I was about 17 when I was first introduced to Bourbon Balls, a holiday tradition in my sister-in-law’s southern household and the recipe these were based on. I felt like such a grown up eating these whiskey-laced cookies. The original confection was created in Frankfort, Kentucky and was made with the local liquor, Kentucky Bourbon dark chocolate, and sugar. That recipe is still a secret, but industrious home cooks came up with their own concoction that is the one we have come to love.
Made with crushed vanilla wafers, chopped pecans, corn syrup and bourbon, they are an unbaked “cookie” that are perfect for the holidays, as hostess gifts, and for a special treat whenever the spirit moves you. An old-fashioned southern favorite, these updated “bourbon” balls are full of flavor and crunch. Not only are these delicious, but they can also be prepared ahead and don’t require baking. For beginning bakers, they are perfect because they are incredibly easy to make and are an instant confidence builder. I modified these to make them appropriate for Chocolate Monday and to feature and incredible beverage I discovered on my food adventure in Columbus earlier this year.
I wanted to create a treat featuring the marvelous Honey Vanilla Bean vodka from Middle West Spirits of Columbus, Ohio. If you think vodka always has to taste like rubbing alcohol, you haven’t had the pleasure of tasting the products from Middle West. Smooth with a long finish and notes of butterscotch, you will never go back to ordinary vodka after just one taste of Middle West’s incredible small-batch spirits. My favorite is their flavored vodka made from Ohio’s soft, red winter wheat and premium Ohio honey. If you are in the area you can buy their products direct from the distillers or for those of us across the nation, they are now available online from The Party Source.
If you have been taught that keeping your vodka in the freezer will improve its taste, that isn’t necessary with Middle West vodkas. Brady Konya says, “Vodkas are supposed to be odorless, colorless and tasteless… at least according to the US Government. We’d beg to differ. There’s an ongoing revival in vodkas, and people who know artisan spirits know that there’s a complexity to the spirit that is under-appreciated. Essentially, there’s a standard filtration process that strips a lot of that flavor out, but you can still make amazing vodkas without filtering out those flavors. Some can be very simple and some can have a lot of character. Mixologists who are really getting into the art now are definitely developing a palate for how these differences can accentuate juices in a fresh bar for cocktails.”
One thing that impressed me about all the artisans we met on our tour of Columbus was their dedication to using local products. Konya and his business partner Ryan Lang are no exception. “… it’s not just about manufacturing… it’s about the whole process and connecting the local farmer to the local manufacturer to the local customer. We kind of see what we’re doing as an arm of the Slow Food movement … it’s ultimately all about what’s in the bottle. The majority of our raw materials are sourced within 100 miles of Columbus. All of our wheat comes from Northern Ohio, it’s all milled locally, and we’re developing a supply chain of local farmers to do seasonal products that highlight Ohio agriculture, berries, fruits and spices…”
You are not limited to using vodka or bourbon in these cookies, you can substitute any of your favorites, or make two batches, some with vanilla cookies and the other half with chocolate, flavoring each with a different alcohol. Roll the vanilla balls in powdered sugar and the chocolate ones in cocoa powder so you can tell them apart easily. Some options are Grand Marnier if you like orange, Chambord for black raspberry, Kahlua for coffee, or coconut rum for a taste of the tropics. If you are making these for children or for people who do not like the flavor of alcohol, you can make a “virgin” form. Substitute an equal amount of water for the vodka, and add 2 tsp of vanilla to boost the flavor.
One of the best aspects of this type of cookie is that the flavor improves with time so you can make these a few days ahead of a dinner party or event and serve them on a buffet or have them wrapped, ready to hand out to your guests. I rarely have the patience to wait and often sneak bites while I am making them, thus the name.
There are two ways of coating these, both are important for slowing the evaporation process of the alcohol. You can take the easy route (my typical choice) and roll them in a combination of powdered sugar and cocoa then top them with a sprinkling of more sugar to mimic a light snowfall. The other option is to coat them in melted chocolate. This is a bit more advanced and takes some practice, but is a fantastic way to make them a bit fancier and really turn them into a chocoholic’s fantasy dessert!
If you are looking for a food and spirit filled vacation, I urge you to consider Columbus. Full of wonderful artisans, restaurants, and fun adventures, it is a wonderful family-friendly holiday destination. It is one of my favorite destinations and I can’t wait until I can go back to discover more of its treasures!
Check out these incredibly talented writers I met on my trip to Columbus and discover their wonderful worlds of food and spirits!
A Thought for Food – Brian (Boston)
Blue Kitchen – Terry (Chicago)
Cincinnati Nomerati – Laura & David (Cincinnati)
Eat the Love – Irvin (San Francisco)
Hounds in the Kitchen – Rachel (Columbus)
The Hungry Dudes – Joe (Detroit)
Vanilla Icing – Michelle (Pittsburgh)
Wine Me, Dine Me – Julie (Cincinnati)
Jane’s Tips and Hints:
An ice cream scoop makes very quick work of forming this dough into equally sized balls.
- Chocolate Bites
- 1-1/2 cups pecans, chopped
- 3/4 cup confectioners’ sugar, divided
- 1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, divided
- 1/3 cup Lyle’s Golden Syrup or light corn syrup
- 1/2 cup OYO Honey Vanilla Bean Vodka, rum, Kahlua, bourbon or other alcohol of your choice
- 16 oz chocolate wafer cookies
- Confectioners’ sugar, for sprinkling
- Melted semisweet chocolate, for dipping, optional
- Preheat the oven to 350°F.
- Toast the Pecans: Spread the chopped nuts out on a baking sheet and bake for about 5 to 8 minutes or until fragrant, stirring occasionally. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool slightly.
- Place 1/4 cup of the confectioners’ sugar and 1/4 cup of the cocoa powder in a wire sieve and sift into an 8-inch square baking pan; set aside. In a small bowl, combine the golden syrup and vodka together, whisking until smooth. Set aside.
- Make the “Cookie” Mixture: Place the pecans in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the regular blade. Process about 5 to 10 seconds until they are finely chopped. Don’t go too far or you will turn the mixture into “peanut butter.” Add the chocolate wafer cookies and process until they are very finely chopped. Transfer this mixture to the bowl of a standing mixer or a large bowl.
- To the cookie-pecan mixture, add the remaining 1/2-cup of the confectioners’ sugar and the remaining 1/4 cup cocoa; stir until evenly blended. Add the golden syrup and vodka. Beat until well mixed and a dough forms. Form into balls about the size of small walnuts and roll in the cocoa and sugar mixture until completely and evenly coated.
- Store the balls in an airtight container in a cool, dark place for up to 3 weeks. The flavors blend during an “aging” period of about a week, so you can make them ahead. For longer storage, these may be frozen up to 4 months.
- Yield: about 3 dozen
- You can make these smaller, about 1 tsp each, for single bite treats that your family will love.