I co-hosted a holiday cookie exchange at work and loved showing off my favorite holiday cookie: Bourbon Balls.
Bourbon’s having its moment right now and the hipsters can’t get enough. I’m told there’s a potential bourbon shortage so there’s a mini stock pile in the house. Someone also told me that the hipsters are moving on to gin and I’m hopeful this pans out so I can go back to being the coolest kid on the block. (But don’t worry dad, I think they’ll be more into the Hendricks than the Gordons so your gin stash is safe.)
But my love of all things bourbon pre-dates my legal drinking age and it’s rooted in these amazing holiday treats that are also my grandfather’s favorite. They’d show up in a wrapped tin with my grandfather’s name on it each Christmas and we’d sit in a circle opening gifts and eyeing that package so he wouldn’t be able to open it on the sly and stash them away. Inevitably, he’d sneak a little of the paper off and then open the lid just enough to be sure it was what he hoped it was and our cries of “what is it? will you share?” would be met with “oh it’s nothing…nothing…moving on…” until our relentless pestering wore down his defenses and he’d pass the tin around so we could all steal one of the treats that were so rightfully his.
Sort of a cross between cookie and fudge, the bourbon ball was the earliest vehicle by which bourbon made its way to my mouth and it was love. My aunt and cousin make them with crush Nilla Wafers (Google tells me this is the traditional Kentucky way) but I prefer a brownie-based ball because it’s more absorbent (read: soaks up more bourbon). It’s also one of the few recipes that doesn’t require me to remember to soften butter; something I’m profoundly incapable of doing.
I adapted my recipe from the Martha’s Rum Ball recipe. Apart from the obvious substitution, I adjust quantities to account for the thing Martha has plenty of that I do not: storage space for the extra 1/2 stick of butter and 2 oz of baking chocolate that her recipe leaves behind. Double it and you get even amounts of the key ingredients and more bourbon balls: win/win.
(aka My Balls are Tastier than Martha’s)
- Vegetable oil, cooking spray
- 3 sticks unsalted butter, cut into pieces
- 12 ounces semisweet chocolate (chips are ok, Bakers is better)
- 1 tablespoon instant espresso powder (optional)
- 6 large eggs
- 1 cup packed light-brown sugar
- 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon coarse salt
- 1 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
- 3/4 cup bourbon (don’t be cheap…use the good stuff)
- Coarse sanding sugar, for rolling
You start by making a rich, dry brownie. Preheat your oven to 350’F and prep a 12X17 rimmed sheet pan with a sheet of parchment and a generous spritz of cooking spray.
Melt the chocolate, butter, and espresso powder together over a double boiler. Let cool while you mix the eggs, brown sugar, vanilla, and salt together in a large bowl. Slowly add the chocolate and butter, stirring constantly so you don’t cook the eggs. Add in the flour and stir just to combine.
At this point, you’ve got the world’s best brownie batter and if you put it in a regular brownie baking dish you’d be happy. But you want a dry, absorbent brownie so instead you’re going to spread it out on the cookie sheet and bake for 15-20 minutes until it looks like this:
You want it to be shiny and have some cracks like this:
Let the brownie cool, breaking it up when it’s cool enough to handle so it starts to dry out a little. I baked my batch, broke it up, ran some errands, then proceeded. Drier = boozier final product.
Once they’re completely cool, put the brownie bits in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment.
Pour on the bourbon (resist the urge to go overboard…) and beat at a low speed for 2 minutes then a medium speed for 5 minutes. It’s ready when it starts to stick together like a cookie dough and you can pick up a piece and make a ball.
Let it chill out in the bowl for an hour or two (or overnight) then remix on medium for another few minutes. This gets any lumps out and makes it easier to scoop. There’s also the chance that it will dry out enough that you can add a little more bourbon.
At this point, you’re ready to scoop into 1 tbsp balls, shape, roll in sanding sugar, and place in adorable little paper cups.
When you’re done, you’ll have something that looks like this and a lot of happy friends:
A few notes about equipment:
You’re probably wondering “Where the hell do I get sanding sugar?” The internets, of course. If you’re in San Francisco, you can go to Sugar ‘n Spice in Daly City. If you’re in the boonies like my mom, you can go to your friendly neighborhood grocer and ask to buy some from the baking counter. Don’t do this in San Francisco. The look they’ll give you could kill. Rumor has it that Williams Sonoma also stocks it but you’ll need a trust fund to make that work.
You should also plan to invest in one of these if you don’t have one already.
They come in tons of sizes, again, available on the internets.
Makers Mark makes the best bourbon balls.