Gooey Lemon Butter Cake

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I featured a recipe story by LRF blogger Barbara Revsine about the St. Louis-style Gooey Butter Cake that baker Kate Neumann revived at Chicago’s Lula Cafe. Ever since, gooey cake, with its pudding-like filling, has popped up with uncanny frequency during unrelated interviews I’ve had with other chefs. Given all that chef-cosmic synergy, it seems prudent to just go with it. So here we go gooey again. This time, with Helen Fletcher’s Brioche-Crusted Lemon Gooey Butter Cake.

First a little more history: Back in the 1930s, there were two types of butter “smears” used to top coffee cakes made at bakeries: deep butter for deep butter cakes, and gooey butter, sticky enough to keep toppings (peanuts, coconuts, crumbs) in place. As the story goes, a new baker at John Hoffman’s St. Louis bakery was busy baking some deep butter cakes when he reached for the wrong smear. The gooey result proved such a popular coffee cake, gooey butter cakes were soon being baked all over St. Louis.

Helen Fletcher’s bakery Truffes, which she operated in St. Louis for 23 years, was no exception. Like the others, Helen’s gooey butter cake was made on a yeast crust and topped with a butter smear. But not satisfied to stop with the standard, Fletcher decided she’d go one better, building the cake on brioche dough (her brioche was once featured in an 1986 issue of Bon Appetit.) She also included dollops of lemon curd in the gooey butter filling. The spiffy result manages to be sophisticated, decadent and free-form all at the same time—worlds better than the “cream-cheese- and yellow-cake-mix” versions floating around the internet.

But Helen’s cake does require time and patience. The brioche dough needs to be refrigerated over night before baking, and the lemon curd is cooked in a double boiler. To make it more doable, you can prepare the three components of the cake separately, at different times, as long as you finish the cake within a three-day span: lemon curd, butter smear, and brioche crust.

Makes 2, 7-inch cakes

Brioche Ingredients

  • 1 tsp active dry yeast
  • 2 Tbsp warm water
  • pinch of sugar
  • 2 1/2 cups sifted bread flour
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp sugar
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 1/2 sticks butter, very cold
  • 3 eggs, room temperature
  • 1/4 cup light cream, or half and half, room temperature

Lemon Curd Ingredients

  • 2 whole eggs
  • 3 egg yolks
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup freshly-squeezed lemon juice
  • 1 stick unsalted butter

Gooey Butter Filling Ingredients

  • 1 1/4 cups sugar
  • 1 stick butter
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 egg
  • 2 Tbsp corn syrup
  • 1 cup plus 2 Tbsp flour
  • 1 Tbsp water
  • 2 tsp vanilla


  1. Make brioche: (Note: This must be refrigerated overnight, so, prepare a day in advance of when you want to bake the cake.) In a small bowl, place 3 Tbsp of flour from the measured flour, yeast and a pinch of sugar. Stir in 2 Tbsp of warm water and cover with shrink wrap. Let rest 15 to 20 minutes, until doubled in bulk.In a food processor fitted with the steel blade, place remaining flour, salt and sugar. Pulse five seconds to mix. Cut cold butter into 3/4 inch pieces and place in a circle over dry ingredients. Process until butter is indistinguishable, about 20 seconds. Scrap down processor bowl and process 20 seconds more. Place eggs (minus shells) in a circle over mixture, pour cream over and add the yeast sponge. Process 25 seconds until dough gathers into a creamy, evenly dispersed batter, forming a ring around the blade. The batter will be sticky. Remove and place in an ungreased bowl. Cover with plastic wrap pushed directly onto dough. Cover bowl with towel. Let rise 2 1/2 to 3 hours until doubled in bulk. Stir down with a spoon, cover again with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. Dough may or may not rise again in refrigerator. It doesn’t make a difference. Deflate dough and use as directed. NOTE: dough may be held in the refrigerator up to 3 days before baking.
  2. Make the Lemon Curd: Place eggs and yolks in top of a double boiler. Whisk to combine. Whisk in sugar and lemon juice. Add butter. Place over hot water and stir constantly, heating mixture to 178 degrees on a candy thermometer. Mixture will be thick and creamy. Yum! You’ve made lemon curd :) Pour into a storage container. To keep the curd from forming a skin before you use it, cover the surface of the curd with plastic wrap, press right onto the curd, than cover with the storage container lid. Refrigerate.
  3. Make Gooey Butter filling: In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine sugar, butter and salt until creamy. Add egg and corn syrup, beating just to combine. Add remaining ingredients and mix to combine.
  4. Assemble cake: Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Spray two 8-inch springform cheesecake pans with cooking spray. Set aside. Divide brioche dough in half. Place one of the balls back in the fridge. Spread counter with plastic wrap. Place one of the balls on the wrap and flatten into a disk. Cover with more wrap and working quickly, roll the dough out into a 13-inch circle. The dough will be thin. Peel off the top layer of wrap. Invert one of the springform pans over the center of dough. Flip over. Ease brioche into pan. Remove the rest of the plastic wrap. Spoon some of the gooey butter filling into the bottom of the crust. Spread to even out a bit. Using the back of a wooden spoon, make three wells in the gooey butter filling. Pour about 2 Tbsp lemon curd into each. Drop more gooey butter filling over the top and spread as best as you can. Pull the brioche dough over the edges of the filling in a free-form crust. The brioche won’t cover all of the filling–there will be about a 4-inch circle of filling showing.Repeat process with other cake. Lightly cover both cake-filled springform pans with a towel and let cakes rise for 20 minutes. Bake for 30 minutes. Allow to cool slightly; remove sides of springform pans. Slide each cake onto a rack and sprinkle with powdered sugar. Place on serving platter and serve.

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