Would you like to be the MVP of this holiday season? And get loaded on bourbon while achieving this lofty state? Yes, I bet you would. And I'm here to tell you how you're going to get there: You're going to make bourbon balls, and serve them to friend, family, and foe alike. Because you, Sir or Madam, are a Holiday Hero, and that's what Holiday Heroes do.
Nilla Wafers—or, more specifically, crushed-up Nilla Wafers—serve as the base of these balls, so that's the thing we're going to start with. What you're aiming for is to end up with 2½ to 3 cups of crushed-up cookies, which roughly translates to about two thirds of a box of Nilla Wafers. That's a bit inexact! But it's OK, because even though bourbon balls so often fall into the Holiday Cookie category, they're not baked, which means this recipe is way, way, way more forgiving than are ones for actual baked goods. I think we can all agree that we like a forgiving recipe. Grudge-holding recipes are really a huge bummer. Like, isn't life hard enough without having to continually apologize to the cookie jar for something you did seven years ago?
In order to create this base of crushed up cookies, you're going to need to do some demolition and here you have some choice. There's a joke to be made there about this being a liberal recipe and all but it's the holidays and we all know that we're to avoid political discussions at holiday functions so we'll move right on to the part where we talk about the hammer.
The hammer. Like, an actual hammer. Or a mallet! Or a phone book, and oh my God we've finally discovered a secondary use beyond door stoppage for those phone books that just keep on arriving at our doors WHY GOD, WHY?!?
The idea here is that you want to smash the tar out of those cookies.
Now look, yes of course you can do this in the food processor, providing you have one of those machines. And, using the processor is certainly a good option for those of you looking to remain on good terms with your neighbors, or who have a sleeping baby in the next room. Actually no, the processor will still wake that baby up. I dunno, just put the baby outside or something while this is going on.
But there's something to be said for executing the crushing of the cookies manually, and I would urge you to try it this way at least once. It's just sort of fun and exhilarating and BANG-BANG-BANG-THWAP-BANG!
I'm certain that you have some sort of Holiday Feeling that needs to be worked out and what better way to work that Holiday Feeling out than by absolutely creaming a bag of Nilla Wafers? So! Grab your hammer or mallet or the phone book, put the cookies into a large Ziploc bag, seal it up, and unleash the proverbial hounds. If you're using a hammer, it bears noting that using the wooden handle end is better than using the metal hammer end, as the metal hammer end is likely to cause the bag to tear open and then it's "Dear Jolie, What's the best way to clean up 3 cups of pulverized Nilla Wafers that exploded all over my kitchen?"
Now that the base is prepared, we'll start adding things in to make those cookies taste like something, anything, because wow are Nilla Wafers ever bland?
Enter the nut! A half cup of pecans, chopped up, to be precise. However—and this is a big but—you are not beholden to the use of the pecan. I personally love a pecan. Never met one I didn't like! Whereas I feel that walnuts are a rancid-tasting affront to the good name of the tree nut. But the world don't move to the beat of just one drum—what might be right for you, may not be right for some. So go on and use a nut you like, because you're in charge of these balls and why should you be forced to use a nut you don't care for? Life is seriously far too short, guys.
Of course, nuts and Nilla Wafer powder on their own don't add up to much, so go ahead and introduce a half cup of unsweetened cocoa powder and a cup of confectioners' sugar ("the powdered stuff" in lay terms) to the mix and stir that stuff up right nice.
At this point, the dry mixture is crying out for a drink and after all that BANG-BANG-BANGing you likely are as well. There are two things that we use to bind bourbon balls: Corn syrup and bourbon. That second one came, I'm sure, as an enormous shock to you; once you've had a chance to pick your jaw up off the floor, we'll take a quick detour to talk about the non-bourbon version of these balls. OK, you ready? Close your mouth, love. OK, now you're ready.
A common variation on this recipe uses rum rather than bourbon. These are called rum balls. They are delicious! If you prefer rum to bourbon, or if you just have rum in the house and are low on bourbon because you used it all in the eggnog, go on and make this exact recipe—or the version of this recipe that uses the sort of nut you prefer to the sort of nut I prefer because like I said, life is too short to go around suffering an inferior nutfeel in your baked (or, in this case, not-baked) goods—substituting rum for bourbon.
Nutfeel, by the way, is my gift to you. I'll not remark on it. You go on and knock yourself out making alllll the jokes. I'll wait.
Now where were we? Ah right, we were at the point of bringing in the corn syrup and the bourbon. Start with 3 tablespoons of light corn syrup. The dark version will do just fine, though it's got a molasses flavor to it that we're not really looking for, but don't, like, run out and buy the light stuff if you've got the dark stuff on hand. That's mostly what I'm trying to say.
Next up comes the bourbon and this is the point at which my Kindly-Auntie-Jolie-Free-To-Be-You-And-Me routine comes to an abrupt halt. Get up out of that lotus position and fall into formation! Hut hut! LISTEN UP, CADETS: You are going to add to the mix of the dry ingredients and the corn syrup one third to one half cup of bourbon. NOT ANY MORE THAN THAT. You will be tempted to. You will look at that third or half cup of bourbon and say to yourself, "Self! This does not seem like nearly enough bourbon! And that nice lady is forever urging me to express my tastes rather than cleave myself to the tastes of others! I SHALL ADD MORE OF THIS LOVELY BOURBON."
So sure, go ahead and do that. Just know that if you do, you're going to fuck up the bourbon balls. "Wait sorry, did I just hear kindly Auntie Jolie utter a curse word?" You bet your sweet tush you did. And I'm going to do it again, but louder this time: IF YOU ADD MORE BOURBON THAN I'M TELLING YOU TO ADD YOU'RE GOING TO FUCK UP THE BOURBON BALLS. Please do not fuck up the bourbon balls. I will seriously be so mad at you if you do. This is not a land in which the bourbon runs free, OK?
(Mmm wait. That's not entirely true. The bourbon in this land does run free, but run it freely into your mouth rather than freely into the balls. Go on! Drink the bourbon! Just really promise me that you'll stick to the measurement I gave you for the recipe. I know you're worried and not entirely sure that you can trust me, and I'm going to address that shortly, but for the time being be a love and do what I say.)
At this point, you're maybe thinking that this all seems too easy and mostly it is. That's the whole recipe! Really! Except … the work part of the recipe isn't yet done, and the work part can be a bit of a bother. I would definitely suggest putting on some festive music for this portion of things! That will make it more fun, and provide a rhythm for what is essentially an assembly line sort of task.
But first we must stir! With a sturdy wooden or plastic spoon, stir the crushed cookies and the nuts and the cocoa and the sugar and the syrup and the bourbon together. This will be challenging. It's a dry, sticky concoction! And should you find yourself with too dry a concoction you should feel free to add a bit more corn syrup. BUT NOT MORE BOURBON. I promised we'd get to that, and we will, but for now I need you to keep the trust thing going.
Once everything is mixed together well and looks like a giant sticky brown ball, go ahead and taste a little bit of it. Does it taste of bourbon? YOU BET IT DOES! You're probably making a face! A good face! But a face that conveys that "Wow! Is that ever bourbon-y!" And see now how I was right about not adding more bourbon back in step five or so?
Trust is a marvelous thing, isn't it, friend?
If you feel, after tasting the concoction, that it could use a bit more bourbon go ahead and add more by the tablespoonful, tasting as you go. But truly, it will not need more bourbon.
Now that the mixture has come together, it's time for the real work to begin: The Rolling Of The Balls. This is fun! But it's also work and can be a logistical challenge because you're going to end up making 40 to 60 of these babies. I've been doing this for a long, long time in a teeny tiny kitchen with virtually no counter space, which means that I've developed some best practices along the way that I'd like to share with you.
In terms of tools one or two large cookie sheets and a cookie scoop are ideal for the task at hand. If you don't have a cookie scoop that's OK; a regular old spoon is fine. But man, a cookie scoop makes a big, big, big difference here and is also one of those tools that more than earns back the space it takes up in your kitchen. But I guess only if you make a lot of cookies, which I do. So there's that to consider before making the ten-dollar (or so) investment.
With your scoop, or your regular old spoon, you'll start measuring out the mixture and rolling it into one-inch balls. You should be prepared for the reality that the rolling process is going to make your hands look like they're covered in poop. Sorry about that! But totally, these balls are worth it. Patting your hands in powdered sugar before rolling, and at intervals throughout the process, helps the rolling process and the poop-looking-hand thing quite a bit. That's where those cookie sheets come in: go ahead and put a whole bunch of powdered sugar on one of the sheets, which will serve two functions. First, it gives you a repository of sugar in which to pat your hands as needed; and second, it is the platform on which you are going to roll the balled up balls in powdered sugar. The second cookie sheet is where you'll place the balls once they've been rolled in the sugar. If you're anything like me, throughout this endeavor you'll be talking to the balls, saying things like, "Sorry about the delousing, Rod. ... The lice hate the sugar."
When the rolling of the balls is complete, put them into an air-tight container for storage purposes. They'll keep for two weeks or so (they will not last that long though, because they are absurdly delicious), and the bourbon flavor will mellow with time. Which is the best reason I can give you for shoving them in your mouth as quickly as possible.
Jolie Kerr is the author of the upcoming book My Boyfriend Barfed In My Handbag … And Other Things You Can't Ask Martha (Plume, February 25, 2014); more of her natterings can be found on Twitter, Kinja, and Tumblr.
Image by Sam Woolley.