Aunt Jane’s Bourbon Balls
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
Hi Mimi, I read The Man Who Ate Too Much and it was a very enjoyable read and I thought a very well rounded portrayal of James Beard. Now, I will have to make the Bourbon Balls to celebrate Aunt Jane and John Birdsall. Thanks!
It’s a great book, isn’t it?! Really fun to read. I love the author’s writing so much.
How amazing! My husband gave me a copy of the book for Christmas! With recommendations from two of my favorite bloggers, I’m really excited to get started!
PS This recipe does remind me of my mom’s rum balls but with different spirits. I had to laugh at hiding the vanilla wafers. I decided one year to make mom’s rum balls using homemade vanilla wafers. A lot of work, and the texture of the balls was off! I guess some things don’t translate.
I guess not! I actually never tasted these. Everyone else thought they were great. I just can’t eat vanilla wafers, but I loved the story behind the recipe!
I remember my first rum ball at a young age, and not being able to spit it out fast enough! Many years later, I could eat the whole plate of them happily! And I am sure it would be the same with Aunt Jane’s Bourbon Balls. Sorry the use of vanilla wafers kept you away – I wish it would stop me.
Thanks also for the note about The Man Who Ate Too Much. Beard’s story is a heartbreaking one – I need to get the book.
I just won’t eat crap cookies! I don’t eat Oreos, either. My mother always tried to give us alcoholic things, like brandied fruit, and my sister and I would practically die. I still don’t really like food that’s too alcoholic. I ruined some paté recently cause I was too lazy to burn off the cognac fully. Fortunately other people liked it! Anyway, great book, and such great writing. You’ll love it.
These bourbon balls sound really intriguing. I will check out the book too, sounds like an interesting read.
I really never knew who James Beard was – no real specifics, like why he became so popular. So it was an interesting read.
What a fabulous story, I can certainly see why you wanted to make them. Merry Christmas (a little late, I know) and happy and healthy new year.
Yes! A great and funny story. It’s still Christmas to me! Happy New Year!
Mm vanilla wafers are not a thing here :=) A wafer here is a multi-layered rectangular thingy with layers of a creamy thing in between. Yep great description I know. Love that handwriting on the recipe notebook. Corn syrup is the devil’s work so nope to that :) Happy New Year!
It’s pretty awful stuff. The agave worked well! These are tasteless dry cookies, but Americans use them a lot. I have no idea why. Happy New Year!
I love this. And your hiding the vanilla wafers–too funny and relatable. I may or may not have done the same before. :) Happy New Year!
Especially in this small town, where I worked as an advocate for feeding children healthy food! Boy would I have gotten some raised eyebrows!!! Happy New Year!
Oooooh how scrumptious! A belated Merry Christmas to you and a very happy new year ahead :-) ~Valentina
Thank you! Happy New Year!
What a way to make a friend! I like that you wear gloves when making these, seems like a great idea :)
I know! Great story. And good balls!
My bourbon balls are legendary, and still, I’d love to try this version! You can never have too many bourbon balls, after all. ;)
I guess not!!! I’m just not a bourbon fan. Happy New Year Hannah!
A friend recently returned from Kentucky and brought us a box of bourbon balls. Now that I’ve seen your recipe for them, I’m looking forward to trying them!
Very nice! A great gift, if you like the taste of bourbon. I, personally, do not. Or whiskey. I wish I did! They all look so easy to drink. Happy New Year!
What a great story, Mimi. Thanks! I can see why you wanted to make the bourbon balls after reading it. I do, too!
That man is such a good writer. The whole story could have been fiction, but who cares! He’s very funny and a really engaging writer.
I’d definitely make these to add to a holiday cookie tray! Something different for sure! Happy New Year!!
thanks, Liz. Happy New Year!
Dei dolcetti deliziosi! Tantissimi auguri di un sereno 2023!
What an incredible story, Mimi. Somehow a recipe with a family story always feels more important. I’m a little “sugared-out” after the holidays, but I’m saving this recipe. I have always enjoyed a good bourbon ball, but it’s been years since I’ve made them. I’d love to try this particular recipe. Happy New Year, my friend.
I don’t ever crave sweets, just cheese and most all things savory. I didn’t even sample these – I let my husband do it, and then took the rest to my daughter’s house for Christmas. Just not a fan of bourbon, but I wanted to make them just because the family story is so good. So now I’m a bit cheese’d out!
Happy New Year. Love the story. Will try the balls. Is there a substitute for Karo syrup? Curious.
I used agave! Hope this year is even more wonderful for you and yours!
Looks like a fun food to nibble on.
It helps if you like the flavor of bourbon. I don’t!
Oh dear! Everybody should have an aunt like Jane! Love the story!:-)
I know. Not sure if it’s true, but it probably is.