake memories. Vargas estimates that half of her business comes from long-distance mail orders - and while she doesn't ask for such information, she guesses that they're all former St. Louisans. Schotte says he's sent cakes to St. Louis expats in London, Poland, Hawaii and Alaska, as well as to soldiers in Kosovo and Iraq.

"I hear lots of, 'Oh, my grandmother used to make them,' when people find out we carry gooey butter cakes," says Schotte. "Or, 'I remember my mom getting these at Lake Forest Bakery.' Sometimes people are just so surprised because they didn't think gooey butter cake was something you could get anymore."

Nostalgia, if not novelty, was also what prompted 1111 Mississippi, the five-year-old Lafayette Square restaurant that specializes in California-inspired, "wine country" cuisine, to buck its own gastronomical niche and put gooey butter cake on its dessert menu alongside creme custard Napoleon and balsamic strawberries served with a slice of polenta and a mint chiffonade.

Executive chef Bruce Piatek says the cake has "stuck out, for the better" on such a list, citing it as one of the more popular dessert choices. Adding to the dessert's inherent wistfulness is the fact that it's served with an "ice cold glass of milk," which Piatek considers practical as well: "It's so dense and sweet, it's like eating a big slice of brownie cake. It wouldn't go down as well without the glass of milk."

While sales locally continue to climb - Gooey Louie's furnishes the Whole Foods stores in Brentwood and Town and Country with its cakes, just as one example - there is an assumed ceiling to all this burgeoning popularity: everyone else in the world who has never lived in St. Louis, who didn't grow up on the stuff and therefore might not be so quick to embrace a foodstuff that is visually declasse and calorically offensive.

Then again, maybe not.

Former St. Louisan Marijean Jaggers, who still authors her St. Louis Working Mom blog even though she moved to Charlottesville, Va., almost three years ago, has blogged a few times about her long-distance cravings for gooey butter cake. She's even posted a recipe for the chocolate variety on her website.

When she first moved to Charlottesville, Jaggers made some gooey butter cakes as gifts to her new neighbors. The reaction? "They were just amazed and wanted the recipe immediately. Then they read the recipe, saw what was actually in a gooey butter cake, and were kind of shocked. Only one neighbor wound up making it."

Rose Martelli is a freelance writer.