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Butter Makes it Better: Philadelphia Butter Cake

Philadelphia butter cake

Probably, you already love Philadelphia Butter Cake. I mean, the title includes the words "butter" and "cake", so pretty much no matter where it's from, it's going to be lovable, right? In my opinion, we owe Philadelphia bigtime for giving us (and by "us" I mean, like, everyone in the world) the gift of this cake.

But, you may be wondering, what exactly is it?

Judging by the picture and the name, you might be tempted to think that Philadelphia Butter Cake, a rich, buttery cake with a gooey center, which served in bar form, is similar to Gooey Butter Cake, a St. Louis specialty. But you're not quite right: while they have some similar characteristics, I'd call them more "cousins" than "twins". 

Butter cake!

Likewise, you wouldn't want to confuse it with a simple "Butter Cake", or to expect a buttery yellow cake to be your result--there is really no frosting necessary with the Philadelphia version, and if you baked it expecting a layer cake, you'd be disappointed for sure. 

But let's go back to the Gooey Butter Cake. If you already know what that is, you have an idea of what you'd be up against with the Philadelphia Butter Cake. But the important differences? As I see it,

A. There is yeast in the "crust" part of the cake.

B. There is no cream cheese in the soft and gooey middle section; it is made of butter, more butter, a bit of flour, sugar, eggs, milk, and flavorings. 

C. The top forms a lightly soft crusty texture, which I found more pronounced than with a Gooey Butter Cake. 

The cake is sometimes referred to as "German Butter Cake", which leads me to believe that it is probably an American adaptation of a German cake, adapted in the new world to reflect the ingredients available.

The Philadelphia Butter Cake pictured in this post was obtained at the Flying Monkey Patisserie in the famed Reading Terminal Market, where, when ordering, I said "I'll have the buddah cake. Buddah". You know, to be funny. 

The cake was very, very good. It's so rich that it makes you want to cry, and has a touch of saltiness which complements the sweet, that makes you want to keep eating more and more. Their version had a more shortbread-y crust, so it may not be completely traditional, but it was totally tasty. I want more right now, in fact.

They also carry the cake at Town Crier Bakery and Bredenbeck's (I have tried this version, and it's very good). I also hear there's a fantastic version at Haegle's, which is famous for the stuff.

Here's a great blog post featuring a recipe for Philadelphia Butter Cake, including a step by step tutorial.

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Reader Comments (1)

I grew up in Philly in the 50's and 60's, and Philadelphia Butter Cake was very well known. In fact, my mother was eating it from at least the late 30's or early 40's. It's thought that it was brought by German immigrants as you'd typically find it at local German bakeries, esp. in North Philly. Typically, you'd have a pc. for breakfast on Sat. AM, or even more likely on Sunday AFTER Mass (because you had fast back then). There is NO cake mix or cream cheese involved - ever - in Phila. Butter Cake. Those appear to be more modern additions. I think the Philly butter cakes origins are in Germany itself, and simply predate American cake mixes. There is definitely yeast in it, and it's as you say above. It's also rich and there is an addictive quality to it. I don't know anyone who doesn't love it, but lord help us if you find a bakery with a dry piece. Philadelphians expect it to be gooey, but there is as you say a very thin "crust" on top. Formed by butter and sugar forming a crust. The bottom layer was a bit on the dry side, but it supported the gooey topping. We never called it a bar. It was Butter Cake. It's part of Philadelphia heritage and any bakery worth it's salt in the 50's and 60's sold very credible versions. They simply didn't skimp on the butter. We didn't get it often, but when we did get a piece it was glorious. I've been all around the USA, and I have never see it elsewhere. I miss it. It part of German-American heritage, Philadelphia heritage, and immigrant heritage. I'd kill for piece right now, but I don't live in Philly any more. Thanks for featuring the cake from my childhood. The center had to be runny/gooey, not firm gooey by the way. I can't tell for sure form the photo, but it may be a little bit too firm. Corners always seemed drier to me, so I aimed to cut from the middle. :)
October 15 | Unregistered CommenterBeth S.

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