When I moved to St. Louis, I sampled all the gooey butter cake I could find. I love when I visit a place with a signature, regional dessert--something that barely exists outside the city--and in the STL that dessert is, without question, gooey butter cake. Every grocery store bake shop stocks it in towers of aluminum 8x8” pans; entire bakeries are devoted to producing the cake in dozens of wild variations (one coffee shop boasts 76 flavors … and counting); and some nicer restaurants try to elevate it, foregoing the traditional square slice for a clean, sleek round. The sugary filling, the heavy dusting of powdered sugar, somewhere between a blondie and a nut-less slice of pecan pie in texture: I loved everything about gooey butter cake.
Then I discovered the cookie version.
In St. Louis, I frequented an old Irish pub in the Shaw neighborhood. It was one of those charming and truly one-of-a-kind places: half antique shop, half restaurant that served “the best burger in town,” according to some people (myself included). Even after a seriously good cheeseburger, sometimes--okay, most times--I still need my sweets. This pub’s dessert menu was simple: a little laminated card that hung from a hook in the wall beside each table. There were only a few items, but one of those was a gooey butter cookie. I’d never seen gooey butter cookies before. No details, no description: well, my curiosity was sure piqued.
What I discovered was that, for a dollar, you got served on an unassuming paper plate, pure vanilla gooey-ness, crisp edges, a top crackled with powdered sugar: the biggest, most delicious cookie ever.
From then on, every time I ate at the pub I asked about those cookies. I learned they were kept in a fridge behind the bar; that they were the pride and joy of one of the waitresses, who baked them at home and brought them in. (If this is true, it’s most likely illegal, but I don’t care. Just keep the cookies coming.)
Later, I discovered the secret to gooey butter cookies was, more often than not, cake mix. I was pretty sure when I ate them at the pub they were made with cake mix--their color was a little too yellow to be real. But at the time, despite all my questions, I never requested the recipe. Instead, I hit Google to start searching on my own.
One of my favorite things about being a pastry chef is a challenge. Every recipe I found on the Internet began with a boxed cake mix and ended with a bright yellow cookie. Now, I love shortcuts, but I was working at a James Beard-nominated restaurant at the time, the sort of place where skinned pigs hung in the walk-in cooler so chefs could butcher themselves: there was something that just didn’t feel right about making the waitress’s cookie. I couldn’t see myself bringing cake mix to the restaurant kitchen. What would people think?!
So I set to work developing a cake-mix-less cookie: I couldn’t be the only person who wanted a from scratch version. And, after lots of failed attempts, I cracked the cookie code--and discovered a handy homemade cake mix recipe in the process.
I lived in St. Louis for five years. I made some of my best friends there, and visit as often as possible. This cookie is my love letter to St. Louis--it’s almost as good as the original.
Gooey Butter Cookies
4 1/2 cups all purpose flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 pound cream cheese
2 sticks unsalted butter
3 cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Powdered sugar for rolling and dusting
Stir together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside. In the bowl of an electric mixer with the paddle attachment, cream the cream cheese, butter, and sugar together until fluffy. Add the eggs and vanilla extract. Incorporate the flour mixture. Chill for at least 30 minutes. Scoop roughly 1 ounce balls and toss in powdered sugar. Place on a baking tray a couple of inches apart. Bake at 350 degrees until they spread and puff slightly. They will be really soft in the center. If they start to brown, they've gone too far. Cool to room temperature. Dust with more powdered sugar. Transfer to an airtight plastic container and stick in the fridge. I suggest eating these guys ice cold.