Thursday, September 30, 2010

St. Louis gooey butter cake

What a wet and dreary Thursday morning!  Yuck!  But what a deep incredible sleep I got last night... isn't that always the case?  Rain is just the perfect white noise, drowning out traffic and other night noises in the city.  So, I woke up super rested, happy, and, naturally, starving.  It would've been a good morning for French toast but I was simply too lazy for that.  :)  Really, though, I longed for a piece of this cake, except I finished it off for dessert last night.  Dessert for breakfast?  Heck yes.  Especially one that involves the words gooey, butter, and cake.  Think coffee cake but so much better.  So so so much better, friends.  Instead, I ate my fill of warm oatmeal and trudged to work in my rain boots, dreaming of this cake and when I will see it again.

This cake had probably served the longest sentence in the black hole of recipes to make... and what an undeserved punishment that turned out to be.  For months, every time I saw it, my heart began to race and my mouth watered at the very thought of a cake meant to showcase butter and sugar.  Tales of its deliciousness could be found all over the interwebs, and yet it remained unbaked.  Why?  For some unfortunate reason, my brain kept getting the better of me.  "Katy, you need a good reason to bake a full cake.  Wait for a party or occasion."  My heart would argue, "No!  Halve the recipe!  Then it's appropriate for everyday consumption."  And, still, my brain would barge in like a bull in a china shop and dismiss all romantic notions of baking a cake just for the sake of pleasure.  Stupid brain.  You should know that it's since been relegated to a corner in my apartment for an indefinite period of time.

Once my senses of smell and taste got the better of me, I went to work on this cake.  Necessity may be the mother of invention, but I think mistakes are the fairy godmother of kitchen successes.  Though alterations in cooking usually fare better than the same during baking (nobody likes a fallen cake), sometimes minor lack of planning or a mix-up and a little luck yields a fantastic new surprise.  And so goes the story of the St. Louis butter cake.  Apparently, around 1943, a baker working at the St. Louis Pastries Bakery had a mix-up with the traditional butter cake batter, supposedly reversing proportions of sugar, butter and flour for the top layer.  What resulted was certainly different than what he'd intended to bake but decided to sell the cake to customers anyway.  It was such a hit that, voile, a new cake was born!

It's truly unlike anything I've ever tasted.  The bottom half is a yeast-based dough that bakes into a barely sweet almost bread-like and super buttery textured cake.  It provides enough structure that the cake can be eaten cut up, a la brownies or bar cookies.  The corn syrup-sugar-butter mixture bakes into this light and fluffy sweet topping.  When it first comes out, the top has a crunchy crust, similar to creme brulee.  Bite through it and you enter a world of chewy gooey sweetness, like the inside of a toasted marshmallow or fresh cotton candy.  Dee-lih-shuss.  If you're still curious about this cake, you should be -- use that curiosity as motivation to make this.  Don't dare wait as long as I did... that's just cruel :)

St. Louis Gooey Butter Cake
(adapted from The New York Times)
-yields 24 squares by my cutting skills

A few notes: Do not overbake this cake!  You want the center to be gooey and the top and edges to be just golden brown, not brown.   And while the crunchy chewy top will only be crunchy the day it's been made, I'd argue (and Matt agrees, too!) that the overall taste of this cake improves overnight and is better the next day.  Oh and heads up, I've made a pumpkin version of this for Thanksgiving in years past, so look for that this fall!

For the cake:
3 Tablespoons milk, room temperature (2% worked fine)
1 3/4 teaspoons active dry yeast (1 packet)
6 Tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
3 Tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt (or 1/2 teaspoon table salt)
1 large egg
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

For the topping:
3 Tablespoons + 1 teaspoon light corn syrup
2 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
12 Tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (1/4 teaspoon table salt)
1 large egg
1 cup + 3 Tablespoons all-purpose flour
Confectioner's sugar, for dusting

In a small bowl, mix milk with 2 Tablespoons warm water.  Add yeast and whisk gently until it dissolves.  Mixture should foam very slightly.

In the large bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream butter, sugar and salt.  Scrape down sides of bowl and beat in the egg.  Alternately add flour and milk mixture, scraping down sides of bowl between each addition.  If you have it, switch to the bread hook attachment on your mixer.  Beat dough on medium speed until it forms a smooth mass and pulls away from sides of the bowl, 7 to 10 minutes.  (If dough is still a bit sticky, add flour 1 teaspoon at a time and mix for another minute.  This should help the smooth mass of dough develop.)

Press dough into an ungreased 9-by-13-inch glass baking dish at least 2 inches deep.  Cover dish with plastic wrap and put in a warm place (I chose my stovetop), allowing to rise until doubled, 2 1/2 to 3 hours.

Heat oven to 350F.  To prepare topping, in a small bowl, mix corn syrup with 2 Tablespoons of water and the vanilla.  Using an electric mixer with paddle attachment, cream butter, sugar and salt until light and fluffy, 5 to 7 minutes.  Scrape down sides of bowl and beat in the egg.  Alternately add flour and corn syrup mixture, scraping down sides of bowl between each addition.

Spoon topping in large dollops over risen cake and use a spatula to gently spread it in an even layer.  Bake for 40 to 45 minutes; cake will rise and fall in waves (very cool to see!) and have a golden brown top, but will still be liquid in center when done.  Allow to coll in pan completely before sprinkling with confectioner's sugar for serving.

Store, covered, for up to 3 days -- but know that I laughed out loud as I typed out that part.  There is no way in h-e-double-hockey-sticks it will last that long, trust me.

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