I thoroughly enjoy baking and cooking during my years growing up alongside my Nana and Mom, especially for the holiday season. Once my grandparents had passed away and my parents got older, I took over the duties of getting holiday celebration dinners on the table. I would sometimes find myself preparing for several days ahead of the event.
When I became “head cook”, it was still a tradition in my family for my mom and I to continue to make several different kinds of Christmas cookies every year, even up to the last years of her life. As much as we enjoyed measuring, mixing, shaping, and baking dozens and dozens of cookies, after a while we started to suffer holiday baking burnout.
Although I love the classics that had graced our cookie tray for years like pecan tassies, pfeffernusse, snickerdoodles, kolacky and AP cookies, I found myself sitting at the kitchen table thumbing through a recipe box full of note papers and recipe cards in my mom and my Nana’s handwriting, browsing for “something different”.
“What am I doing?” I asked my Mom. “We don’t need to do any more baking”, I lamented. Just as my Mom started to agree, something caught my eye. In my hand was a tattered card with a handwritten recipe of Mom’s entitled “Cocoa Rum Balls”. Skimming over the recipe and the instructions, I realize these were a no bake confection/cookie creation.
When I mentioned the recipe to my mom, her eyes lit up. “Oh, those are so good!” she exclaimed. Her remark took me aback because I had never seen my mom drink alcohol or crave anything with a “boozy” taste. . Her avoidance of it later in life stemmed from an episode one New Years Eve in the late 50’s when she and my Dad had attended a party at a local Amvets hall.
Mom was sitting on a bar stool, chatting away with friends and happily sipping Sloe Gin and 7 up cocktails. The sweet, innocent-seeming drinks were going down smooth and easy. Mom never felt their impact — until she stood up then went down on the floor like someone knocked her legs out from under her.
My dad, standing next to her, was in mid-sentence when he glanced away for a split-second, looked back, and realized my mom was not there. Glancing down, he immediately saw what had happened and after an initial moment of shock, broke into laughter. As my mom shot him a look that said “wrong reaction”, my dad reached down, helped my mom up, she dusted herself off, and they headed home. Decades later, my dad still teased my mom about that night.
Shortly after that time, I came along and my parents decided that they would much rather spend New Year’s Eve at home with me and my grandparents and Mom decided she much more enjoyed actual soda than any other drinks.
I looked down at the card then back up at my mom, grinned and said, ” Now Mom, I’ll make these but you have to be careful, remember how you and sweet things with alcohol get into trouble”. As I saw my mother’s cheeks redden, I heard some barely stifled laughter emanating from the living room where my father was sitting reading the newspaper.
I did make the cocoa rum balls that year and mom was right, they are very good. The first Christmas that I left the coal region with my husband to move to New Hampshire, I did not do much baking for the holidays. My husband loved sweets and I wanted to make him something that I thought he would enjoy. I remembered this no-bake recipe and told him that I would make them if he would roll them. He agreed and we set about making a batch. The hardest part for James was the waiting. I would periodically catch him circling the ten that contain the cocoa rum balls. He would look at me with a sheepish grin and ask, “Aren’t they ready yet?”
These cocoa rum balls are best if made days ahead of serving; I let them mature at least one week so they develope a rich flavor. I enjoy them rolled in very finely grated coconut, but they are wonderful rolled in Cocoa, nuts, or confectioners sugar. If rolling them in confectioners sugar, re-roll them when ready to serve. Store in an airtight container or in a zip-top bag.
Cocoa Rum BallsCourse: DessertDifficulty: Easy
1 (12 ounce) package vanilla wafers, crushed
1 1/2 cups finely chopped, toasted walnuts or pecans
3/4 cup confectioners’ sugar
1/4 cup cocoa
1/2 cup light rum (or bourbon)
3 Tablespoons light corn syrup
Finely grated coconut, cocoa powder or confectioners sugar for rolling, as needed.
- In a large bowl, combine vanilla wafer crumbs, chopped nuts, 3/4 cup confectioners’ sugar, and cocoa. Mix in rum and corn syrup. Roll dough into 1 inch balls; roll in coconut, cocoa or confectioners’ sugar.
- Store rum balls in an airtight container for 5 to 7 days to develop flavor. Roll again in confectioners’ sugar before serving, if using.