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Cooking the Books — Tasty: A History of Yummy Experiments by Victoria Grace Elliot

Welcome to Cooking the Books, where we try recipes found in, well, books! This month, Children’s Assistant & STEM Specialist Ms. Meghan tried out a recipe from one of her recent favs:

Back in September, I reviewed Yummy: A History of Desserts by Victoria Grace Elliott. Now, food sprites Peri, Fee, and Fada are back (along with their new friend water sprite Naia) for Tasty: A History of Yummy Experiments. This middle grade nonfiction graphic novel (once again suited for readers of all ages) traces the history of cheese, pizza, pickles, soda, easy food (like canned soup and processed cheese), and gelatin.

The format for Tasty is the same as Yummy: the sprites introduce us to the story of a food through a combination of history lessons, scientific explanations (the mold in blue cheese is in the same family as penicillin!), interviews with historical figures, and recipes! There is a lot going on in every page, but Tasty is noticeably cleaner and easier to read than Yummy. The chapters on cheese and pickles are quite lengthy, as is to be expected for foods that have been around since before written history and have regional variations all over the world. I did feel my eyes glazing over a bit towards the end of the pickle chapter, as sauces were introduced. Many historical pickles were made to be a sauce, so ceviche, salsa, soy sauce, British chutney, and even our beloved ketchup all have those fruit and vinegar roots. This was my only complaint about the book itself, though. Until I made the Gooey Butter Cake recipe.

Gooey Butter Cake is from the easy food chapter. Originally a made from scratch bakery treat originating in St. Louis in the 1940s and 50s, boxed cake mix and cream cheese are supposed to make this version quick and easy. Just like in Yummy, we learn that at one point cake mixes were produced so all you needed to add was water. But home bakers felt this was too easy (and didn’t taste as good), so the product was changed to require eggs and other fresh ingredients. It was also around this time that magazines started promoting elaborate cake decorating, since people now had all this free time.

Let me start by saying the recipe produces a very tasty cake. This was the overwhelming opinion of me, my husband, and my co-workers. Comments included ‘very moist…Delicious! 5 stars’, ‘I love everything about this – the flavor and textures are perfect. I would eat this for breakfast or a sweet snack after lunch or dinner. I love the gooey butter top and crumbly cookie base.’ ‘Denser…than I was expecting, but I like the contrasting gooey and fluffy textures!’, ‘I really enjoyed this cake. I grew up eating chess pie for Thanksgiving/Christmas and I feel like this has the same flavor profile.’ ‘Overall, I personally feel like this is a decadent A+!’ A couple of reviews noted the hint of salt, which I noticed as well. This may have come from the cake mix or cream cheese, as I use unsalted butter. One reviewer did state that it wasn’t as gooey as they liked.

The issue was with preparing the cake. The recipe states to have your butter, cream cheese, and eggs at room temperature. Okay, done. To make the cake layer, you combine cake mix, one egg, and a stick of butter with a spatula. This was…a lot of work. Much more than a kid would be up for. By the time I reached my ‘done’ point, it still wasn’t a dough so much as a slightly damp cake mix with small chunks of butter. If I had been making the recipe on my own, I would have used my fingers or handheld mixer. I pressed it into the pan and hoped. Whisking the cream cheese by hand was also frustrating, but not nearly as bad. But whisking the butter into the icing was as bad if not worse than the cake mix. I may not have had lumps of powdered sugar, but I sure as heck had lumps of butter. Again, I poured it in and hoped for the best.

While the cake did turn out fine, I don’t think it’s a kid friendly recipe. The first three recipes that pop up in a Google search all have melted butter in the cake mix and none in the icing. These recipes would absolutely produce a yummy cake in about 10 minutes of prep time with minimal effort. I think the author may have eliminated the melted butter so kids wouldn’t have to use the stovetop, but I’m not sure why it was included in the icing? Regardless, this knocked a star off the book rating for me. As I stated before, the cake itself is delicious, but the recipe doesn’t quite fit the intended audience of the book.

I absolutely recommend Tasty if you’re looking to learn more about some of your favorite foods, but you may want to modify the recipes.

Cake: 4.75/5 (based on all opinions)

Book: 3/5 stars (based on my own opinion)


The Recipe

Gooey Butter Cake

1 box yellow cake mix (15.25 oz)
2 sticks butter (1 cup)
3 eggs
1 box cream cheese (8 oz)
1 box powdered sugar (16 oz)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
9×13 baking pan (can vary)
Whisk and spatula
Medium and large mixing bowls


  1. You’ll want the eggs, butter, and cream cheese at room temperature for best results. And make sure you preheat your oven to 350 F. Before you start, grease all the sides of your pan. You can use cooking spray, butter, or oil.
  2. First, combine the box of cake mix, 1 egg, and 1 stick softened butter in a bowl with the spatula. Mix together until it combines into a soft dough
  3. Next, press the crust dough into the pan! You want it to line the whole bottom. Try to keep it at an even height throughout!
  4. For the topping, grab another bowl and whisk your softened cream cheese until it gets fluffy!
  5. Then beat in one egg at a time. Make sure they’re fully mixed in before adding the next!
  6. Once combined, stir in your vanilla!
  7. Then whisk in the softened butter
  8. And last but not least, ADD THE POWDERED SUGAR! Stir it in a bit at a time. Make sure there are no lumps!
  9. When it’s nice and smooth, pour it into the pan over the crust. Spread evenly, just like before!
  10. At last, it’s time to bake! Stick it in the preheated oven and bake for about 40-45 minutes. Depending on your pan, it may take more or less time. It’s done when the top is golden brown!

Let it cool completely, then cut into squares and serve!

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