My Recipe Redux: Rum Balls

On Sunday, our church service focused on forgiveness, and it made me realize that I have a long way to go. I’ve never recovered from being denied the role of Scarlett O’Hara in our grad school parody of Gone with the Wind (in which Scarlett would have done anything to get tenure). I still don’t understand why my fourth grade teacher liked LaVelda Blanton better than me, though it’s possible that her lack of seething resentment at others’ success had something to do with it. And, of course, there’s my irritation at the New York Times Magazine’s “Recipe Redux” column.

But now I have to consider that the Lord will forgive my trespasses only as I forgive those who trespass against me. I have some issues to work out with “Recipe Redux” now because I found myself updating a recipe this weekend in ways that would probably make the original author roll over in his grave. So Amanda Hesser, I hope you will overlook my nasty remarks about the Medjool date recipe and the snide comments about that laborious, incomprehensible twelve-ingredient dessert. I understand it all a little better now, and I’ll try to be nicer. Mostly. At some point.

It started with the bourbon balls. I write a column for a newsletter in my Atlanta neighborhood (we never managed to sell our house there), and this month I wanted to feature a recipe for a holiday treat given to me by an elderly Presbyterian minister a few years back. The column was due Friday, which means that first thing Saturday morning I wrote in to beg for an extension. Then I went to the kitchen.

But when I pulled out the bourbon ball recipe, I saw it wasn’t going to work. For one thing, it called for paraffin. Paraffin isn’t unusual for a chocolate recipe; it’s used to make it glossy and keep candies solid at room temperature. My grandmother used it to seal her jellies. But I didn’t like the idea of putting wax in my food. It seemed like cheating.

Plus I didn’t have any. I didn’t have semi-sweet chocolate chips either. Or bourbon. (At least, not bourbon I could pour into a bowl of chocolate without making Fred cry.)

What I did have was 5 squares of unsweetened baking chocolate, cocoa powder, powdered sugar, rum, and a looming deadline. I rationalized the lack of semi-sweet chips and the addition of the cocoa powder by concluding that modern sensibilities lean toward less sugar and a more intense chocolate flavor. I also figured that the type of liquor wasn’t really important and that I now had an excellent opportunity to use what was not used in last Christmas’s rum cake.

But having spent quite a bit of time shopping recently for desserts, I was also intrigued by the idea of some of the flavors I’ve seen paired with chocolate, especially savory items like chili powder, bacon, and especially salt. Tempted as I was to try the bacon (and one day I will), I decided to take the safe route in my variation and dust the rum balls with a little salt.

This was a fortuitous choice. There’s something about the salt-chocolate combination that’s utterly addictive, (as anyone who’s eaten a chocolate-covered pretzel will tell you), and the increased proportion of chocolate to sugar provided the intensified chocolate flavor I hoped to achieve. These candies aren’t as rummy as some I’ve tried, but that’s really a bonus, allowing you to focus on the chocolate. Update December 2012: Not everyone likes the salt as much as I do. I’ve modified the recipe to account for that–and the unsalted version is probably better suited to more tastes.

The ingredients used weren’t even particularly good (months old Baker’s unsweetened chocolate, generic cocoa powder), but I was nevertheless pleased enough with the result that I’m going to make these for Christmas. Maybe I’ll even send some to Amanda Hesser.

Original Recipe: Bourbon Balls

This recipe was given to me by a Presbyterian minister in his 90s. I am certain that his regular consumption of bourbon and chocolate contributed to his long life and health.

1/4 pound butter
1 box powdered sugar
1/4 cup bourbon
1/2 square paraffin
2 cups finely chopped pecans
1 large package semisweet chocolate chips + 2 1/2 squares baking chocolate

Cream butter and sugar. Add bourbon and pecans. Shape into small balls put on waxed paper. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. Melt chocolate chips and baking chocolate; add paraffin. Dip balls into cooled chocolate and place on waxed paper to harden.

Updated Recipe: Rum Balls

Makes about 50 1″ balls

5 oz. unsweetened chocolate, melted in small saucepan using lowest possible heat and set aside to cool
4 1/2 cups confectioners sugar
1 ½ cups cocoa powder
½ tsp. salt (omit if using salted butter)
½ lb. butter, softened
2 cups finely chopped nuts (pecans and/or walnuts)
1/4 cup dark rum
1/4 cup creme de cacao (can probably substitute Kahlua)
2 tsp. high-quality salt, finely ground (optional)

In large bowl, sift together 3 cups of the sugar, 1 cup of the cocoa powder, and salt. Add to butter. With electric mixer or by hand, stir on low speed until butter is mixed in, then increase speed and mix until creamed. This may take several minutes. Stir in rum, nuts, and chocolate. Add 1 cup of confectioners sugar and mix until thoroughly blended. Cover and refrigerate for about 15 minutes. (Can be refrigerated for one day, but allow dough to soften at room temperature for about 30 minutes before shaping.)

Sift together salt (if using), remaining 1/2 cup cocoa, and 1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar. Shape dough into one inch balls. Roll into cocoa mixture and set on wax paper or in mini paper muffin cups. Allow to firm in refrigerator; transfer to container. Refrigerate if you will not be using for several days; otherwise can be stored at room temperature.