In a grocery store full of cookies, I’m not sure why anyone would buy vanilla wafers.
They’re not bad, but they are bland. And there are so many better offerings for desserts.
Their prominence in the cookie aisle might be explained by their use to make other sweets.
Like rum or bourbon balls.
A family recipe I’ve made the past several years uses crushed vanilla wafers as the main ingredient in bourbon balls. They’re simple and require no baking. Just crush the cookies (I put them in a plastic bag and crush with a rolling pin), add the other ingredients, roll the dough in balls and drop them into powdered sugar.
I figured using vanilla wafers was unique but discovered through a little research that everyone and their mother, including Emeril Lagasse and Dorothy Dean (this newspaper’s former pseudonym for its food editors) have published rum or bourbon ball recipes using vanilla wafers as the main ingredient.
The recipe I use was attributed to my great-grandfather’s sister, Emily Yeager. She was a legal secretary in Toledo, Ohio, in the first half of the last century. My mom said she’s certain the recipe originated before the 1940s.
Bob Lombardi, culinary arts pastry chief at the Inland Northwest Culinary Academy at Spokane Community College, said cookies like vanilla wafers make a fine base for a rum ball.
But making rum balls is a great opportunity for novice bakers to deviate from a recipe.
He said all kinds of day-old cakes and cookies could be used instead of vanilla wafers. Corn syrup works to bind the ingredients, but cake icing or butter cream also work – and would improve the flavor.
“When you roll it, and it holds together, you got it,” Lombardi said. “It’s not a formula.”
If you like chocolate, add chopped brownies. Dip them in chocolate, too, if you like chocolate even more.
The bourbon balls made by my great-great-aunt Emily are powerful. Use 100-proof if you like them even stronger. Lombardi prefers a dark rum, like Myers’s.
For those using vanilla wafers, Lombardi suggests taking it easy when breaking them up.
“You should see the pieces of cookie in it,” he said. “That’s a really good look and texture.”
Lombardi teaches his students how to make rum balls. It’s an important business skill for bakers to reuse items that don’t sell and turn them into a prized item that will.
“It still has its quality, but maybe we overproduced,” he said. “That just adds to the profit.”
Emily Yeager’s Bourbon Balls
3 cups ground vanilla wafers
1 cup ground pecans or walnuts
1 1/2 tablespoons cocoa
1 cup powdered sugar
3 tablespoons white corn syrup
1/2 cup bourbon
Mix dry ingredients. Add corn syrup and bourbon. Mix. Roll into balls. Cover with powdered sugar.
Yield: 30-35 balls
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