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California citrus brightens these rich Midwestern dessert squares

Jess Stephens' creamy, rich "gooey butter cake" squares.
(Portrait by Christina House / Los Angeles Times; cookie photo by Silvia Razgova / For The Times; food and prop styling by Leah Choi)

We asked several L.A.-area pastry chefs and cooks to contribute their favorite holiday cookies. Each is a simple, home-style cookie that reflects the contributor’s memories of holidays past.

Jess Stephens

Former Pastry Chef of Onda

Everybody has their weakness — that one thing that takes you by surprise. For my dad, it’s gooey butter cake, because his mom made them all the time.

It’s a very common sweet with lots of families in St. Louis, where I’m from. It’s a cookie on steroids. There’s a lot of dairy and sugar — gotta respect the commitment.

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This is quite a different recipe than the original. I took the sugar down a lot and some of the dairy. Of course, I couldn’t help but add in some California citrus to brighten it up.

All the years I worked in restaurants and missed the holidays, my dad would always say, “Can you put these in the mail?” He had a modest upbringing and doesn’t eat dessert, so these were always a real treat. They make him happy.

— As told to Ben Mims

Gooey Butter Cake Squares

Time 1 hour 10 minutes
Yields Makes 2 dozen
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