Bourbon (or Rum or Brandy) Balls – A Nifty Cookie That Needs a New Name

bourbon balls with chocolate and coconut

Holiday chocolate cookie-candies, everything easy except what to call them.

These classic holiday goodies are almost perfect: Only one (processor) bowl to wash; no cooking; deeply chocolate flavored without calling for obscene amounts of expensive high-end chocolate. Very simple to form and they keep for a long time. Just one small problem: their name.

You can’t really call them Hooch-soaked Crumbs with Chocolate and Nuts, but Bourbon, Rum or Brandy Balls doesn’t exactly do the job either. Maybe they should be called Poor Man’s Truffles. Please consider this an invitation, all suggestions cheerfully considered.

What we need is something that says Small, Rich, Alcoholic* and Chocolate, without getting any more specific. After deliciousness, lack of specificity is the distinguishing merit of let’s temporarily call them SRAC’s; they’re the pasta casserole of cookies. You can make them out of almost any dry sweet you happen to have around.

In our house, that’s sometimes leftover cake, reduced to crumbs and dried in a low oven. But it’s more likely to be cookies, either from a new recipe that was tried and found wanting or from the store closet, where there are always ladyfingers in case of emergencies.  As long as the nutmeats are soft and the crumbs are on the dry side, success is guaranteed.

The many recipes I’ve seen all call for set amounts and ingredients. The one that requires 2 tbl. cocoa or a few ounces of melted chocolate to 3 or 3.5 cups of some combo of vanilla wafers, confectioners sugar and pecans is common almost to the point of universality, but anything with this sort of exact measurement strikes me as… I don’t want to say ridiculous, but certainly the kind of overkill that makes perfectly capable people think they can’t cook.

So, in the spirit of public service, here’s the “recipe” as I feel it should be, a liberator of individual creativity (and user-up of leftovers). Good any time but especially welcome in the season of maximum painstaking baking.


(small, rich, alcoholic, chocolate cookies)

1. Round up the stuff you’re going to use, inspired but not limited by the Possible Ingredient list that follows.

2. Grind the crumb item in a processor along with a small pinch of salt. Eyeball volume. Add from ½ to the same volume of coarsely chopped nuts and grind until the mixture is very fine. It may start to clump up at this stage.

3. Grind in @ 1 tbl. of cocoa per cup of material, then whirl in a few drops of syrup, @ 1 tsp. per cup.

4. One or two tablespoons at a time, depending on the quantity and desiccation of the crumbs, add flavorful alcohol. Stop when the mixture starts to coalesce into a mass. Go away and do something else for an hour or so.

5. Test the mixture for texture and taste. It should be claylike, soft but not sticky or greasy. Adjust, adding more of something absorbent if it’s oily or soggy, something liquid or semi-liquid if it doesn’t hold together. If the taste is all that wants adjustment, start by adding the salt if you thought you didn’t need it, then add small amounts of absorbent and liquid alternately.

6. Decide if you want to coat the cookies with something that must be applied right away (option b). If so,  set out the something in a shallow bowl. Otherwise, just roll the mixture between your palms into 1-inch balls and set them aside.

Possible ingredients

Absorbent crumbs:

  • Almost any plain cake. Trimmings from something that needed neatening are obvious candidates (assuming you prudently put them in the freezer), but leftover layer cake freed from the icing works fine too. Crumble and dry out before proceeding.
  • Purchased or home made plain cookies. Vanilla wafers are traditional, but my favorite ready-made is Savoiardi, the Italian-style ladyfingers widely sold to be used in tiramisu. Nabisco Famous Chocolate wafers up the chocolate quotient; anise biscotti,  Graham crackers and similar add their own unique flavors. Avoid shortbread, which winds up too greasy and of course anything filled with goo (a little jam will just mix in, eventually).

Absorbent non-crumbs:

  • Cocoa
  • Confectioners sugar

Semi-dry, aka soft oily nuts. I like them lightly toasted:

  • Pecans
  • Walnuts
  • Macadamia nuts

Semi-liquid, aka syrup:

  • Light corn syrup
  • Honey
  • Maple syrup
  • Golden Syrup
  • Molasses (good with gingersnap crumbs)


  • Whiskey
  • Bourbon
  • Brandy/Cognac/Armagnac/Calvados
  • Rum
  • White fruit brandies, i.e. kirsch or slivovitz
  • Cautions: Cordials like triple sec, amaretto and such are very sweet and a bit overwhelming in this context. Scotch is pretty strongly a personal taste; I like drinking it but don’t care for it in these cookies. If you try it; come to the same conclusion and don’t want to waste the material, try adding a good shot of finely ground black pepper.


  • a) Easy: These come out dry enough to pick up without getting chocolate all over your fingers, so the easiest coating is none at all. But in the usual way of chocolate pastes they don’t look particularly appetizing.
  • b) Second easiest: Roll as soon as formed in cocoa, coarse sugar or powdered sugar.
  • c) Still pretty simple, but now in two steps because anything with genuine texture won’t adhere: Some time within a day of forming, beat an egg white until foamy. One at a time, dip balls, scraping excess against the side of the bowl, and roll in chopped nutmeats, toasted coconut, finely chopped semisweet or white chocolate. Dry on racks. Repeat if desired for heavier coating
  • d) Not easy, but not difficult if you’re willing to go for the matte home made look rather than shiny chocolatier perfection. As long as the chocolate doesn’t overheat, it won’t streak white when it sets, and I think the texture contrast that makes hard coated soft truffles such winners is worth the extra bother:

1. Chop enough semi-sweet chocolate to equal at least  a cup or use disks of couverture. (This is enough to coat about 20 1-inch balls, and about the smallest amount it’s easy to melt properly. Any that’s left over can be reused, either re-melted or chopped.)

2. Put the chocolate in a shallow bowl and microwave at low power in 30 second installments, stirring after each. Stop when the chocolate is no more than 2/3 melted. Stir until all is melted and smooth, then perch the bowl over a pan of warm but not hot water; goal is to keep it fluid without reheating it. Sweet spot is 85-90 degrees, but since you’re not really tempering the chocolate, you don’t need to worry about using a thermometer.

3. Set out a rack. Turn off the phone. Dollop a large puddle of chocolate into your left palm (or right, if you’re a leftie). Using the other hand, drop in a ball, roll it to cover, scrape excess against the edge of your hand and put the ball on the rack. Repeat.

Don’t try to use all the chocolate in your hand before adding more; body heat is warm enough to make the chocolate too hot.

dipping chocolates, palm of hand method

See, not as messy as it sounds like.

* If you want to avoid alcohol you could probably use strong brewed coffee or orange juice, but I have to confess I’ve never tried it.

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1 Comment »

  • Robin Said,

    I will be in the kitchen with this recipe on Tuesday. Until then I will wear a bib to absorb the drool!

    Hi there Robin,
    Good thing Tuesday’s coming right up!

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