Matt Swanston: Gooey&Co Butter Cakes
Editor’s Note: We met Matt at one of our favorite places to eat, Barbuto, in New York. Somehow the conversation turned to his new-found calling: gooey cakes. Well, who isn’t curious to know more about gooey cakes?
Read what Matt had to say below.
OK, they’re called gooey cakes. What the heck is a gooey cake? Tell us about all about your confections!
Matt Swanston: Well, Gooey Butter Cake has a history. It originated in St. Louis, Missouri back in the 1930’s when a baker got some of his proportions mixed up. They couldn’t afford to just toss it out so they sold it, and much to their surprise it was a hit. And butter cakes were born
To this day you can get Gooey Butter Cake almost anywhere in St. Louis. There are several versions that people make and mine are inspired by the family recipe that my mom and grandma have always used. Their’s included margarine, cake mix, and Philadelphia cream cheese.
I knew I could do better than that–which is why I strive to use local and fresh ingredients as much as I can.
It is essentially a two layer cake with a baked in cream cheese frosting. What you end up with is a crisp and flakey top, delicious cake on the bottom, and a middle layer where the two sink together, creating a sinfully gooey center.
I sell mine in “gooey bits”, the perfect one and a half inch square bite!
I look for quality and real flavor.”
Is there ‘food creation’ in your family’s background that led you to starting Gooey & Co? From where did your idea come?
MS: My mother always cooked dinner at home for the family and took pride in making some pretty elaborate birthday cakes, but I can’t say I come from a line of professional chefs. Hell, I’m just now realizing that I am kind of a chef. HA!
I think years of working in restaurants, along side of some really amazing chefs and serving all kinds of food has really inspired me. I have taken a bit of the home cooking Mom taught me–and the culinary influences–and blended them together to come up with my own way of approaching food. I love cooking at home and I love sharing a taste of something that I so distinctly remember eating in my childhood.
I was in a bakery around the corner from my apartment in Astoria, Queens, not too long after moving to New York in 2004, when I saw something in the case that looked like Gooey Butter Cake. When I asked if that was what it was… I just got the strangest look.
I realized quickly that not one person I knew in New York had ever heard of it. I joked that I should start a gooey butter cake company.
Several years later I actually decided to take myself seriously, and after a few years of recipe testing, and just ‘doing the goo’ on the side for friends, I’ve finally fully launched the company at Smorgasburg, and I am having so much fun!
Talk a little about your handmade, small-batch approach. Take us through your ‘manufacturing’ process.
MS: Well, first of all I think great food starts with great ingredients, and I love to shop the farmers’ market to get fresh goods.
In a shared kitchen facility in Long Island City, I work with a small team which currently includes my fiance, Eric, and a rotating cast of our actor-friends who love to help.
We bake the cakes in cake pans just the way Mom did and only mix small batches up at a time. We use from-scratch recipes that I created after years of playing around.
I wanted a cake that was true to what I grew up eating, but that also boasted something fresh, and lighter than expected, even among the sweet gooeyness of it all.
Our ingredients are simple, and never muddled up with preservatives and processed stuff. We bake fresh on Fridays and sell out of our cakes by Sunday.
Buy fresh, bake fresh, sell fresh.
Did you invent the recipes? Did you adapt from an original you found somewhere? How did you develop your cakes?
MS: I did create all of the recipes. I started with the cake mix version that Mom used, and worked on ways to replicate it with simple, from-scratch recipes. No cake mix.
I just played around a bit–more butter, less butter, more eggs, less eggs, egg whites, just yolks. Did I want them to be more like cake? more like crust? It was trial and error that taught me what my cakes could really be. What these little gooey bites are capable of doing–pleasing people’s taste buds.
It is a sturdy cake and takes a beating pretty well. I knew I had really learned them when I created my final flavor, the gooey banana cake, and feel I got it right on the first batch.
Tell us how you go about sourcing your ingredients.
MS: I look for quality and real flavor. No additives or unnecessary ingredients. I also love to support the local guy and take pride in supporting local farms and small businesses.
I love my friends over at Murray’s Cheese, who provide me with the best all-natural cream cheese! You may have heard the mystery of Ben’s Cream Cheese, from Ben’s Cheese Planet, made in small batches since the 60’s, originating in New York’s Lower East Side. It’s only available in a few places, and no one really knows exactly how it is made, but there’s no question that it’s simply the best!
Ronnybrook Farm butter just can’t be compared to any other. Their “beyond organic” approach to dairy just gives it a freshness and natural flavor that you can taste. I thought, well, you can’t make gooey butter cake with out some pretty frickin awesome butter…right? This was a no brainer. I also love Kate’s of Maine when I am in a pinch!
I also use Hawthorne Valley Farm organic buttermilk. They are an organic and biodynamic farm in upstate New York and make their buttermilk with whole milk. You just can’t find that anyplace else. It adds the right tang and fluffiness that the cakes needed to give them the lighter edge I was looking for! A must in our kitchen!
I love seasonal ingredients and highlighting what is fresh at the market. I am planning on adding a strawberry shortcake version as soon as I can get my hands on some organic, local strawberries!
Side note: I know that bananas are neither local or seasonally always available, but I just couldn’t resist making a banana gooey cake one of our staple flavors. It is just too damn good! Oops! 😉
I use unbleached flour, all natural sugars, and pure extracts, such as our Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla.
What do you think the family purveyors you use add to your products?
MS: The relationships you create with your local producers add value to your final product. There’s pride and passion in there for what we’re all doing, working together to make great things–that absolutely has to translate into the food itself and the experience of sharing it with others. Who doesn’t love to eat things that make them feel good, right!?
These days with so much interest in farmers’ market (and food markets in general), it seems a small entrepreneur can establish a brand relatively quickly. (If the product is delicious, like yours!) Talk about how Smorgasburg has helped you promote Gooey&Co.
MS: Wow. Smorgasburg has absolutely been the launching pad that Gooey&Co needed to get the product to the people who would appreciate it the most.
Here is a market that attracts 10-20,000 foodies a weekend. People come in crowds to taste the newest creations and I really believe that I bring something special to the table.
I love sharing my passion for the goo and I get to do it every weekend. I have gotten orders from people who haven’t even tasted the cake yet. They just saw I was at Smorgasburg and trusted in my brand. That is the kind of reputation Smorg carries and they have been so supportive of us, too.
It has opened the door to so many opportunities! I am so glad that this is how we launched the company!
What’s it like to have an idea for a food product, do a little planning, jump in and feel it taking off? That must be exciting. Talk a little about that.
MS: Well, I am totally in for the ride and it is going going going! I can’t believe we are in our 7th weekend now! Time is flying!
I’m part of the waitstaff of a great Manhattan restaurant and recently gave my notice–yep, I did that (yikes!). I am just too busy, with orders coming in almost daily, adding days of production.
It is thrilling to see something that I have known in my heart would happen, finally happen, right in front of my eyes. And I take the leap without fear, trusting that putting my heart in it will make it continue to grow and evolve.
I am so excited to see where this will go!
The Gothamist gave Gooey&Co some love. Thrillist named Gooey&Co. one of the 5 best new things at Smorgasburg. That must have been thrilling. Tell us about all this press!
This has definitely contributed to our early success and I am very glad we decided to start out at opening weekend, putting ourselves out there from the beginning.
In a daily email, Tasting Table mentioned that their “Game Plan” included some savory bites and “finishing up with southern butter cake from Gooey&Co”.
And in a few weeks we will be presenting a special treat for the (RED) campaign and judges Mario Batali and Dominique Ansel, of Cronut fame, will be picking a few favorites.
We just confirmed a 900 piece order for Time, Inc. for an upcoming StartUp event and recently had our cakes at an event for Kiehl’s. We are so thrilled for all this love!
What has been the most satisfying thing about this venture? Any good stories?
It has just been so awesome to see this dream come to life, and to share something I love so much with a whole new audience. It is awesome to create something, put it out in the world, and watch people love it.
I moved to New York with a dream to pursue a career in the arts, acting and creating art from salvaged materials. I have had an art studio, and performed in numerous productions since living here, and I love that this new role I am taking on really isn’t much different.
I am still creating something new, like a character in a play or a piece of art, something of myself, and putting it out into the world for others to enjoy. I can do all three–do it my way–and Gooey&Co is going to make that possible.
What’s on the horizon for Gooey & Co.? If you could dream big, what would you like to see happen with your gooey cakes?
MS: Well, I get asked constantly ‘where is your storefront?’, and I would love to answer with a location.
The big dream is to have our own store where we could produce the cakes daily, emitting gooey smells out into the street, and build our brand with that kind of presence. I already have so many ideas of what it would look like, and how we can serve our cakes alongside great coffees, teas, and other gooey creations.
Coffee cup lids with a recessed square cake holder for your “gooey bit” , our ‘Gooey Combo’. Savory “gooey tea cakes” made with other soft cheeses and fresh herbs to compliment our tea selections–the ideas go on and on.
I would also love to offer nationwide shipping soon, and I think we may be able to do that in the coming months, so that would be exciting.
Our mission is to “transform gooey butter cake from St. Louie staple to mainstream must have”. I think I see the beginnings of that, introducing the cakes to more and more people every day, and I see an awesome, bright future in store for us! (Pun intended.)
Any last words? What have we not been clever enough to ask you?
MS: Whew! Haven’t I said too much already? I talk too much, type too much, etc.. but I love sharing!
I will mention this: I wouldn’t be able to pull all this off, or maybe even have the courage to know it was totally possible, if I didn’t have my family and my fiance’, Eric. I am blessed to have found him and to have his ever-loving support. It is exciting to see this all happening and to know that I have found the love of my life to share it with. I just feel utterly blessed to be here, in this moment, now. It is too awesome!
Matt, your enthusiasm for what you’re doing with your cakes is infectious! Continued good luck to you and Gooey&Co. Thanks for your time.
MS: Thank you for your interesting questions. I enjoyed it.
Don’t these gooey cakes sound delicious? Is there a interesting or unusual food from your hometown?
Photo credit: Craig Watters-Pink Riot Films
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