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These easy 5-ingredient chess squares start with a buttery cake mix crust and include a decadent cream cheese filling. Top them with powdered sugar, ice cream, whipped cream, or fresh berries for a classic Southern dessert that always wins rave reviews!

Side shot of chess bars topped with whipped cream and berries.
Table of Contents
  1. Why You’ll Love this Recipe
  2. Chess Cake Origin
  3. Ingredients
  4. How to Make Chess Squares
  5. Serving Suggestions
  6. Preparation and Storage Tips
  7. Frequently Asked Questions
  8. Recipe Variations
  9. Expert Tips
  10. Chess Squares Recipe

Looking for even more easy recipes with cake mix? Try this lemon Bundt cake, a chocolate Bundt cake, these 2-ingredient pumpkin muffins, a pan of cornbread with cake mix, an old fashioned Watergate cake, my grandmother’s whiskey cake recipe, and this Southern Coca Cola cake, too!

Why You’ll Love this Recipe

  • Easy. With just 5 simple ingredients, this quick dessert doesn’t require any special baking skills.
  • Make Ahead. A dessert that you can prepare in advance is always welcome in our repertoire. It makes hosting holidays, picnics, and family gatherings easier when you’re not stressing about the menu at the last minute.
  • Versatile. This dessert works well for almost any celebration or occasion. Take the chess squares to a sick neighbor or a friend who just had a baby. Offer them on the Easter brunch buffet, bring them to Thanksgiving dinner, or top them with fresh berries for a summer 4th of July cookout or Memorial Day picnic. They’re a year-round favorite!

Amazing! Delicious and so incredibly easy! Discovered this during the lockdown and my family loves it (as do I)!

– Shelly
Square close up side shot of a stack of chess squares.

Chess Cake Origin

Called “chess squares,” “chess bars,” “chess cake,” and “ooey gooey butter cake,” this popular dessert originated in St. Louis, Missouri. The flat, dense cake can be sliced into squares or bars (like brownies), and may be served as a coffee cake, breakfast cake, snack cake, or dessert.

These old fashioned chess squares include a buttery yellow cake crust topped with a soft cream cheese layer and a dusting of powdered sugar. It’s an updated, simplified version of the original recipe that was supposedly invented by John Hoffman in his St. Louis bakery in the 1930’s, and has since been made even more famous in recent decades by Southern chef Paula Deen (with her gooey butter cake recipes).

Chess squares ingredients on a white table.

Ingredients

This is just a quick overview of the 5 simple ingredients that you’ll need for these chess squares with cake mix. As always, specific measurements and step-by-step instructions are included in the printable recipe box at the bottom of the post.

  • A box of yellow cake mix: the base of the crust. I use Duncan Hines brand, but any similar variety will work.
  • Butter: we use salted butter since that’s what I typically keep in the fridge, but unsalted butter is okay if that’s your preference. You can also add about ¼ teaspoon of salt to the crust if starting with unsalted butter.
  • Eggs: provide lift and structure to both the crust and the filling.
  • Cream cheese: the base of the filling. This gives the dessert a cheesecake-like taste. Use a block of full-fat cream cheese for the best flavor and texture. Do not sub with a tub of spreadable cream cheese.
  • Powdered sugar: also called confectioners’ sugar, this sweetens the filling.
Stirring together crust for chess bars.

How to Make Chess Squares

This chess squares recipe comes together quickly and easily! You’ll find detailed directions in the recipe card below, but here’s the short version:

  • Mix cake mix, melted butter, and egg to form a soft dough.
  • Press mixture into the bottom of the pan.
  • Mix together the cream cheese filling.
  • Pour cream cheese batter on top of crust.
  • Bake for 30-40 minutes.
  • Cool, dust with powdered sugar, slice, and serve!
Filling for chess squares in a white mixing bowl with an electric hand mixer.

Serving Suggestions

This dessert can be sliced into firm squares and enjoyed with fingers or forks. The chess bars are delicious, rich, and decadent on their own, but they’re also tasty when topped with:

  • whipped cream
  • vanilla ice cream
  • fresh berries

Try using a combination of red and blue berries, such as strawberries and blueberries, with a dollop of whipped cream for a festive red, white, and blue Fourth of July or Memorial Day dessert.

Square side shot of chess squares made with cake mix.

Preparation and Storage Tips

  • Make Ahead: Wrapped properly in an airtight container or plastic wrap, the chess bars will stay fresh at room temperature for about 2 days. They do not need to be refrigerated.
  • How to Store: To extend the life of your chess squares, store them in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.
  • How to Freeze: Let the bars cool completely. Wrap tightly with aluminum foil or plastic wrap and place in a Ziploc freezer bag. The chess squares will keep in the freezer for up to 3 months.
Side shot of a stack of chess squares made with cake mix.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Why are they called chess bars? These bars get their name because they resemble the classic Southern dessert, chess pie. These old-fashioned custard-based pastries held up relatively well at room temperature, and were often stored in cabinets called “pie safes” or “pie chests.” The word “chest,” some say, eventually became “chess.” The name also may have come about because Southern gentlemen liked to enjoy the dessert after dinner while they played chess.
  • What are other chess squares names? This dessert is also known as chess bars, chess cake, gooey butter cake, and ooey gooey butter cake, too.
  • How do I know when it’s done? The baking time will vary depending on your individual oven and on the type of pan that you use. Here I showed a gold metal cake pan, but a glass or ceramic dish will also work well. Metal, dark, or nonstick pans require a shorter baking time. You want the top, center layer to still be soft while the crust on the bottom is firm. The bars will continue to firm up and set as they cool. Just be sure that you don’t over-bake them or they won’t have that great “gooey” texture.
Overhead image of chess squares on a blue and white plate.

Recipe Variations

  • Make chocolate chess squares by using a chocolate cake mix and adding unsweetened cocoa powder to the cream cheese mixture.
  • For lemon chess squares, use a lemon cake mix and add lemon juice and fresh lemon zest to the cream cheese mixture.
  • Try pumpkin chess bars by using a spice cake mix and by adding canned pumpkin puree and some pumpkin pie seasoning to the cream cheese mixture. Paula Deen has a pumpkin gooey butter cake recipe, too.
  • Red velvet chess squares would be great for Christmas or Valentine’s Day. Just use a red velvet cake mix for the crust.
Horizontal close up shot of chess squares on a blue and white plate with berries and whipped cream.

Expert Tips

  • Use a block of full-fat cream cheese for the best flavor and texture. Do not substitute with a tub of spreadable cream cheese.
  • Don’t forget to soften the cream cheese before mixing it together with the other ingredients. The softened cream cheese blends more smoothly and easily into the filling mixture.
  • Use room temperature eggs so that they incorporate more easily into the batter.
  • Add about 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract to the filling for even more flavor.
  • Line the baking dish with a parchment paper overhang if you’d like to be able to easily lift the bars out of the pan before slicing.
  • The baking time will vary, largely depending on the type of pan that you use. Here I showed a gold metal cake pan, but a glass or ceramic dish will also work well. Metal, dark, or nonstick pans require a shorter baking time. You want the top, center layer to still be soft while the crust on the bottom is firm. They will continue to firm up and set as they cool. Just be sure that you don’t over-bake the chess squares or they won’t have that great “gooey” texture.
  • Allow the bars to cool completely before dusting with powdered sugar and slicing. The cool bars are easier to cut into clean squares.
Side shot of chess bars with a bite on a fork on a plate.

More Cakes with Cream Cheese

Square close up side shot of a stack of chess squares.

Chess Squares

5 from 1 vote
Prep: 15 minutes
Cook: 35 minutes
Cooling Time 2 hours
Total: 2 hours 50 minutes
Servings 16 squares
Calories 343 kcal
These easy 5-ingredient chess squares are a classic Southern dessert!

Ingredients
  

  • 1 (15.25 ounce) box yellow cake mix
  • 3 large eggs, divided
  • 1 stick (½ cup) butter, melted
  • 1 (8 ounce) block cream cheese, softened at room temperature
  • 1 (16 ounce) package confectioners’ sugar (powdered sugar)
  • Optional, for serving: additional powdered sugar; fresh berries; whipped cream

Instructions

  • Preheat oven to 325°F. Grease a 9 x 13-inch baking pan or spray with nonstick cooking spray. Set aside.
    A 9 x 13 baking pan sprayed with nonstick cooking spray.
  • In a large bowl, stir together the dry cake mix, 1 egg, and melted butter until a soft dough comes together.
    Stirring together crust for chess bars.
  • Press the mixture in an even layer in the prepared pan.
    Chess squares crust before baking.
  • In a separate bowl, use an electric mixer on medium speed to beat together the cream cheese, the remaining 2 eggs, and the confectioners’ sugar until smooth, about 2-3 minutes.
    Filling for chess squares in a white mixing bowl with an electric hand mixer.
  • Pour the cream cheese mixture over the crust and spread in an even layer. Bake for 30-40 minutes, until golden brown and set, but still a little bit “gooey” in the center.
    Process shot showing how to make chess squares with cake mix.
  • Cool in the pan, and then dust with additional powdered sugar before slicing and serving.
    Overhead shot of a pan of chess bars dusted with powdered sugar before slicing.
  • Top with berries or whipped cream, if desired.
    Horizontal close up shot of chess squares on a blue and white plate with berries and whipped cream.

Notes

    • Use a block of full-fat cream cheese for the best flavor and texture. Do not substitute with a tub of spreadable cream cheese.
    • Don’t forget to soften the cream cheese before mixing it together with the other ingredients. The softened cream cheese blends more smoothly and easily into the filling mixture.
    • Use room temperature eggs so that they incorporate more easily into the batter.
    • Add about 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract to the filling for even more flavor.
    • Line the baking dish with parchment paper overhang if you’d like to be able to easily lift the bars out of the pan before slicing.
    • The baking time will vary, largely depending on the type of pan that you use. Here I showed a gold metal cake pan, but a glass or ceramic dish will also work well. Metal, dark, or nonstick pans require a shorter baking time. You want the top, center layer to still be soft while the crust on the bottom is firm. They will continue to firm up and set as they cool. Just be sure that you don’t over-bake the bars or they won’t have that great “gooey” texture.
    • Allow the bars to cool completely before dusting with powdered sugar and slicing. The cool bars are easier to cut into clean squares.
    • Recipe adapted from Best of the Best from the Mid-South cookbook.

Nutrition

Serving: 1/16 of the cakeCalories: 343kcalCarbohydrates: 56gProtein: 3gFat: 12gSaturated Fat: 7gPolyunsaturated Fat: 1gMonounsaturated Fat: 3gTrans Fat: 0.3gCholesterol: 64mgSodium: 339mgPotassium: 49mgFiber: 0.4gSugar: 42gVitamin A: 418IUCalcium: 89mgIron: 1mg
Keyword: chess bars, chess squares, chess squares recipe, chess squares with cake mix, gooey butter cake
Course: Dessert
Cuisine: American, Southern
Author: Blair Lonergan

This recipe was originally published in June, 2019. It was updated in April, 2024.

blair

Hey, I’m Blair!

Welcome to my farmhouse kitchen in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Inspired by local traditions and seasonal fare, you’ll find plenty of easy, comforting recipes that bring your family together around the table. It’s down-home, country-style cooking!

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Comments

  1. Shelly says:

    5 stars
    Amazing! Delicious and so incredibly easy! Discovered this during the lockdown and my family loves it (as do I)! Made a few tweaks:
    *Added 1/2 tsp salt to the crust. I’ve been using Duncan Hines Butter
    Golden cake mix.
    *Added 1 tsp vanilla to the filling.
    *When preparing the filling, added the powdered sugar after the other ingredients had been combined and mixed. Continued mixing for @ 3 minutes.
    Thank you for sharing!
    -shelly

    1. Blair says:

      Thanks, Shelly! I’m so glad that you love it. Thank you for the tips, too. Your tweaks sound great!

    2. Kelly says:

      This is the exact recipe my late grandmother used. She called it sticky cake and it was a favorite of mine growing up. I love making this for holidays!

      1. Blair Lonergan says:

        I’m so happy to hear that, Kelly. Grandmother’s recipes are always best! 🙂