It was the title of this bourbon ball recipe that grabbed my attention on the Table52 website. “A Bourbon Ball That Shows Up Everything at the Neighbor’s Cookie Swap.” The bourbon balls are featured in a fabulous back story by John Birdsall. The recipe was Aunt Jane’s, who wasn’t really his aunt at all.
According to Birdsall, “The lady down the street was from Kentucky. I don’t know how she came to live in South San Francisco, where there was never a night that fog didn’t send the cold through your jacket. The lady’s husband lost his mind one time and chased her up the slope of our block with a hatchet. In nothing but a towel, she pounded on our door (I’ve always pictured her in a shower cap, but this all happened when I was a baby) and that’s how Jane and my mother became friends. My mom protected her, her husband left her, we adopted her — she was forever after Aunt Jane. In turn, she made our lives fabulous.”
Aunt Jane was really something. And, she made bourbon balls. Here is the recipe by Aunt Jane in the author’s mother’s recipe notebook.
The recipe doesn’t seem that unique to me; there are hundreds like it. Maybe thousands. But the story behind these bourbon balls made me want them. When I bought vanilla wafers at the store, I made sure to cover the box with lots of produce. You know me. Food snob.
I highly recommend clicking on the above link from Table52 to read more about “Johnny’s” Aunt Jane.
“Whenever Aunt Jane saw me she’d demand, ‘Where’s my sugar?’ in a way that oozed, the way butter melts on a hot biscuit.”
Aunt Jane’s Kentucky Bourbon Balls
8 ounces vanilla Wafers
4 ounces shelled pecans
6 ounces semisweet chocolate (64% cacao)
1/3 cup granulated sugar, plus more for coating
2 tablespoons light corn syrup (I used agave)
6 tablespoons (3 ounces) bourbon
In a food processor, reduce the vanilla wafers to fine crumbs and transfer to a large mixing bowl. Chop the pecans fine and add them to the bowl. Set aside.
Melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl set over a pot of over hot, but not boiling water. Stir in the sugar, corn syrup, and bourbon. Add this mixture to the crumb mixture. Blend by hand until well combined. (I added all of the ingredients together for fear of the chocolate seizing.)
Form tablespoon-sized lumps of the mixture unto balls, rolling between the palms of your hands. Drop the balls in a bowl of sugar and toss to coat. Transfer to an airtight container, arranging the balls in single layers separated by parchment.
Store the bourbon balls tightly sealed at room temperature. They get better (mellower, and with a smoother texture) as they age.
Birdsall’s writing is reminiscent of the Dear Charlie stories Christopher Kimball wrote in Cook’s Illustrated magazine, which later he compiled into a book of the same name. Lovely, vibrant stories from the past. I was so intrigued and moved by John Birdsall’s writing that I checked him out on Amazon, and he has indeed written and co-written books. The one that stood out to me is, “The Man Who Ate Too Much: The Life of James Beard, published in 2020. I hope something similar doesn’t appear on my headstone…
The excerpts on amazon are so moving; I just had to buy the book. And not surprisingly, the prose reveals extreme perception and empathy, from someone who seriously researched his subject.
“Like the life of James Beard, this biography is big and beautiful, heartbreaking and true.It is the celebration that Beard deserves.”
– Wall Street Journal
“Birdsall’s sentences have rhythm, too, and compress time and place so that a meal becomes a history… like the greediest of diners, I want more.”
― Ligaya Mishan, New York Times Book Review