Sunday, April 5, 2009

Gobs: In Search of a Lost Recipe

I'm not uppity when it comes to food. But that doesn't mean I can't get defensive when talking about the things that I eat. We're all inclined to protect the choices we make when deciding what we put on our plate. In those decisions we're not only asserting who we are, as Brillat-Savarin would attest, we're also reaffirming our sense of place. A. H. Maslow - the sociologist best known for identifying our hierarchy of needs - used the word "belongingness" to refer to our attachments to certain foods, especially the dishes that we ate when we were growing up. It's belongingness, for instance, that makes me continue to pronounce "paprika" with the same inflection that my Hungarian grandmother used. And it's belongingness that nearly brought me to tears when I thought my parents' recipe for my beloved gobs was possibly lost forever. 

I doubt that outside of western Pennsylvania - where you can find gobs for sale in nearly every grocery store, wrapped in cellophane, somewhere near the cash register - few people even know what a gob is. In fact, I would be willing to say I'm nearly certain. I've only ever met one other person in my adult life who was familiar with the confection, and he was born and raised in West Virginia, just across the Pennsylvania border. 

What is a gob? Well, it's almost easier for me to tell you what a gob is not: A gob is not a whoopie pie no matter what the New York Times says. And it's not a moon pie either. (Though both of those are perfectly respectable treats, this is where I get defensive.) A true gob is something like a cross between a cookie and a cake. Like the latter, it is layered, with frosting and airy. Like the former it is ideally something you can hold in your hand and polish off with just a few bites. (Never mind that the gobs I tried to make this past weekend ended up as big as softballs.) 

A perfect gob should be chocolate-y and beguiling. It should be so moist that it leaves traces of its goodness on your fingertips. It's filling should be white, fluffy and bright in flavor. It should be charming without being cloying. It should come dangerously close to being almost too sweet. Lastly, you should want a second gob immediately after finishing your first - and you should never, ever call it a whoopie pie.

Why my devotion? It's addictive properties aside, along with my Great Aunt Mary's lemon meringue pie and my Mom's kefli (a Hungarian cookie filled with raspberries or apricots) the gobs that my Dad used to bake rounded out my trinity of favorite desserts. Gobs were one of the reasons I always looked forward to Palm Sunday. Not only did that day's arrival signal that Lent would soon be drawing to a close, which meant in a week's time I could eat whatever token item it was that I'd given up for the season, it also meant that my Dad would be baking gobs for our church's annual Palm Sunday Bake Sale. 

In the years of my adult life that I'd gone back home for Easter, my parents always saved a few gobs for me to take back to Washington, DC with me. One year I promised to bring a half-dozen back for the before-mentioned friend from West Virginia.

Those six gobs never made it inside the Beltway. 

Now that I'm living on the other side of the country, it's only the second time in nearly thirty years that I won't be visiting my parents on Easter Sunday. Knowing that I would not be returning home with gobs this year, I decided to try to make them on my own. But when I called my Dad to get the recipe, I knew I was in trouble when he started to read me the list of ingredients. 

"Sixty boxes of Duncan-Hines Devil's Food cake mix, 12 dozen eggs...."

He was giving me the recipe for the way his men's club at his church had made them the past few years. But I didn't want instructions for something that used boxed cake mix. I wanted the real thing. Flour, cocoa, and butter. Not something pre-packaged. I didn't want to assemble items. I wanted to bake. I wanted a real recipe. I wanted my Dad's recipe. But what he said next caused my heart to sink: "Oh, geez, Steven, I'll have to try to find it." 

I realized then that I might not ever have the gobs that I'd had growing up again, and if my Dad couldn't find that recipe now, it might not be found at all. Ever. 

My parents are in their late seventies, and like many people their age, they're downsizing. They're selling the house that I grew up in, and moving into something more manageable. They've already started the process of going through the things they no longer need, or want. 

And I was afraid the gob recipe had been tossed out in the process. 

My Mom called me a few days later to tell me she'd found one gob recipe that did not call for a cake mix. "That's the one I want!" I shouted. I excitedly scribbled down the instructions as she dictated them over the phone.

Maybe something was lost in my transcription. The gobs I made were good, but they weren't my like my Dad's. I'm not sure where my interpretation of the recipe went wrong, but I want to think that what was lost could be easily replaced with another phone call. I want to believe it's something that was lost over the miles, rather than over the years. 

Here is the recipe I used. I'm not quite sure my results are worthy of being called "gobs." But I can certainly tell you this: I'd never call them whoopie pies. 

For the gobs....
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup vegetable shortening
2 eggs
4 cups flour
3/4 cups cocoa 
1/2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup water (used as needed)

For the icing... 
1 cup milk
4 TBS flour
1/2 cup vegetable shortening
1/2 cup butter
1 tsp vanilla 
2 cups powdered sugar 

Makes two dozen medium-sized gobs, one dozen large gobs. 

1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Cream the sugar with the vegetable shortening and eggs. Set aside. Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and cocoa. Add dry ingredients to creamed sugar mixture. Alternate the dry ingredients with the buttermilk, water and vanilla. (Use all of the buttermilk, and use the water sparingly.) Beat well.

2. Line baking sheets with parchment paper and using a 1/4 cup measuring cup drop batter onto paper, spaced about two inches apart. The batter will rise and spread slightly so don't crowd the gobs. 

3. Bake for approximately 10 to 13 minutes, depending on the size of the gobs and the finickiness of your oven. You do not want the edges to get even the least bit brown so keep an eye on them. Allow to cool on wax paper.

4. Make icing by first heating milk and stirring in flour. Over low heat, whisk until thick. Remove from heat and set aside. Cream together vegetable shortening and butter until smooth. Add sugar, mix well, add vanilla, mix well and then add flour. Beat until fluffy. Watch consistency of mixture. If the frosting is too runny it will not hold the two gob halves together. 

5. When gob halves have cooled, spread enough frosting on one half to hold two halves together. The amount of frosting will depend on the size of your gobs. 

NOTES: You can use butter throughout instead of vegetable shortening. The icing is traditionally white, and butter will color it slightly. You can also make an egg white and confectioner's sugar frosting. Notice I said "you can." I can't! Well, I should add that I haven't tried. The gob halves should look like the most beautifully-raised cookies that you've ever made. You might want to encourage their shape by rounding them slightly with a damp - not wet! - finger tip once you've spooned the batter onto the cookie sheet. Their size will depend on the amount of batter you use. Good luck!


Ozge said...

Gobs... I've never heard of them before, this was an interesting read for having both a story to share and the recipe as a bonus the way I see it. Ingredients could be found, checked "practical" in list too. But what's a vegetable shortening? That I'll have to learn!

Spirited Miu Flavor

Steven said...

Thanks for the feedback! Vegetable shortening is sold under the brand name Crisco here in the States. Hope that helps!

Charles G. Thompson said...

Hi Steven-

Great piece -- really enjoyed it. Food as a memory is such a powerful thing especially those amazing memories from childhood. And I liked the regional aspect of the story too. Really wonderful blog as well -- I'll be spending more time on it and will grab your book as well.


100 Miles

Steven said...

Thanks Charles! They were fun to make but I really, REALLY need to get them out of the house (or else up my running miles this week!) And thanks for the other kind words!

Ann said...

Oh thats totally yum! I once had a big box full of gobs as a gift. I din't know they are called as Gobs until I read your post ;)
I wish I get gifts everyday :P
Thanks for recipe too.