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12.11.2005

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.



29 Comments:

Blogger ilva said...

Sounds and looks delicious! I think I'll try them out on Marco's family this Christmas!

11:09 PM, December 11, 2005  
Blogger Michèle said...

oooh, yum. I can see how you would be initially hesitant, it does seem like an odd combination. But I believe you that they are wonderful Molly dear, wholeheartedly! And me with still no oven, I can actually make these!

4:28 AM, December 12, 2005  
Blogger annieD said...

Okay, this post actually made my mouth water. I do believe this means I have to try these.

10:16 AM, December 12, 2005  
Blogger amylou said...

Intriguing, Molly. Normally, I would not be turned on by a fruit and nut confection but take your story of maturation and combine it with the certain knowledge that my mom would LOVE these, and I feel as if these cookies are teasing me. So you think you're an adult, Amy? Goddammit, I might not be able to rest until I make them--and prove that I am sophisticated enough for the dried fruits of Christmas!

10:39 AM, December 12, 2005  
Anonymous Sher said...

Oh. My. Goodness! You are cruel. Here I am trying to be moderate and you do that! Sigh.

11:43 AM, December 12, 2005  
Anonymous jen o said...

first the stewed prunes, and now aunt bill's! you're resurrecting all the treats of my childhood!

8:56 PM, December 12, 2005  
Blogger Ruth said...

Molly, what a beautiful post. I loved the story and ....as soon as I stop drooling, I'll try them out. I guess the hardest part is waiting until they're ready.

Thanks for sharing.

5:19 AM, December 13, 2005  
Blogger tara said...

I keep attempting to finalize my roster for my annual baking ... and then something like this comes along. Sigh, another addition. I believe my exact response as I scrolled down and saw these little beauties was "Oh. My."

9:20 AM, December 13, 2005  
Anonymous vanessa said...

beautiful images and beautiful story. it is drool-inducing.

4:07 PM, December 13, 2005  
Blogger michelle said...

Lovely story, Molly, and even more so those pictures! They sound wonderful.

4:21 PM, December 13, 2005  
Anonymous john said...

Came here from Simple Recipes - just wanted to say your pictures are absolutely amazing.

8:09 PM, December 15, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Ilva, I would be honored--and my mother, I know, would be as well--to know that the fruit-nut ball has joined another family's roster of traditions! I have my fingers crossed that you and yours approve of these little goodies.

Michele, I know. What with all the frightening fruitcake and other related strangeness at Christmastime, it might be hard to warm to this concept. But your daring will be rewarded, I promise, so go on, vas-y...

annieD, as soon as I finish typing up these comments, I'm going to go pack gift tins full of these little lovelies. You'd better believe the ole mouth will be watering! Will I let myself steal one? No one will ever know...

Amy, my dearest, now that you've made a risotto with raisins, you may just be ready for these. Plus, with your mom coming to town, well, I think you know what to do...

Sher, my apologies! I should post a "do not read if" warning, I know.

jen o, what a childhood! Cheers to our stewed prunes and Aunt Bill's!

Ruth, thank you. I know that you too have vivid memories of your mother's holiday cookies, so I'd be honored to have you try these. Happy holidays!

Tara, I know. There just aren't enough hours in the day for all the things I want to make and bake and do for Christmas. Sigh. Too bad we can't join forces and conquer our cookie lists together. Sniffle, sniffle.

Vanessa, thank you! I suppose we all owe a big thanks to my mother, actually, without whom there would be no stories, no pictures, no drooling, and sadly, no fruit-nut balls. To think!

Michelle, thank you!

And john, thank you for making the trip over from Simply Recipes--and for such a generous compliment! Very nice to meet you.

8:57 PM, December 15, 2005  
Blogger darlamay said...

my husband lost his breath when he saw these-- guess i'd better roll up my sleeves!

9:07 PM, December 15, 2005  
Blogger K & S said...

ooh!! that looks delish!!

12:16 AM, December 16, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Darlamay, that husband of yours has good taste! Roll up those sleeves and break out the food processor! And happy holidays to you both.

Kat & Satoshi, thank you!

8:49 AM, December 17, 2005  
Anonymous patb said...

These are truly amazing! They have joined my annual roster of goodies to make and give. The true test was when I found myself wondering 'why am I always giving the best things away?'. I promptly fished out those that had not found their way into gift boxes with other gems, and started giving them to my family. A huge hit, and I must now make a second batch. I did the Canadian thing though, and used dried cranberries instead of cherries as they are what I usually have on hand. Paired with Cointreau to hold everyting together, they are wonderful. and a family treat for years to come.

8:00 PM, December 19, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

patb, I am--as my grandmother would say--absolutely tickled to hear that! And come to think of it, I might have to make a second batch myself, using this cranberry-and-Cointreau adaptation of yours...

10:05 PM, December 20, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

These fruit and nut balls were a hit at my house. We thought they were delicious. Thanks for a wonderful recipe that will be a Christmas regular here from now on.

I enjoy your blog so much.
Glynda

2:01 PM, December 29, 2005  
Anonymous Fatemeh said...

Hey Molly -
I just made these this week, and they are awesome.

I omitted the apricots (just b/c I didn't have them) and used a really dark rum instead of fruit liqueur - fabulous!

Just one question - do the balls absorb some of the powdered sugar on yours, or did I not use enough??

4:28 PM, December 29, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Glynda, I'm so happy to hear it! You're very welcome.

And Fatemeh, I'm officially adding dark rum to the list of must-try variations! It sounds wickedly delicious. And as for the powdered sugar, mine do absorb a little bit, but even after a week or more, they don't look much different from the ones in the photograph. Maybe try using a heavier hand next time? For now, have a very happy New Year...

1:13 PM, December 30, 2005  
Anonymous Fatemeh said...

Thanks, Molly! Happy New Year to you, as well!

I thought you might like to see how mine turned out:

Fruit & Nut Bombs

I think I made mine about twice the size they should have been. Most people only managed to finish half of one at a time. I split the leftovers in half and wrapped them up to enjoy with a glass of scotch in the evening. Yummy!!

8:47 PM, January 03, 2006  
Anonymous onehsancare said...

Do you end up with a bloom on the chocolate, or do you temper it, or . . . ?

12:59 PM, January 06, 2006  
Blogger Molly said...

Fatemeh, they're gorgeous! But yes, I think they are best kept down to a two-or-so-bite size. It's amazing how rich and dense--and, of course, delicious!--a ball of dried fruit and chocolate can be.

Good questions, onehsancare. The chocolate here seems to work just fine--and have a nice snap, even!--without any tempering, and I've never seen it develop a bloom. I have about 2 or 3 of these left in my fridge right now, actually, and at three or so weeks old, the chocolate still looks and feels lovely. Hope that helps!

1:10 PM, January 06, 2006  
Anonymous Fatemeh said...

M - I really should have paid attention to HOW MANY you fit on a cookie sheet! I fit about half as many. Serves me right for having eyes bigger than my stomach. :-0

PS - CONGRATS on the nomination!!

11:07 PM, January 06, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hello- what a great recipe. it looked so delicious in your photos, that I couldn't help but pick up some ingredients and try it at home. i made about 45 balls. but after the 24 hour wait, i noticed that i only had about 31 left since my daughter couldn't keep her hands off of them. they were so good! thank you for such a wonderful recipe.

10:15 AM, November 29, 2006  
Anonymous Irina said...

I am wondering if it's OK to freeze these fruit and nut balls. This would be my first time making them, and I'd like to mail some to a friend living on the other side of the country. I thought that freezing them before mailing would help them emerge in better shape on the other end. What do you think?

3:01 PM, August 11, 2009  
Blogger NiCole said...

Have waited 6 months (since getting the book) to make these. Forgot 2 ingredients (it's one of those holiday seasons) and they're still fantastic. Can't wait to try them in their full form. They will become a cookie staple in the inventory!

9:12 AM, December 13, 2009  
Anonymous LindsayC said...

Made these for a party last night -- they're wonderful!

Except ... the dipping. I do not have the patience to dip 47 little balls of fruit and nuts into chocolate, so I just upended the bowl and drizzled like mad.

It worked -- the chocolate got on the cookies. They were not beautiful, but they were (and are) delicious!

11:15 AM, December 12, 2010  
Anonymous June2 said...

Hi, the end of 2013 here, and have to say, I've been making these every holiday since you posted them - they've become my number one gifting cookie. Something about dried fruit, nuts and chocolate is pre-commercial, classic Christmas. And they're gluten free! Thank you ~~~

12:34 PM, December 12, 2013  

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