St. Louis Native and chef-owner of Russell's on Macklind in the city's Southampton neighborhood, Russell Ping originally resisted the idea of selling gooey butter cake at his upscale bakery-restaurant, a bold move within these city limits.
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In his eyes, it was a played-out tune and one that didn't bear repeating. But gooey butter cake is so intertwined with the city's diverse and somewhat unusual food culture—like their toasted (deep-fried) ravioli and St. Paul (egg foo young) sandwich—that it's often the first thing mentioned when the topic of food in St. Louis comes up in conversation.
Ping has been making pastries since he was a kid. “I sold cookies at my neighborhood pool when I was little,” he tells me. He attended culinary school in Louisville, Kentucky, to learn “the savory side of it,” as he puts it, before eventually returning to St. Louis.
After working for the Ritz-Carlton, where he learned the value of customer service, he opened up his first venture, Russell's Cafe and Bakery, in suburban Fenton, Missouri, in 2006 at age 22. In 2013, Ping opened his second café, Russell's on Macklind, which he eventually expanded to feature an upscale dinner menu with an emphasis on quality ingredients and simple preparations. It's a neighborhood place, dine-in or take-out, breakfast through dinner, with everything made from scratch. “We try to order locally when it makes sense and support as many local businesses as we can,” he says.
When Ping finally got around to tackling his butter cake demons, he did it with a twist. It's a challenge chefs often face when trying to honor the legacy of an established dish while also staying true to their own visions: taking the familiar, making it personal, and putting it back out there.
Gooey Butter Cake BarsThe challenge: Turn St. Louis's most famous sweet treat into a batch of bars.
Drawing on his pastry background, Ping ended up with an ultrabuttery, slightly salty shortbread crust; a custardy, vanilla-heavy middle layer; and a meringue-like, crackled top crust. Ping keeps his recipe closely guarded, but a manager confesses that it's made with butter, cream cheese, sugar, and love.
When I ask Ping how the cake is received by customers, he responds, “You have puritans in St. Louis who don't want what we're doing, and you have people who are cool with it.”