An interesting thing happened to me the other week. I got an email from an editor at Bon Appetit asking me to participate in a holiday bake-off with other food bloggers. The magazine is running a similar, virtual contest on their web site, but this was an invite to an actual event, with real food judged by editor-in-chief Barbara Fairchild and master pastry chef François Payard. Gulp!
Here's the thing: I can whip up a mean chicken liver pate, create my own cocktails with homemade mixers. But baking...not so much. Not to mention that my oven is on a tilt, so everything I bake comes out slanted on top.
But when opportunity comes a-knockin', it's best not to hide under the covers. Even if you're not, like, the best baker in the blogosphere. (Me: "I can't enter this! I can hardly bake!" Co-worker: "Uh, yes, you will enter this contest. Are you completely stupid?") After I regained my composure, I started thinking about recipes. I needed something that would A) travel well and B) be fool-proof enough that I wouldn't be a complete embarrassment.
My original plan was to combine a pound cake with a fruitcake. I envisioned a golden, buttery, slightly boozy cake studded with bits of candied orange peel, dried cherries, chocolate, and crystallized ginger. The end result was tasty, but fell slightly short of meh. Back to the drawing board.
I decided not to try so hard and just embrace the suck, as they say. I didn't need to show up with a fancy layer cake or some sort of elaborate yule log. I didn't need to bake at all. Instead, I would make something I already knew how to do, my tried-and-true holiday gift: bourbon balls.
To fancify my go-to recipe, I chopped up the candied orange peel I had made for the pound cake and added it to a gooey batter of crushed vanilla wafers, chopped toasted pecans, powdered sugar, cocoa, spices, and bourbon. The orange played well with the bourbon and cocoa, but the candy needed a bit more chocolate. Bourbon balls aren't the prettiest things in the world, they look a bit like dusty little rocks. So I melted some good-quality dark chocolate, and rolled the balls in it so they looked more like truffles. The final touch: a bit of candied orange peel on top. Festive, rich, boozy, who wouldn't want to eat one--or six--of these?
When I entered the Conde Nast building (a place that evokes a combination of fear and lust in magazine editors, including me) and took the shiny elevators up to the Bon Appetit culinary studio, I felt a bit amateur night. Oh, the desserts. There were fancy layer cakes, and a yule log with meringue toadstools, and the most adorable mini pies on sticks. There were also a few bourbon balls in the mix. One version included bacon. Gulp.
The contestants milled around, drank wine, and took lots of photos, as food bloggers do. The judging was more serious than I anticipated. The judges tasted each dish thoughtfully, marked scorecards, asked questions. In the end, I did not win. The prize, a trip to Las Vegas for Bon Appetit's food festival Vegas Uncork'd, went to a gorgeous confection of kabocha squash and shiso made by Marc Matsumoto of No Recipes. Shiso, people. Clearly, I was way out of my league. But the lovely Luisa Weiss of Wednesday Chef told me my bourbon balls were the only ones she has ever liked, so I felt vindicated in my own small way. And being in the company of so many talented, smart, food-obsessed people made me feel pretty golden.
You can see all of the entries here. Thanks again, BA!
Chocolate bourbon balls with candied orange peel
Inspired by the Lee Brothers’ hot spiced bourbon balls
(Makes about 30 balls)
3/4 cup coarsely chopped pecans
1 cup powdered sugar
2 Tbsp. unsweetened cocoa
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/2 cup finely chopped candied orange peel, plus 1/4 cup for garnish
1/3 cup bourbon
2 Tbsp. honey
2 1/3 cups finely crushed vanilla wafers
2 cups dark chocolate, melted
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Place chopped pecans in a single layer in a shallow baking sheet and bake for 8 to 10 minutes, or until toasted. Sift powdered sugar, cocoa, salt, and spices into a medium-sized bowl. Add the pecans, orange peel, and crushed vanilla wafers and stir until combined. Stir together bourbon and honey in a small bowl. Gradually the add bourbon mixture to the dry ingredients, stirring until blended. (The mixture is ready when you can form a small ball in your hands and it holds together. If not, keep stirring, or add a bit of bourbon or water to moisten the mixture if it is too dry.) Shape the mixture into one-inch balls and place them on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Chill in the refrigerator for one hour or until slightly firm.
To dip the balls in chocolate, melt the chocolate over a double-boiler until it is smooth. Dip each ball in the chocolate, rolling them so they are evenly coated. Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Press one piece of orange peel into the top of each bourbon ball. Once all of the balls are coated in chocolate and topped with orange peels, chill in the refrigerator for at least one hour before serving. The bourbon balls can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator up to one week.
Candied orange peels
From Bon Appetit
(Makes about two cups)
2 large oranges, 1/4 inch of top and bottom cut off
4 cups sugar, divided
3 cups water
Cut peel on each orange into 4 vertical segments. Remove each segment (including white pith) in 1 piece. Cut into 1/4-inch-wide strips. Cook in large pot of boiling water 15 minutes; drain, rinse, and drain again. Bring 3 cups sugar and 3 cups water to boil in medium saucepan over medium heat, stirring to dissolve sugar. Add peel. Return to boil. Reduce heat; simmer until peel is very soft, about 45 minutes. Drain. Toss peel and 1 cup sugar on rimmed baking sheet, separating strips. Lift peel from sugar; transfer to sheet of foil. Let stand until coating is dry, 1 to 2 days. The peels can be wrapped and frozen for up to 2 months.