A coming-of-age, in cookies
It may have notoriously waving wheat and pastures full of prime Angus steak, but truth be told, Oklahoma’s food scene is most famous—in certain very exclusive, you understand, very select circles—for my mother’s holiday baking. For nearly twenty years, December was no ordinary month on my mother’s calendar: it was a series of nut-filled, chocolate-covered, butter-rich weeks, of afternoons spent churning out cookies, candies, chocolates, bars, and toffees by the dozen. When it began, I had a pacifier; when it ended, I had half a college diploma; and along the way, I had a sequence of fickle love affairs with nearly every confection my mother made. Some measure maturity in birthdays, milestones, firsts, or lasts, but I plot my personal chronology in Christmas cookies.
As is often the case, mine was a humble beginning. My mother’s Christmas cookie tin was a gorgeous, glamorous thing, but in the early days, I only had eyes for a modest, brown, burnt-sugar candy called Aunt Bill’s. Endemic to the South and a few lucky Plains states, it is creamy, chewy stuff, the flavor of praline melded with the texture of fudge, made from butter, sugar, cream, pecans, and inordinate amounts of muscular stirring. Tooth-achingly good, Aunt Bill’s candy was just the thing for a pre-adolescent sweet tooth—until, of course, I tasted chocolate “rads,” the dark, crackly, bittersweet chocolate-on-chocolate cookies that would usher me into puberty. But before another holiday season had passed, I had already begun a slow turn toward the Linzer cookie, classic and classy in its fancy powdered sugar coat, with a nutty almond base and rosy raspberry filling. Then, at age eighteen, I thought I had at long last found the final frontier in a now-crunchy, now-melty mouthful of coffee-walnut toffee. But I was mistaken. I had not yet tasted a chocolate-dipped fruit-nut ball.
My mother had been making them since the late 1980s, when the recipe was published in Gourmet, but for reasons of irrational childhood prejudice and suspicion of not-too-sweet sweets, the fruit-nut ball had never crossed my lips. In the end, that fateful first bite only took place because I was stuck in an airport somewhere between Oklahoma and California, in transit back to college after Christmas and cursed with a long layover. I was hungry, and by chance, I had a tin of my mother’s cookies stashed in my bag. They were intended for my freshman advisor, a lovely South Indian woman who had invited me “home” for countless dals and curries and was long overdue for proper thanks—but, I told myself, with a little rearranging of the tin’s contents, she’d never know that something was missing. I studied the tin, reasoning that the fruit-nut ball—though untested and, frankly, unpromising—might be my best bet: it seemed at least remotely healthy, and since it was obviously the dud of the bunch, I wouldn’t be depriving my friend of anything particularly good. So I plucked one from the tin, careful not to disturb its neighbors, and I took a bite.
The chocolate cap gave way to a rush of powdered sugar, and beneath it, a soft, dark, winy chew. The dried fruits and walnuts, finely chopped and held together only by a splash of juice, had morphed together into a third something, a flavor at once floral and musky, almost alcoholic, simple on the page but complex on the tongue. It was sophisticated, adults-only stuff from the first bite to the fourth ball, which I handily tucked away shortly before boarding. Needless to say, the tin never found its way out of my dorm room, and eight years later, I still find myself stuck on the chocolate-dipped fruit-nut ball—not a cookie in the strict sense, perhaps, but certainly a coming-of-age.
Chocolate-Dipped Fruit-Nut Balls
Inspired by Gourmet, March 1986
My mother and I find that these little confections improve with time, so for maximum enjoyment, plan to stash them in the fridge for a few days before eating. I like them best cold from the fridge, but then again, I also like cold meatballs and cold stewed prunes. I also like doing my Christmas cooking and baking to the tune of Bruce Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” played over and over, very loud and passionately lip-synced. I trust you’ll do what feels best.
1 cup walnuts
½ lb dried cherries
½ lb dried Turkish figs
½ lb dried apricots
½ lb dried pitted prunes
1-2 Tbs fruit juice, such as good apple cider, or fruit-flavored liqueur
Powdered sugar, for dredging
8 ounces good-quality semi-sweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
Place the walnuts in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade, and process them to chop finely. Remove the walnuts to a large mixing bowl.
Rinse the bowl of food processor, wipe it dry, and fill it with the dried fruit. Pulse the machine to chop the fruit finely. You don’t want to turn the fruit into a gummy purée, but you do want it to be chopped finely enough that there are no pieces larger than a pea. Remove the fruit to the bowl with the walnuts, and stir them to mix. Add 1 Tbs fruit juice or liqueur, and stir to combine. Pinch off a smallish wad of the fruit-nut mixture: when you roll it between your palms, does it hold together in a tight ball? If not, add a bit more juice or liqueur until it does.
Pour about ½ cup of powdered sugar into a small bowl; you can add more later, if needed. Pinching off little mounds of the fruit-nut mixture, shape them into 1-inch balls, roll each ball lightly in powdered sugar to coat, and place them on a baking sheet. Let the balls stand at room temperature, uncovered, for 24 hours.
Line a second baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat, and keep it close at hand. In the top of a double boiler set over barely simmering water, melt the chocolate, stirring occasionally, until smooth. Remove it from the heat. Using a teaspoon, plop and dab and shake chocolate onto half of each ball; you may want to do this over the sink, wasteful though it may be, rather than over the bowl of chocolate—otherwise your melted chocolate may be contaminated by sprinkles of powdered sugar. Place the balls on the lined baking sheet, and place them in the refrigerator until the chocolate has hardened. Tuck each ball into a small candy or cupcake cup, and store them in an airtight container, chilled, for up to 2 weeks.
Yield: About 50 balls.