A brief essay/story about how mom acquired her famous bourbon ball recipe.
|Written for Roots & Wings Contest "Roots & Wings Contest" Note that the cover image is not even close to how my mom's chocolate covered bourbon balls look, but it's an image of chocolate, so I chose it.
Prompt 1: Do you have a great family recipe that has been passed down through the generations? When was it served? Who made it for you and how often did you eat it? Does it bring back memories for you and do you make it for your family?
Mom used to live in Louisville, Kentucky (KY). She worked in the lab in a teaching hospital. She also owned 2 farms and some small-time race horses she ran in claims races. (Those are races where someone else can claim ownership of the horse at the end.) Kentucky is famous for its bourbon and thus, there are many things made with bourbon sold all across the state, including bourbon pecan pie and chocolate covered bourbon balls.
Mom loved the bourbon balls from one particular manufacturer and eventually met a disgruntled worker from there. Mom talked the disgruntled worker into giving her the recipe to the bourbon balls they made. She paid $100 for the recipe, which in the 1950's, was quite a bit of money, about $1000. I'm not sure if mom was sworn to secrecy, but I would guess so since the employee would undoubtedly have gotten into a lot of trouble for sharing the recipe. Mom has been repeatedly asked for the recipe over the years, but only gave it out once to a long-time friend who said her she would never share the recipe, but would make them for her family, especially her daughter whose husband was literally on his knees begging for another. That tradition of not sharing the recipe has continued with my brother and I. Though I am creating a family recipe book and wanted to include that recipe in it and my brother refused, so it's been excluded.
Every Christmas mom made her "bourbon balls" or "chocolates"--they went by both names in our house, but never by "chocolate covered bourbon balls," as they are, as far as I know, traditionally called in KY. All her friends and local family (my brother, father, and I) looked forward to it each year. It was a big deal as they are a finicky thing to make so we had to wait until it was very cold (in the 30's) and dry (I forget the maximum allowable humidity), both of which are a bit challenging to get in Alabama. Mom would carefully watch the weather as Christmas approached and yes, there were times the chocolates had to be made after Christmas because the weather just wasn't right before hand.
Then, on the day of the big night, she'd freeze all the utensils and pans (except the double boiler since it went on the stove anyway) as well as all the ingredients, including the powdered sugar and chopped pecans. That night, she closed all the doors to the kitchen, insulating it from the rest of the house, and opened the kitchen door to the outside. (This was my least favorite part of the process because I hate to be cold.) The kitchen became very cold and we had to wear coats and sometimes hats just to stay warm. She'd have my brother (when he would help) and I (when I was willing, but both my brother and I tried to avoid helping) get the utensils out one by one, only as they were needed, the same with the ingredients. Everything was handled as little as possible so that we didn't warm it with our hands. When mixing, the kitchen used to become a mess because we couldn't seem to keep the powdered sugar from going everywhere. We didn't have a high-sided mixing bowl for such messes, just a regular one, so when she used the electric beaters, which needed to be used on high so things could mix as quickly as possible before they warmed up, powdered sugar was always everywhere...until I one night suggested we put a towel over things. That helped a lot and became a part of the traditional preparation.
Over the years, mom experimented with several steps, but most especially the bourbon. She tried a number of different brands and settled on Old Grandad as the best. I'm not sure if that's from the original recipe, though. I never thought to ask and now it's too late. She also experimented with how to incorporate the bourbon so that it was evenly distributed. She tried injecting them and other methods, but never got anything she was fully satisfied with. Ultimately, she went back to her original plan of slowly pouring it in while things were mixing.
The entire process of making bourbon balls was tricky. One of the parts I hated the most was rolling them into balls in our hands. We had, again, done a number of experiments. (No wonder I'm so intellectually curious. I come by it naturally.) We settled on simply using cold hands (running them under cold water for a minute or so, if they weren't cold enough, then drying them very thoroughly. We had to work quickly as to not let our hands warm or let our hands warm the mixture. Otherwise, it would start sticking to us as we rolled the mixture into balls about the size of a 3-D quarter. It also stuck to our hands if the humidity was too high.
When they were all rolled into balls, mom would sometimes put them briefly back in the fridge or freezer to reharden them, if they'd gotten too warm. But this, of course, lead to the problem of bourbon evaporating, so it was avoided when possible. She'd then, using two forks, dip them in the chocolate in the double boiler. Then place them on a frozen cookie sheet. She was careful to make sure all parts were covered and each top was a pretty swirl. One of my jobs was to diligently search all sides of each ball to ensure everything was fully covered. Otherwise, aside from the bourbon evaporating, they would also get hard inside and sort of crystalize. They were still good, but not as good.
When we were all done with a cookie sheet, we placed them outside to harden. Mom said this was better than in the refrigerator because it didn't leach out the bourbon. However, there was another problem--the granddaddy long-legs (AKA daddy long-legs) spiders. Ever seen one drunk? Yep. It can happen. They seemed to be able to tell when mom was going to make a run (as she called it) of chocolates. I have no idea how long they live, but if it's less than a year, perhaps generations of spiders spun yarns of the great chocolate banquets of the old days and how they hope that one day, it will happen again. Whatever. In any event, it wasn't uncommon to find several sucking away at the chocolates when we'd go outside to get them. We couldn't cover the bourbon balls with plastic as the chocolate was still wet when they went outside and we didn't have anything the size of the cookie sheets to cover them with. Even if there weren't any spiders, we could tell they'd been there because there would be a tiny hole in several chocolates and a drop of bourbon would be oozing out. But the most fun was when we found them and they tried to run away. If you've never seen a drunk granddaddy long-legs, I have to say, it's a sight to remember and one of my favorite parts of the nights' events. And if you think you wouldn't eat the bourbon balls after there was a risk of a spider having been on it, you've never had my mom's chocolates. Admittedly, I don't think we ever shared that part of the experience with those who received them. It was all a part of the process and nothing we felt was strange enough to tell others about. Then again, when visitors came while we had chocolates outside to harden, no one ever refused them when it was their turn to receive them, eight-legged bootleggers or not.
When they were sufficiently hardened, usually an hour or two, we brought them inside the still cold kitchen and put them in freezer style Ziplock bags in sets of twelve. Everyone got one bag of twelve for Christmas inside a cookie tin with a bow on it. And when you were given the tin, you were instructed to give it back for the next year if you wanted more. Tins were always returned, usually with pleas for more than just twelve chocolates and sometimes with offers to help her make them, but they were a carefully guarded secret, so no one was ever allowed to help and only rarely did someone get a second set of twelve, if the weather held out long enough for us to make more. On those occasions, they were sworn to secrecy and told it wasn't going to happen again. These few extra sets were usually held back for people who had helped our family especially much during the year. Although, not until just now did I realize that those extra sets we gave away were sets we could have saved for ourselves. Anyway, she kept the vegetable drawers cleared out during this time of year. One kept bags of chocolates for friends. The other kept usually only about two bags (twenty-four) chocolates for us. I feel like we should have had more, but that's my opinion.
One interesting thing about mom's bourbon balls is that if we had Oreos and my brother and I wanted some, we could just get a few. If we happened to have Hershey's Kisses in the house, no problem, grab a reasonable amount. But for the bourbon balls, mom's precious chocolates, those must be asked for and were only handed out individually. They were precious things, loved and cherished. I also never realized we never thought to count to ensure we got our fair share. I wonder if mom kept count or if mom snuck one or two when we were at school. In any event, they would usually last a couple of weeks because we knew these were the last ones we'd have for another year.
I'm sorry to say that I've never made a set, myself. Though the recipe is fairly simple, so I feel relatively sure I could. My brother said he made some many years ago when he first moved to Charleston, South Carolina, but that they were such a pain, he didn't do it again. That sounds like he did it right.
When I was in the Army, I got sent to Kentucky for six weeks. They have the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, a list of bourbon distilleries you can visit, tour, and get a stamp from. Once you've gotten a stamp from each, you can get a t-shirt. I went to nearly all of them (or perhaps all, I don't remember) and at each that sold bourbon balls, I bought two packs, one for me and one for my brother. We both agreed that none were like our mother's. Was it because mom's were made in small batches? Or because they didn't use Old Grandad bourbon like we did? Perhaps because they had additives to make them last longer? Is it that the original distillery is no longer in business or no longer makes bourbon balls--not every one I visited did? Maybe the granddaddy long-legs were a secret ingredient no one else used. Or, perhaps the problem is simply that nothing can taste as good as childhood memory. Will I ever make them, myself? Perhaps. Perhaps not. After all, nothing can taste as good as a childhood memory, so why try? Maybe that recipe will find its way to another family member through my Last Will and Testament. For sure, it shouldn't be lost.