A few weeks back, I was watching Martha Stewart Bakes during which she made something I had never heard of in my forty-plus years as a chef–a Gooey Butter Cake.
It seems this cake was invented during the Great Depression in the 1930s by a German-style bakery located on the St. Louis South Side. And like a number of foods we enjoy today, the gooey butter cake came about quite by accident. While making a batch of standard coffee cake, the baker transposed the ratio of flour to butter, or maybe it was butter to sugar, but whichever it was resulted in a gooey, sticky mess. And times dictated the bakery try to sell the resulting mistake rather than let the product go to waste.
Oddly enough the new cake sold so well that the bakery continued making them. Soon other St. Louis bakers began producing their own versions of gooey butter cake, and what began as one baker’s accident became area icon.
As with most new foods that become popular, multiple claims of its origin begin to appear. The gooey butter cake is no exception. Two groups in particular lay claim to this iconic dish: the Danzer family and the Koppe family.
According to Richard Danzer, one Saturday morning in late 1942 or early 1943, St. Louis baker Johnny Hoffman messed up one of his recipes. Upon discovering the results were surprisingly tasty, he called his friend and fellow baker Herman Danzer, Richard’s father, and told him what had happened. The two bakers spent the rest of the day at Danzer’s shop trying to recreate Hoffman’s blunder. Just as they were finishing their final and successful effort, Melba Danzer came in to see what the two friends were up to. Upon tasting their creation, she exclaimed “this sure is gooey” and thus the name.
Herman Danzer died in 1997. Unfortunately, neither his son, Richard, nor his wife, Melba, had retained any of his recipes and therefore have no way of proving the accuracy of the story.
And then there is the Koppe side of the story as told by the daughter of Master Baker John Koppe who owned a bakery throughout the 1940s during WWII. It was during these years that John was to have developed the gooey butter cake. Following the war, Koppe sold his business and went to work for St. Louis Pastry Shop, giving them his recipe for this classic St. Louis specialty.
Again, there is no concrete evidence that shows John Koppe to be gooey butter cake’s inventor. Also, I find it intriguing that he gave his recipe to the same bakery owned by Johnny Hoffman.
If these two claims were not confusing enough, there is the distinct possibility that this St. Louis treat was actually created in Philadelphia. It seems that the Philadelphia Butter Cakes have been sold by the area’s German bakeries since the 1930s, although I find nothing to suggest that any particular bakery there makes claim to its origin.
There are two things upon which everyone seems to agree. The original gooey butter cake had a sweet yeast dough base with a topping made from corn syrup, sugar, vanilla, and of course butter. It was certainly not the modern version made today by some using cake mix base with a cream cheese topping. And while gooey butter cake is a type of coffee cake rather than a dessert cake, it can definitely be eaten at any time of the day.
Today you can find the gooey butter cake in bakeries all over the St. Louis area. There are also versions available nationwide, including a variety called the Paula Deen Baked Goods Original Gooey Butter Cake sold in Walmart stores throughout the country.
Another bakery, Ann & Allen Baking Company, sells a whopping 76 varieties of gooey butter cake marketed online in all 50 states. The company’s original version even won top prize in Food Network’s Food Feuds.
There seems to be a revival today of classic Americana sweets, and the gooey butter cake is just one example. I’ve added instructions for both the original and modern versions of this delicious yet unusual treat to the Recipe Index of this website for your convenience. I hope you’ll try baking one soon, and let your family find out what folks in St. Louis have known for more than eighty years–regardless of who the originator was, the Ooey-Gooey Butter Cake is one mistake worth making.