Sunday, 11 September 2011

Fall Nostalgia Favorites: Gooey Butter Cake

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Well, it's starting to get fall-y again out there – the wind is picking up, leaves are already beginning to litter the sidewalks, and the humid midday gloom is replaced with cool, breezy evenings.  This time of year always makes me feel massively nostalgic, both for San Francisco, my heart's forever home, and for St Louis, where I went to college and experienced many wonderful autumn seasons.  The minute that fall bite hits the air I start craving long, leaf-crunching walks through residential streets, hot apple cider, and gooey butter cake, best consumed sitting in the window at Kaldi's, watching the dusk fall on the seminary park outside.

Gooey butter cake is a St Louis institution.  It tastes as good as it sounds (does what it says in the tin, as the Brits say): gooey, sweet, buttery, with a crisp top and a soft cakey bottom.  It's divine.  So when I saw the recipe in the New York Times a while back, and then again on Smitten Kitchen, I bookmarked it immediately.  But it's pretty involved, and I'm generally pretty lazy, so it wasn't until this past week that I got around to making it.
I had a good excuse: a friend of mine from way back was visiting London to see her mancunian bf and try to find a job over here, and I'd invited them over for dinner.  I was on a high – after months of nonstop work, I'd just handed in my edited manuscript to my agent (with a new chapter written on the deadline day, because I'm insane), I'd finally gotten the flat tidy and clean, and I had a new lens for my camera which I was really excited to try out.  And with which I took this super blurry pic:

Hey, they can't all come out perfectly on the first try!  Anyway, sadly there aren't many great pics for this post, mostly because, again, we eat at night and I'm not talented/educated/dedicated enough with a camera to offset the darkness.

Anyway, on to the cake.  It wasn't as difficult to put together as I'd thought, but there was one big problem: the yeast part.

The bottom layer of this delightful concoction involves a yeasted base, and of course mine didn't really rise.  When I got desperate, I put it into a warmed oven, and it puffed up a bit, but by the time I really needed to get on with the other steps it was nowhere near doubled.  So that was kind of a problem...

Everything else went okay, though.  The topping came together easily, the crust was perfect when I took it out of the oven, and the flavor was good, if a bit sweeter than I would have liked.  The only bad part was the unrisen base, which was dense and just not very nice.  My guests were very kind and had seconds, so it couldn't have been awful, but it was most certainly not the gooey butter cake I'd been pining for.  Luckily they'd never had GBC, so at least there wasn't any comparison going on in their minds.

So that'll have to go in the 'try try again' file, but luckily the rest of the meal went well.  We made a huge salad (with avocados that actually tasted good!  Apparently the secret to decent produce over here is to buy minis – cherry tomatoes, mini avocados, tiny lettuces, etc), set out some delicious cheeses to start with, and kind of rocked the main dish: chicken cacciatore with soft polenta.

I'm not going to transcribe the recipe here, because I didn't actually make this dish (as so often happens with our dinner parties, I played hostess while the bf cooked), but I highly recommend visiting the link above and giving it a try.  It was really quite easy to put together, and tasted great.

So all in all it was a lovely evening.  Our guests brought some great wine, I was relaxed for the first time in months, and the bf made a splendid main.  I'll just have to work harder to make a more successful dessert next time...

Gooey Butter Cake
from SK, who got it from NYT

To make the cake:

In a small bowl, whisk until foamy and set aside:
     2 tablespoons warm water
     3 tablespoons milk at room temperature
     1 3/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
In an electric mixer with the paddle attachment (or with a hand-held), cream:
     6 tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature
     3 tablespoons sugar
     1 teaspoon kosher salt

Add and beat in:
     1 large egg

Add, alternating with the yeast mixture and scraping down the bowl between additions:
     1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour 

Beat on medium speed, replacing the paddle with a dough hook if desired, until the dough forms a uniform mass and pulls away a bit from the sides of the bowl.  Lightly grease a 9x13 glass baking pan and, when the dough is ready, pat and stretch it to fit the bottom of the pan.  Cover with plastic wrap and leave in a warm place to rise until doubled.  (Mine didn't rise well at all, which I blame on the crappy London weather – next time I'll create a warm space in my oven, and I won't be on such a time crunch.)

To make the topping

When the dough has risen, preheat the oven to 350F/175C and make the topping.  

In a small bowl, whisk until dissolved and set aside:
     2 tablespoons water
     3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon light corn syrup (or golden syrup)
     2 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

In a clean mixer bowl with a clean paddle, cream:
     12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
     1 1/2 cups sugar
     1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Beat in:
     1 large egg

Add, alternating with the corn syrup mixture and scraping down the bowl between additions:
     1 cup plus 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

Spoon the topping evenly over the risen dough and use a spatula to spread it into an even layer.  Bake for 30-45 minutes (mine was done at 30), until top is golden brown but still wobbly in the center.  Cool in the pan and sprinkle with powdered sugar.  (Obviously, I forgot this last bit – the bf even went and bought powdered sugar for me! – but I don't think it made much of a difference, besides visually.)

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