Unfortunately, the walk home from school passed Second Street Elementary, which was highly regarded as a training institute for the most talented of local bullies. Naturally, they regarded us parochial school kids, in our white shirts and clip-on neckties, as easy quarry.
About a week into first grade, I was set upon by a hulking specimen of boyhood nicknamed Lurch. He gave me a bloody nose, an experience he found sufficiently gratifying to bear repetition. Soon Lurch awaited me daily at the end of the St. Clair Street Bridge. I knew I couldn't out-tough Lurch, but I had a secret weapon. My dad was in the candy business, and the small factory was only blocks away. So the next time I met up with him, I reached into my pocket and pulled out a fistful of bourbon balls, the shop's specialty. Violence ... chocolate? For Lurch, the choice was easy. Soon he became not merely my friend but my defender as well, and when problems with other bullies arose, I had only to conjure his name and trouble would vanish.
My grandmother, Ruth Hanly Booe, started Rebecca-Ruth Candies in Frankfort, Ky., in 1919 with her friend, Rebecca Gooch -- hence the folksy, if unimaginative, name. Their first success was the Kentucky Mint Colonel, a simple mint ball covered in dark chocolate and topped with a salted pecan. At some point shortly after the repeal of prohibition, a friend mentioned that his two favorite tastes were a sip of bourbon and a bite of one of Miss Ruth's Kentucky Colonels. Inspiration struck. My grandmother spent two years perfecting her recipe, and while I can't say with total certainty that she was the first person to hit on the combination, she's generally credited as such, though there's nobody around to argue to the contrary. At any rate, the confection gradually became a regional favorite and a holiday tradition.
In the spirit of disclosure, I have no financial interest in the business. My brother now owns it, although I have shamed him into granting me certain privileges. (If he hadn't, I'd have sicced Lurch on him, although since my brother's got the factory, Lurch might well have turned against me.)
Partially out of perversity, but mostly because it annoys my brother, I've taken to making my own bourbon balls during the holidays. Though I've long been removed from the business' seasonal rush, making them gives me a feeling of connection to my youth and family. I don't have a clue about the recipe my grandmother invented; my brother won't give it out to anyone. So I've followed the more rustic version that evolved from a bygone era of Southern ladies' club cookbooks. This drives my brother mad, especially since I tell him that my friends prefer my homey renditions, which, I have to admit, is a baldfaced lie. They're good, but my friends who have sampled the original product take one bite and start sniffing around my cupboards for the Rebecca-Ruth boxes.
My encounter with Lurch would not be the first time I would use candy to mollify my tormentors. Nobody dislikes being given chocolates, but, in my experience, bourbon candy has a singular power to make women swoon and to diffuse aggression in the most rigid of Type A personalities. I believe bourbon balls have saved me from being fired more than once. And no, it's not the booze. Although they carry a bit of a punch, their mood-altering effects cannot be blamed on the alcohol; you'd put yourself in a diabetic coma long before you could eat enough of them to blow 0.08 on a Breathalyzer.
1 12-ounce bag good-quality semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 box confectioners' sugar
1/2 cup butter
4 teaspoons bourbon
1/2 cup pecans
Cream butter and sugar together. Add bourbon. Shape into 1-inch balls and place on waxed paper. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. Place chocolate chips in double boiler. Stir chocolate so that it melts uniformly. Continue stirring chocolate until it reaches a temperature of 115 to 118 degrees. Remove top half of double boiler to cool surface and continue stirring until chocolate thickens and reaches 78 to 79 degrees.
To dip balls, heat up chocolate to between 86 and 88 degrees. Place balls one at a time on surface of melted chocolate. With a fork, turn over to cover balls completely, then lift them out. Wipe off excess chocolate on edge of pan. Set balls on waxed paper, crown each ball with pecan and allow to cool and harden.
This piece was first published in the Los Angeles Times.