Look Who’s Cooking: A year in review and a family heirloom recipe

  • Finished bourbon balls can be topped with confectioner’s sugar, cocoa, chopped nuts or melted chocolate, and can be packed into decorative gift boxes for holiday presents. Roxann Wedegartner’s mother, Mary Davis, shown in the black and white photo, passed down the recipe to her daughter, who helped form the batter into balls as a child. For the Recorder/Roxann Wedegartner

  • Simple, everyday ingredients go into this easy-to-make recipe for bourbon balls. For the Recorder/Roxann Wedegartner

  • WEDEGARTNER

Published: 12/18/2018 1:56:43 PM

By ROXANN WEDEGARTNER

For the Recorder

This month marks the one-year anniversary of Look Who’s Cooking, and what a fun year it’s been. I asked a lot of really nice local people to help me out by being my “centerfolds” for the column, and they said “Yes!”

Yes to letting me and a photographer come into their homes, into their cooking inner sanctums, the kitchen; and yes to telling me about their passions for food, cooking and baking.

So thank you to Caitlin von Schmidt, cookie maker extraordinaire; Chris Collins, the Chex Mix king; Al Norman and his amazing matzo ball soup; Joe Mattei, master cook whose passion for all things Italian knows no limits; Hillary Hoffman, another food and cooking enthusiast who loves to find the next new kitchen gadget and master it; Ellen Abraham, the yoga teacher and vegan cooking expert who often has two very interesting cooking companions, her birds; Kirsten Levitt, the brains and energy behind Stone Soup Café, the weekly pay-what-you-can restaurant that helps feed the hungry and our souls; Rob Chirico, author, humorist and fine artist who is also a master cook; Myron Becker, one of Franklin County’s first successful food entrepreneurs with his fine cooking sauces; Rob Cohn, Realtor, philanthropist and friend whose cooking and love of food I’ve shared for many years; Brittany Wood Nickerson, the inspiring herbalist, cookbook author and teacher whose lovely Conway farm I won’t forget; and Paul Shallers, a new Greenfield resident and new friend who is maintaining his reputation for the best sticky buns in the Northeast.

And last, but certainly not least, thanks to the Greenfield Recorder for running with my idea for a food column and to photographers Paul Franz, Dan Little and my husband, Richard Wedegartner. The good news: Look Who’s Cooking is already “cooking up” some new interviews for 2019.

As the year has gone on, people have stopped to tell me how much they enjoy the column and to ask about how I became a food writer and lover of cooking. I’d like to answer a couple of frequently asked questions, then give you a holiday food memory and recipe from my childhood.

FAQ: So how did this come about?

RW: I began my journalism career as the assistant food editor of the Houston Chronicle in Houston, Texas under the careful tutelage of a great mentor, Ann Criswell, the food editor for 36 years. After a year or two, I moved on to straight news reporting and didn’t really go back to food writing until very recently. However, good food and good cooking have been a large part of my adult life and always will be.

FAQ: What is your favorite type of cooking?

RW: I spent my teenage years and early adulthood in South Texas, specifically growing up in Brownsville, in the Lower Rio Grande Valley and in Houston. So Southwest-inspired and Mexican cooking are where my expertise lay.

However, Richard and I started the first true natural food store in Houston called A Moveable Feast in 1970, and I became very interested in cooking with whole, natural and organically grown food, which has also been a constant in our lives. And then, almost anything that involves pasta and Italian cooking is another passion, and something that’s on the menu at our house at least once a week.

FAQ: Do you have a favorite food memory?

RW: I have several. But I’ll share this one as we’re in the holiday season. When I think of childhood Christmases, I think of bourbon balls. That’s right. Not Santa and his elves, or toys, or the endless possibilities wrapped up in the presents under the tree.

Bourbon balls offered bonding time in the kitchen with my mother, Mary Davis. It was my job to form the batter into balls, not to sip the bourbon. A busy working mother, Mary was a really good cook but, like me, was not a baker. Except at Christmas, when there would be a round of cookie baking and preparation of various boozy delicacies: bourbon balls, rum balls and sometimes even a fruit cake made from scratch (Amazing! Who does that?) It sat for days in a rum-soaked cloth until it was pronounced ready.

When my inherited recipe box revealed a tattered recipe for bourbon balls typewritten on an index card, I was transported to those days. The problem is the recipe only includes the ingredients and the barest of instructions. I can only assume it was written to remind her of the ingredients; the rest she could conjure up in her head when necessary. So I’ve adapted the recipe from the Joy of Baking website.

Bourbon balls are a traditionally southern sweet, primarily served around Christmas. They can be made with crushed vanilla wafers or graham cracker crumbs. You can also experiment with the ingredients that the balls are rolled in as a finishing touch. The traditional ingredients are unsweetened cocoa (mine is laced with a hint of cinnamon and chili powder), crushed nuts and confectioner’s sugar. However, dark and white melted chocolate are used and are probably delicious. Use your imagination!

Toppings are used primarily to prevent the evaporation of the alcohol. Once prepared, store them in the refrigerator in an airtight container. They can be stored for up to two weeks or, of course, you can freeze them.

Bourbon Balls

Ingredients:

2 small packages vanilla wafers (approximately 2 cups), finely crushed (Mary says “rolled” because there weren’t food processors or blenders then, only rolling pins) OR 2 cups graham cracker crumbs which can come pre-crushed in a box

½ cup confectioner’s sugar (Mary calls it powdered sugar)

2 heaping T unsweetened cocoa powder

1 cup pecans, walnuts or hazelnuts, chopped fine

1 T light corn syrup

2 jiggers of bourbon (Mary says), equivalent to ½ cup bourbon

Crush the vanilla wafers in your food processor or grinder until they’re finely chopped. Or, if you’re using graham cracker crumbs from crackers that aren’t pre-crushed, crush them in the food processor until they’re finely chopped.

Chop the nuts in a food processor until they’re finely chopped as well. Mix the nuts and wafers or graham cracker crumbs in a large bowl. Add the confectioner’s sugar and cocoa and mix well.

To this mixture, add the corn syrup and bourbon. Mix all ingredients together well until it becomes a batter. The batter will be crumbly, moist and sticky. If you need to add a bit more bourbon to make it moist, do so. (Mary says to do it.) Chill the batter for 45 minutes.

After chilling, form the batter into 1-inch balls. You can use a melon baller or a rounded half-tablespoon spoon to scoop out the batter and shape it into balls.

Roll the bourbon balls in your choice of topping: confectioner’s sugar, cocoa, chopped nuts or melted chocolate. For an assortment of bourbon balls, use all the toppings individually. Store the finished balls in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Makes 24 to 36 bourbon balls.

When ready to serve, serve at room temperature on a tray or in small paper candy/baking cups. You can also pack them up into decorated gift boxes for gift giving.

In the “Look Who’s Cooking!” monthly column, Roxann interviews and shares the recipes of people from around Franklin County who may be well-known in their professional or political lives, but not necessarily for their lives as passionate cooks, bakers or all-around foodies.


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