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Chicago Needs St. Louis Gooey Butter Cake, Grace's Gooey Founders Say

By Janet Rausa Fuller | February 25, 2016 5:59am

Grace's Gooey Butter Cake is indeed gooey and buttery. [DNAinfo/Janet Rausa Fuller]

LAKEVIEW — There are lessons to be learned and revelations to be had about St. Louis Gooey Butter Cake, and Maggie Martin would like to be the one to enlighten you.

Martin is one-third of Grace’s Gooey, a new business selling this one very gooey, very buttery item out of Lakeview Kitchen and Market, 3109 N. Broadway.

Her partners are her younger sister, Grace Bahn (the avid butter cake baker in the family), and their family friend, Laura Patterson. All three are from St. Louis, where eating the cake — at Grandma’s house, at bakeries, at weddings and wakes — comes as naturally as breathing.

If you also are from St. Louis or have spent a decent amount of time there, you know this to be true. If you are not from St. Louis, take notes.

As the story goes, St. Louis Gooey Butter Cake was a Depression-era accident. A baker muffed the proportion of key ingredients in his recipe. The result was a cakelike base under a mixture of butter, sugar and eggs that, through heat or alchemy, transformed into what could only be called a gooey butter cake.

Grace Bahn of Grace's Gooey, who baked a lot of St. Louis Gooey Butter Cake growing up, measures out a key ingredient: sugar. [DNAinfo/Janet Rausa Fuller]

It's kind of like other treats you know, and yet, it isn't. Martin insists it is better than the sum of them all.

“The inside is more like a dense, gooey, almost-cheesecake. But not as dense. And it kind of hardens on top and makes, like, a crunch,” Martin said. “A lot of times, people don’t know what it is, or think it’s a lemon bar, and it’s way better than a lemon bar."

In its native habitat, "It’s considered more of a coffee cake, a breakfast item,” she said.

And it is hardly anywhere to be found around Chicago because Chicago is not St. Louis. You can find it at Vie, if you feel like driving out to Western Springs. At one point, it was on the menu at CH Distillery but when the chef (a St. Louisan) left, so did the cake.

So, to fill the void and fill time during the summer when both Martin, a third-grade teacher, and Bahn, a high school counselor, aren't working, they started Grace’s Gooey last December.

Sisters and St. Louis natives Maggie Martin (l.) and Grace Bahn started Grace's Gooey in December, along with friend Laura Patterson (not pictured). [DNAinfo/Janet Rausa Fuller]

They initially thought they would sell at farmers markets until Martin researched the application process and realized it was more complicated than they thought.

At Lakeview Kitchen and Market, they rent kitchen time with about 20 other food startups. They bake once a week in the evenings after their day jobs (Patterson works in human resources).

The sisters have tweaked and finessed their mom’s recipe, which, like that of most St. Louis home cooks, incorporated cream cheese into the gooey top layer and called for a boxed cake mix for the base. Their version is from scratch.

One cake square is $3.50. They also make the cake in cookie form; a three-pack costs $3.50. For Valentine's Day, they did a red velvet version, and they've been experimenting with other seasonal flavors.

A display of Grace's Gooey cakes at Lakeview Kitchen and Market includes information on the cake's St. Louis origins. [DNAinfo/Janet Rausa Fuller]

The original cake doesn’t look like much more than a craggy square. It could pass for a blondie. It’s deceiving.

“It’s phenomenal,” said Wendy Grahn, co-owner of Lakeview Kitchen, adding that if you warm it briefly in the microwave, it’s even more phenomenal.

The only other time Grahn said she's had gooey butter cake was a few years ago at Park Tavern in Rosemont. She didn’t know what it was then, only that it wasn’t like anything she’d had before, and when she tried Grace's Gooey, she had the same visceral reaction.

Customers are “intrigued by it. They’re like, ‘What is this?’“ Grahn said. “But we sell a ton of it when we put it out as a sample."

While Grace’s Gooey is a side gig for now and the cake is only available at Lakeview Kitchen and Market, Martin and her partners don’t take the venture lightly. Their goal is to build a wholesale business, because if you’re going to make St. Louis Gooey Butter Cake, you have to nail it, and then you have to share it.

“You can’t get it anywhere. It’s not like this is mass-produced, so we wanted to get our act together and get it out there," Martin said.

There is a lot of butter in Grace's Gooey's St. Louis Gooey Butter Cake. [DNAinfo/Janet Rausa Fuller]

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