Gobs of gobs: Cambria native takes local confection to the West Coast and into their own cookbook

Steven Gdula conquers San Francisco

In today's ever-exploding food scene, it's not a surprise that someone would write and get published an entire cookbook about gobs.

But it is a surprise that a Western Pennsylvania native could make a living making and selling these indigenous, quirky confections in, of all places, San Francisco.

That's what Steven Gdula -- how's that for a Western Pennsylvania name? -- did after he transplanted himself to California.

Growing up on his native soil in Cambria County, he was surrounded by gobs -- those two round cakes sandwiching fluffy icing that are said to have been nicknamed after the refuse piles at coal mines, where miners packed them in their lunch buckets. Hereabouts, you still can find gobs at church bake sales and gas stations and supermarkets, including Giant Eagle. To this day the capital-G name "Gobs" is a trademarked one owned by the Dutch Maid Bakery in Johnstown, whose owner insists they're something different than a similarly sandwichy confection known in other parts of the country, and in several other new single-subject cookbooks, as whoopie pies.

Do you make gobs? Eat gob?
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Mr. Gdula graduated from Penn State and had been making his living as a freelance writer while living on the East Coast. He wrote the book "The Warmest Room in the House: How the Kitchen Became the Heart of the Twentieth-Century American Home" published by Bloomsbury in 2007. But in 2008, he found himself in San Francisco and out of work. He was missing home, and missing gobs, and so he made some -- trying to cook up some solace -- in his and his partner's crappy kitchen.

Inspired by the blooming of the street food cart scene in the Mission District, he decided to take out a cooler full of gobs and try to sell them. Not just the old-school chocolate and vanilla with which he grew up, but also new-fangled, left-coast flavors such as Chocolate Fennel with Raspberry Absinthe.

Tweaking the refrain of a Ramones song he knew, he called his business Gobba Gobba Hey.

And what do you know: San Fran foodies, most of whom had no idea what a gob is, gobbled them up. Even if they did think he'd made up the word.

Before he knew it, he was part of the equivalent of food's punk-rock scene, doing it himself with more passion than skill, cranking out gobs from a commercial kitchen, being talked and tweeted and written about, and then writing a gobs cookbook.

"People often ask if I'd ever imagined that Gobba Gobba Hey would come this far. Honestly? No," he writes in the introduction to the forthcoming "Gobba Gobba Hey: A Gob Cookbook" (Bloomsbury, $18). "I thought it would be a way to supplement my income -- maybe make some good connections in the food community, meet people who might hire me to write in the future. That ploy worked to some extent, but in an almost comical twist, my baking responsibilities now prevent me from taking on many writing assignments. Gob duties even slowed down the completion of this cookbook!"

Now that it's finally coming out -- on Aug. 31 -- he's baking a little less, as he now sells gobs by the dozen to people in the Bay Area and beyond who order them. He's also been making trips back home to gobs country in Beaverdale almost every month since December, when his father died, to visit with his mom and other family there. He was here just last week.

He lives far away, but hasn't fallen far from the tree of Western Pennsylvania, where he grew up amidst the kitchen aromas of his Slovak (his dad's side) and Hungarian (his mom's) foods, as well as the Italian and other ethnic fare of their neighbors.

"I just followed what my parents always did: 'Well, what do we have on hand? What can we make?' " he recounts over the phone from San Francisco, where he started out formulating gobs using whatever was in season at the farmers markets.

In the book, he presents 52 recipes, "one for every week of the year," if anyone needs that many recipes for gobs.

But remember: These aren't your grandmother's gobs. We're talking Orange Cardamom Ginger Gobs with Saffron Frosting, one of his and his customers' favorites. Chocolate-Ancho-Cinnamon Gobs with Almond-Lemon Filling. Even Bacon Gobs.

"I'm doing a wedding next month," he says. "The groom is from Michigan and bride-to-be is from Maine. ... They want a cherry and blueberry gob."

These foodie days, as he notes, even rural folks have a taste for and access to such flavors. While having to explain what gobs are to most Californians has at times been a barrier to sales, their being an unusual regional food also is a big part of their appeal.

"I always tell people that gobs aren't cute, because they're not. ... But it's going to taste really good."

Mr. Gdula does give a recipe for classic gobs, based on one from his father's church, with Crisco filling. But his gourmet gobs use a filling made from butter and cream cheese and are about 90 percent organic. His also are about half the size of the "smashed softball" size ones he remembers loving as a child. His sell for $3.

Are gobs any different from whoopie pies?

Mr. Gdula, who jokes about how those are "fighting words," says the difference is that "the whoopie pies I have had had marshmallow fluff."

But you can find plenty of whoopie pies with creamy fillings, ranging from shortening-'n'-sugar to cream cheese to mousse. Marshmallow is the filling in moon pies, a Southern snack sandwich of chocolate- or other-flavor-coated round graham crackers.

In Eastern Pennsylvania, they call gobs whoopie pies and claim them, but Maine claims whoopie pies, too. This food fight also is covered in last year's "Whoopie Pies," co-authored by Pittsburgh native and former Post-Gazette writer Sarah Billingsley with Massachusetts native Amy Treadwell, both of whom are cookbook editors at Chronicle in San Francisco, which published theirs.

Mr. Gdula says he sent gobs to Chronicle -- he's sent hundreds at a time to big clients such as Levi's and Twitter -- but he did not even look at that book until his was done.

Yet another new book on that subject came out last year in England and soon is to be republished in the States: "The Whoopie Pie Book: 60 Irresistible Recipes for Cake Sandwiches Classic and New," due out in September by The Experiment. It's written by Claire Ptak, who grew up in Iverness, Calif., and worked for three years as a pastry cook and then pastry chef at Chez Panisse. Now she runs her baking company/cafe, Violet (violetcakes.com) in East London. She writes in her introduction that, whatever the confections' origins, "They now have an international following, partly because everyone seems to be in search of a new cake to replace the ever-popular cupcake, but mostly because they are just so delicious."

For his book's sake, Mr. Gdula hopes that people aren't whoopied out. Meanwhile, the 47-year-old, still more writer than chef, is pondering other books, one literally on a concept that is life-or-death that was inspired by how people comforted him after his father passed. And he's still musing all that he learned on his journey into the street food scene, one that surprised him by making him feel more connected to his parents and his upbringing.

"It's interesting to me how the foods from our past and the things that we've grown up with, how they do provide stability when we need it the most in our lives."

Mr. Gdula, who blogs at thewarmestroominthehouse.blogspot.com, now periodically sells his Gobba Gobba Hey gobs via foodzie.com.

Zucchini Gobs with Lemon-Ginger Filling

PG tested

"I set out to bake a zucchini gob that would make my parents proud," writes Steven Gdula, who describes his parents moistening cakes of all kinds with excess-but-never-wasted homegrown zucchini. "With its visible shreds of green and yellow, everything about this gob is delightfully fresh. If you want to skip making the lemon-ginger syrup for this filling, you can substitute an equal amount of straight lemon juice. But the syrup lends a silky texture that makes this gob's mouthfeel all the more enticing."

I made a batch of these for a pig roast this past weekend and they were gobbled up to good reviews by eaters of all ages.

-- Bob Batz Jr.

For the batter
  • 4 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups sugar, sifted
  • 8 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened, cut in 1/2-inch cubes
  • 2 eggs, separated, at room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup grated zucchini
  • 1 tablespoon peeled and grated fresh ginger
  • 1 tablespoon lemon zest
  • 1 cup buttermilk, at room temperature
  • 2 tablespoons sour cream
For the filling
  • 8 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened, cut in 1/2-inch cubes
  • 12 tablespoons cream cheese, cut in 1/2-inch cubes
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
  • 3 to 4 tablespoons lemon-ginger syrup (recipe follows)
  • 2 cups confectioners' sugar, sifted

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line 3 8-by-13-inch cookie sheets with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Whisk the dry ingredients until they're evenly distributed.

In another large bowl, cream the sugar and butter with a mixer on medium speed. Add the egg yolks to the creamed ingredients and mix on medium. Then add the egg whites and vanilla and mix on medium-high until the mixture looks like dense pudding. Add the zucchini, ginger and lemon zest and mix on high.

Alternate adding the dry ingredients and the buttermilk to the egg mixture, mixing on medium speed after each addition. Then add the sour cream and mix well.

Using a tablespoon or pastry bag, drop 1 1/2-inch rounds of batter on the prepared cookie sheets, leaving 1 inch between each round. Bake them approximately 8 minutes or until the gob domes have risen. Remove the gobs to a wire rack to cool.

For the filling

Cream together the butter and cream cheese with a mixer on medium speed.

Add the vanilla, lemon juice, 3 tablespoons of lemon-ginger syrup and the confectioners' sugar and beat on medium until the mixture is fluffy; scrape the bowl with a spatula to reincorporate the ingredients if necessary. Taste and add another tablespoon of lemon-ginger syrup if you like.

To frost the gobs, flip the baked gob domes over on a cookie sheet and match up pairs of similarly shaped domes. Add 1 tablespoon of filling to the flat side of an overturned dome, then place another dome on top, sandwich-style. Allow the gobs to set fully by refrigerating them on a baking sheet for at least 1 hour. Wrap the gobs in plastic wrap to prevent them from drying out.

Lemon-Ginger Syrup

  • Juice of 2 lemons
  • 2 tablespoons fresh ginger, coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 cup water

Place the lemon juice, ginger, sugar and water in small saucepan. Bring the liquid to a boil over medium heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar.

Reduce the heat and simmer on low for 10 minutes.

Remove the pan from the heat and set it aside, covered, to let the syrup steep for at least 20 minutes.

Strain out the ginger and reserve the syrup for the gob filling. The syrup will keep in the refrigerator for 1 month. The leftover syrup can be used in cocktails.

-- "Gobba Gobba Hey: A Gob Cookbook" by Steven Gdula (Bloomsbury, Aug. 2011, $18)

Bob Batz Jr.: bbatz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1930.


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