The Murky Origins Of Regional Butter Cake Styles

As spoiled by its moniker, the famed gooey butter cake is precisely that — gooey as all get out, decadent, rich, and outrageously delicious. It is a dish that embodies an unparalleled indulgence, embracing simple ingredients to produce a trademark, unique cake that has been enjoyed for years on end.

Marvelously moist and dense, the cake requires nearly no toppings, garnishes, icings, or anything else to dilute its singular appeal, complete with a sticky, almost-chewy density and texture. Some powered sugar is common, and fresh fruit or mint can elevate the experience, but there's no means for any other additions. The cake stands on its own volition. 

Gooey butter cake is tried-and-true, but some people prefer the "Kentucky butter cake," while others swear by the St. Louis gooey butter cake. Interestingly enough, it is said that the first time a recipe akin to today's Kentucky butter cake recipe was published actually dates back to 1963 — and in Missouri. Nell Lewis competed in a Pillsbury Bake-Off, using her recipe for what would become Kentucky butter cake, and the rest is history, according to The Recipe Critic. The origins of the St. Louis gooey butter cake, on the other hand, get a bit fuzzy.

Kentucky or St. Louis?

What's Cooking America states that the cake itself is said to have originated by a St. Louis-based German baker in the 1930s. The baker was aiming to make a coffee cake and haphazardly wound up with a gooey butter cake. Another story notes that a different St. Louis resident developed the cake — and entirely intentionally. And those are only two of the stories: there is a slew of "origin" stories hailing from St. Louis by many people who swear that their relatives were indeed the true inventors of the iconic cake. 

Kentucky butter cake is essentially a pound cake made with buttermilk, vanilla, and heaps of butter. A St. Louis style cake is a bit different, so that's another way that one might also differentiate by the style of cake.

According to Fodors, the "true" St. Louis gooey butter cake is described as follows: "In its traditional form, the local delicacy combines a cookie-like bottom layer of sweetened yeast dough or cake mix, with a gooey middles section of butter, sugar, and eggs. A crunchy crust finishes it off, often with a dusting of powdered sugar. It's an unusual texture with a sweet, rich taste, similar to creme brulee or a super gooey brownie without the chocolate." Delicious!

Final takeaways

Clearly, Kentucky butter cake seems to be more in the vein of a bundt or pound cake, while the St. Louis original is more of a long, shallow cake that is cut into "bars" and then enjoyed by hand, like brownies or blondies. There are also numerous take-offs, such as chess pie, ooey gooey butter cake (which involves cream cheese), and yeast-risen quickbreads that are a more neutral or savory base and given a gooey, rich topping.

Interestingly enough, "Kentucky butter cake" seems to be a prevailing moniker, even with the apparently verified Missouri roots, with items like "Kentucky butter cake cookie" flavor at stores like Crumbl.

Albeit all of these origin stories, one thing remains the same: this no-fuss cake is a showstopper, complete with a decadent, rich buttery-vanilla sauce or syrup that runs throughout the moist cake. It's safe to say that the 'true' origins may be an amalgam of all of the purported tales.

You especially won't want to miss the parts in which the glaze or syrup creates a crackling, dense, chewy bite to perfectly counterbalance the sweeter, crumblier cake. It's an exquisite bite — we won't blame you if you're currently running to the kitchen (or store) to get your hands on one yourself.