August 22nd, 2011
This cake, a riff on a traditional St. Louis gooey butter cake, is out of control. In a good way. The bottom layer is a humble yeast-risen number that might feel boring on its own, but turns out to be the perfect foil to the spiced gooey topping that lays over it. And then the sour cherries—yes, cherries—bursting with tart juice, a perfect reprieve from the brazen sweet of the double layers.
Near perfection—for which, by the way, I cannot take much credit. This cake is barely adapted from one printed in the New York Times where Melissa Clark adapted it from Molly Killeen. My touch was only to dot the cake with cherries and spike the gooey dough with cinnamon and cardamom. Though the taste is out of this world, I can barely call it genius, especially given that cherries are out of season.
I know! How dare I use out of season produce. You might even call it selfish to dip into my frozen stash of sour cherries and flaunt it like this. Unless, of course, you can get your hands on frozen cherries, too. Huh?! I think that you might be able to swing that. Then we’re cooking. Then you can call me genius all you want. Or not.
I’ve been wanting to make a St. Louis gooey butter cake for a long time now, since reading about it—and spying these drool worthy photos—at Smitten Kitchen. A cake that commands the word gooey not just in its description, but its name. Who doesn’t need to make one of these?
My opportunity to pay cake homage to St. Louis came on a rainy summer afternoon a couple of weeks ago, when the Hungry Boy and I decided that a cooking project was the only way to save the day. We’d just come back from a long weekend at the beach and our cupboard was bare. There was only butter, sugar, egg, flour and more butter. Pretty much everything you need to make a gooey butter cake.
With much gusto and without much forethought, I gathered my baking staples, set up a station and called the Hungry Boy. He patiently waited as I scanned the recipe—I hadn’t done that yet—and then I realized that the recipe called for yeast.
I always have yeast in my pantry. That wasn’t a problem, but asking the Hungry Boy to be patient while the dough expanded… on a rainy day… when the whole point of baking was to pass time quickly… that was definitely maybe a big problem.
We charged ahead anyway and, as it turns out, fate was on our side. Just as we set the dough aside, the Hungry Baby woke from his nap and the sun came out from behind the clouds. Everyone got dressed and we hit the backyard for some soggy fun. By the time we got back in and washed up, the yeast had done its job and it was time to make the gooey dough. We combined butter with other stuff; added cinnamon and cardamom; sloppily spread a layer over the puffed cake batter; and dotted the whole thing with defrosted sour cherries.
The rain returned as we sprinkled the cooled cake with snowy sugar, more relentless than before. (You can tell that it was dark out from my photos!) Somehow it seemed fitting to eat our gooey butter cake with grey clouds overhead, the sweet silver—and cherry red—lining of the day.
A note about cherries and another idea for you
If you don’t have a stash of frozen cherries from the farmers market in your freezer, take note that you should next year. You can literally wash the cherries and throw them in a freezer bag; you’ll pit them once defrosted. If you’re the prepare ahead type, pit the fresh cherries before freezing.
Frozen cherries are also pretty easy to find at the supermarket. They probably won’t be the sour kind (that’s ok) but they should be organic. Though cherries didn’t make the 2011 Dirty Dozen list, they’ve been on the list in years past. If for whatever reason cherries are out, try raspberries. They’ll work great and are, um, in season.
Sour Cherry St. Louis Gooey Butter Cake
very barely adapted from the NY Times
yields 16-20 servings
(can be shared with kids 12+ mos)*
For the cake:
3 tablespoons milk, room temperature
1 3/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 large egg
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
For the gooey topping:
3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon light corn syrup
2 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup plus 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground cardamom
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 large egg
about 2 cups pitted (defrosted, if necessary) sour cherries, see note above for substitutions
Confectioners’ sugar, for sprinkling
1. In a small bowl, mix milk with 2 tablespoons warm water. Add yeast and whisk gently until it dissolves. Mixture should foam slightly.
2. Using an electric mixer with paddle attachment, cream butter, sugar and salt. Scrape down sides of bowl and beat in the egg. Alternately add flour and the milk mixture, scraping down sides of bowl between each addition. Beat dough on medium speed until it forms a smooth mass and pulls away from sides of bowl, 7 to 10 minutes.
3. Press dough into an ungreased 9-by 13-inch baking dish at least 2 inches deep. Cover dish with plastic wrap or clean tea towel, put in a warm place, and allow to rise until doubled, 2 1/2 to 3 hours.
4. Heat oven to 350 degrees. To prepare topping, in a small bowl, mix corn syrup with 2 tablespoons water and the vanilla. In another bowl, combine flour, cinnamon and cardamom.
5. 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 mixtures, scraping down sides of bowl between each addition.
5. Spoon topping in large dollops over risen cake and use a spatula to gently spread it in an even layer. Dot the whole cake with cherries. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes; cake will rise and fall in waves and have a golden brown top, but will still be liquid in center when done. Allow to cool in pan before sprinkling with confectioners’ sugar for serving.
*Note: Though there is nothing in this cake that is unsafe to feed little eaters, I recommend sharing this with kids 12+ mos and up due to the high sugar content. No matter with whom you choose to share this cake, be sure to serve age appropriate portions. A little bit of this treat goes a long way with kids.