The Wrong Schmear Created the Gooey Butter Coffee Cake


Growing up with Grandparents who owned a bakery, Ling’s Pastry Shop, in Dayton, Kentucky, and an uncle that owned Ling’s Flour Shoppe, in Ft. Mitchell, Kentucky, I certainly was exposed to the arts of pastry and cakemaking.     My career height rose to  icing apple and cherry turnovers on a Saturday with my grandpa, helping out at my uncle’s bakery. My grandfather had learned from German immigrant bakers at the Cookie Jar on Monmouth Street in Newport, Kentucky, after he had returned from World War II, where he served as a cook at the Army Training Camp in Ft. Claiborne, Louisiana.    Grandpa and Grandma operated the  bakery for nearly thirty years, bringing German pastries, over the top wedding cakes, and cheeky holiday cakes to Northern Kentucky residents from one bend in the Ohio river to the other.


Grandpa finishing up a wedding cake.

As a kid there was still a culture of coffee cakes at breakfast, at least on Sundays and holidays.    The low carb, health conscious education in America has successfully killed our coffee cake culture.   Grandpa and my uncle had loads of coffee cakes in their bakery cases, cinnamon crumble, all sorts of danish, the pinwheel, which was a combination of cherry, apricot and blueberry filling in one cake.   That was my favorite, because you could cut a piece in a way that you got a bit of all three flavors on one delicious pastry shell.  But the most popular selling cake, and probably the most unhealthy of all was one called the candied butter coffee cake.


Grandma third from left with her crew

It was fairly simple and just what its name implied – a candied, gooey butter filling housed in a buttery Danish pastry shell.    It was sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar and sold in about 8” square  or round sized cakes.    I know it sounds more like something Paula Dean created – it contained more than a few sticks of real butter.   It was tough to get one of these at home, because there were never any leftovers at the bakery.     It’s no surprise why it became so popular in the towns along Kentucky Route 8 that hugged the Ohio River.  But since my uncle sold his bakery, I’ve never seen a candied butter coffee cake anywhere in Cincinnati or Northern Kentucky.  While Cincinnati, with its German heritage  has some very popular local pastries like the Christmas stollen or the Original Virginia Bakery schnecken, the candied butter or gooey butter coffee cake is not something I’d ever seen outside of my family’s bakery.


However, St. Louis, Missouri has a deep local tradition of the gooey butter coffee cake and its many variations.      The gooey butter coffee cake is to St. Louis what the sachertorte is to Vienna, Austria – it’s the pastry of the people, although the Sachertorte is 100 years older than the gooey butter.    The standard lemon bar, of which Duncan Hines now has a boxed version, is actually a variation of the gooey butter coffee cake, with more of a pie crust than a Danish crust.


So how did the gooey butter coffee cake originate, and how did it end up in Dayton, Kentucky?

One local baker in St. Louis, John Hoffman, credits his bakery to its origin in the 1930s.   In baking there are two types of butter schmears for coffee cakes – a gooey butter and a deep butter.     The deep butter was used in deep butter coffee cakes.   The gooey butter was more sticky and used as an adhesive for stollens and Danish rolls.   The cake was schmeared with gooey butter and it was placed in coconut, hazelnuts, peanuts, or whatever was desired to stick to the surface of the cake.


Herr Hoffman hired a new baker who was trained to make deep butter coffee cakes.   This baker got the two schmears mixed up and  used the wrong one in a batch.   He caught the mistake only after the cakes came out of the proof box.   Because it was the Depression, Hoffman decided to be thrifty and bake up these hybrid cakes anyway.    The new cake sold so well, Hoffman continued their production, and other St. Louis bakeries stole the idea.


Today in St. Louis area groceries sell fresh or boxed gooey butter cakes.   Haas baking, for example, sells a widely distributed square packaged version.    Ann and Allen baking has 50 varieties of gooey butter cake, ranging from blueberry to chocolate ganache.   Panera Bread Company, originally the St. Louis Bread Company, makes a gooey butter Danish for the St. Louis market.    Even Walgreens sells wrapped individual slices of St. Louis gooey butter cake as a snack alongside muffins, brownies, and cookies.


But how did this gooey butter cake travel from St. Louis to Dayton, Kentucky?    Well, there was a traveling baking supply salesman who stopped at my grandparents’ bakery every several weeks as he toured his Midwest territory.   He was always touting some new icing or fruit filling that could create the next best selling product.  My grandmother, acting as marketing manager, always convinced my grandfather to try these new products whenever they were shown by this salesman.    Grandpa would figure out how to incorporate them into a product, he’d make a few, put them out as samples, and if they were popular, they would become part of the standard products.


It’s my guess that this travelling salesman was who introduced Grandma to the gooey butter filling.  He saw its popularity in St. Louis, and was trying to profit on its coattails by bringing it to other bakery markets in his territory.  It indeed became a standard product and one of the most popular at their bakery.   Grandma said in addition to their lower prices it was always trying these new products that set them apart from their competition in Northern Kentucky.   But despite it’s gooeyness, it didn’t stick in the Greater Cincinnati area, and the Northern Kentucky Candied Butter Coffeecake passed with the passing of Ling’s Flour Shoppe.


2 thoughts on “The Wrong Schmear Created the Gooey Butter Coffee Cake

  1. From Jeanne via Facebook:

    I stand corrected – there were other German bakeries in Cincinnati that made gooey butter coffee cake…..

    “The gooey butter coffee cake at Shultz’s Pastry Shop (on Hamilton Avenue in Pleasant Run) was the best!!”


  2. That same salesman must have went across the river to St. Bernard’s Pracilla’s bakery. It too specialized in German pastry and my favorite was the gooey butter. As another article reminded me it came in a white box cross tied with string. So much so I have been trying to recreate it in the kitchen. That thick butter glaze not quite a custard in a pastry like coffee cake. Yum.


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