Monday, September 17, 2007

The Gooiest

Nothing lightens up a blog like a heavy breakfast pastry. After losing myself to visions of colonial atrocities and the exploitation of my fellow humans, butter seems a salve for the soul, powdered sugar a celestial pollen. I choose to believe that heaven, as it concerns earth-bound beings, resides within. After a few days of intensive research, I understand that it also lives beside me on Saturday mornings, riding shotgun in a white bakery box.

If you’ve ever found yourself interned for a period at Lambert St. Louis International Airport, a sanctuary for underprivileged carpet and disheveled business travelers, you may have slipped, out of boredom, into a heated argument with a local resident over the merits and significance of your home metropolis or rural settlement as it compares with that minor civilization just beyond the tarmac.

You might’ve struck first with an award-winning contemporary art gallery or national archive, to which any St. Louisan, regardless of gender or age, would’ve replied, “We’ve got Pujols!” You could’ve countered with an affordable and extensive mass transit system, only to be interrupted mid-sentence by, “Provel cheese!” Just when you thought you were sweeping the debate, you might’ve attacked mercilessly with an excellent bagel or temperate climate conditions. The fallen local would’ve looked up at you from that sullen excuse for floor covering with what you might’ve assumed to be an expression of surrender. Then she or he would’ve pronounced three words—gooey, butter, cake—before you boarded your plane in defeat.

According to a local legend that I have made no effort to verify, this miracle of modern baking was just a mistake. I’m not sure how anyone, particularly a professional baker, mistakenly adds an entire box of powdered sugar and several extra sticks of butter to a basic cake recipe, but God bless that supposedly German-American baker, supposedly living in St. Louis in the 1930’s.

My mother says the best gooey butter cake used to be found at the Lake Forest Bakery in Clayton, but apparently her support wasn’t enough to keep their business afloat. Last Saturday I dropped by the Clayton Bakery, which is actually in Des Peres, to claim my family’s breakfast.

A traditional gooey butter cake starts with a foundation of yellow, bready cake. That’s the part you start discarding once you’ve moved beyond your third or fourth helping. The goo is what earned St. Louis its widely unrecognized distinction as the greatest baking city on the continent. In my grandmother’s recipe, it’s made of cream cheese, eggs and confectioner’s sugar (one freakin’ pound!).

If you’re worried that you’ve sprinkled on too much powdered sugar, take note that extended coughing fits are a natural consequence of accidentally breathing too close to the product.

For gooey butter purist, what I’m about to reveal may alarm and offend beyond all capacity for open-minded tolerance, but there is a cafĂ© in proximity to Lafayette Square that serves fifty-seven flavors of our city’s holy weekend sustenance. Forbid!

The place is called Park Avenue Coffee and is located on Park Avenue. So as not to overwhelm, they offer eight variants daily, with a cake in traditional form keeping them respectable. My mother, Aunt Sally and I shared only two pieces as it was the middle of the afternoon and we were inappropriately dressed in non-pajama clothing.

The triple chocolate chip was very tasty, but had shed its principal gooey traits in the evolutionary process.

The white chocolate raspberry, on the other hand, rocked, blending novel expressions of flavor with the essential viscous delirium.

Braver souls might choose to ford wider, more harrowing streams by sampling exotic riffs like banana split, root beer float, chocolate chip cookie dough (consult a physician first) or the thankfully seasonal, eggnog.

Regardless, if you're out of bacon and feeling famished, St. Louis provides.


Emily said...

Wow Ryan, you definitely have a way with words. I somehow have a greater appreciation for the coffee cake I didn't think I could possibly love any more. I will most certainly make my way over to Park Ave. Coffee, I just might not eat for a few days before I go. It really took me back when you mentioned the over-inhalation of powered sugar, I guess it comes with the territory. Hopefully your new place is working out well, keep in touch.-Emily

Edan said...

I can't believe I had toasted ravioli on my first visit to the S.L. (that stands for St. Louis, by the way--I'm trying to start a trend here) instead of this delicious gooey butter cake! I want one right now, please.

Anonymous said...

Ryan, what a fun, light hearted article! Of course FOOD, the "not good for you" kind, is always my favorite subject. I have enjoyed ALL of your entries! Keep up the good work! Aunt Sally

Anonymous said...

Your description and photos make Park Ave Coffee hit the "Destinations for Food" list! While living in Cincinnati many years ago, I discovered the only coffeecake to top the gooey butter. There was a bakery called Graeter's that made a Royal Danish Coffeecake that was supreme! If travel plans years later took us even within 50 miles of Cincinnati, it warranted a detour to Grater's. So many happy food memories! All the vegetarians will have to forgive me, but coffeecake makes me think of breakfast, which makes me think of bacon. Did you know there is a "Bacon of the Month" Club? Connie

Molly said...

Dear Butter Cake,

I went to St. Louis, I tried your goo. And then I went to Kirkwood, and I tried your goo again. And then again, at a poorly attended staff-room temp-staff potluck.

Thrice, Butter Cake, I tried your goo, and thrice I was unable to stomach you.

You are too sweet, Butter Cake. You demand too much of my heart, my belly.

You, Gooey Butter Cake, are not the cake I want to hold hands with in the early morning.

I'm sorry, Butter Cake, I thought you could be mine. I need a more sensible breakfast cake.

Regretfully yours,

catfather said...

The Graeter's chain of confectionery stores in Cincinnati -- the oldest continuing ice cream chain in the country (opened in 1870) still makes a gooey butter coffee cake snowed under a blizzard of powdered sugar. It is now called the Double Butter Coffee Cake, and is made fresh every day they bake -- Mon-Sat. While Graeter's does have franchise stores in Dayton-Columbus, Lexington-Louisville, and Northern Kentucky, only the family-owned Cincinnati and immediate surrounding stores carry bakery goods.

catfather said...
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