In past years, I’ve shared with you recipes and memories of German-American cookies, with their nuts and spices, dates and candied fruits. Those are “grandma cookies,” the “Cookies of my People”; they connect me with my deep past, with places, times, and people long before my birth. Lebkuchen, springerle, billy goats, pfeffernusse . . . like my blue eyes and fair skin, those cookies are in my DNA, I think.
But on my Christmas dessert tray I also include cookies that are just for me, cookies that have become my personal tradition, regardless of what anyone else thinks. Orange balls fit this category. I make them every year.
And each year I make them, I appreciate them more and more for what they mean, for their special sparks that kindle warm memories.
To understand why I make orange balls every year, you have to get a picture of a little tradition that my Dad and I developed when I was a child.
Dad was a member of the University of Missouri Department of Geography, and he got the recipe from a lady named Brooksie Jennings, who was the secretary of that department in the early 1970s. I suppose she had offered a plate of orange balls at an office Christmas party. Or maybe she just brought some of these little gems in to work one day, just to share.
I imagine my Dad taking a bite of one, chewing it, and remarking on how tasty they were, and I imagine Mrs. Jennings, soon afterward, handing him an index card with the recipe on it. The card’s still there in my parents’ recipe collection.
Like a lot of similar no-bake cookie-balls recipes, it calls for crushed vanilla wafers. In the days before every kitchen had a food processor, Dad figured out how to render a box or two of crunchy vanilla wafers into a fine crumb: Clear off the smooth Formica kitchen table, get Mom’s wooden rolling pin, and start crunching them up.
It was great fun—I helped! And Dad encouraged me. It got to be an annual “Dad and Julie” activity, and we both became skilled and merciless crushers of vanilla wafers. I looked forward to it. We’d sit across from each other at the table. First, we’d pour a few cups of the cookies on the table; then, we’d use the roller to just press straight down on them for some initial crunches; then, as they got finer, we actually rolled the crumbs. The flat pile of slightly oily crumbs wanted to slide around on the slick table, but we managed.
Dad and I would always have a nice conversation while we worked. I can still hear the gentle crunching sound as we rolled the pin over the deconstructed cookies.
Working in batches, and sliding each finished pile of smooth crumbs off the edge of the table into the mixing bowl, we’d soon have our vanilla wafers properly demolished and ready for the next step.
The mixing of powdered sugar, margarine, concentrated orange juice, and the wafer crumbs was the forgettable part, as far as I was concerned, but when that was done, Dad and I rolled the dough into balls in our hands (fun!), and then rolled the balls around in a shallow bowl of coconut flakes. I would sometimes get creative and shape some of the dough into pyramids, or into cubes. (You know . . . kids.)
It became a father-and-daughter tradition because Paul and Mom both said they didn’t care much for orange balls. (I was incredulous: “Whaaat? How could you not love these amazing sweet little orangey-coconutty gems?” . . . But you know how kids are; I just thought, “Oh, well, too bad for you; that just means there’s more for Dad and me!”) (I still always include some orange balls with the cookies I send Paul—I think of it as an inside joke, though I wonder if he even remembers how much he didn’t care for them as a kid.)
So naturally, if Mom and Paul didn’t really like orange balls, they certainly were’t going to participate in their construction. So it became a father-daughter activity, something we’d do on some early December weekend afternoon.
I suppose, for someone of my vintage, it might seem strange to have even one dear and vivid cooking memory associated with one’s father, but I have several. Dad has always liked to experiment in the kitchen—to make tasty things and enjoy them. His mom didn’t use a lot of written recipes; she cooked by feel. And he passed along to me a healthy independence from conventional cooking strictures, a willingness to stray at bit off of a recipe’s path, to color it up, to paint with a wider brush.
So here, my friends, is the simple recipe for orange balls. And after it, a few more notes and memories.
(from Brooksie Jennings, former secretary of the University of Missouri–Columbia Department of Geography during the 1970s)
1 lb. vanilla wafers, crushed [approx. 4 cups of crushed wafers]
1 lb. confectioner’s sugar
1 stick oleo
1 6-oz. can frozen orange juice (thawed and undiluted)
6 oz. Angel coconut
Cream powdered sugar and softened oleo. Add the thawed orange juice. Add the vanilla wafers (crumbs) and mix well. Form into small balls and roll in the coconut. Serves 40 to 60.
1. The recipe does call for 1 pound of vanilla wafers, crushed, but a standard box of them contains 11 ounces. Each year, Dad and I would work out the quantity: “16 ounces is a pound, one box is 11 ounces, so we need 5 more ounces . . . that’s about half of a second box.” We’d eyeball it. Dad knew it wasn’t rocket science. It always worked, and Dad helped me see how the math I dreaded so much at school had an actual useful application (you know . . . kids). Today, I just throw vanilla wafers into the food processor and turn them into crumbs in seconds. We are all so much busier during the holidays, now, aren’t we. Not like when I was a kid, and Dad and I spent all afternoon making orange balls, enjoying each other’s company in the kitchen. The food processor’s much, much faster than using the rolling pin—but it’s noisy; it sounds like one of those wood-chipper contraptions—plus it’s not nearly as much fun.
2. Because I make rum balls, too, which also uses crushed vanilla wafers, I usually buy about four boxes and pulverize them all at the same time. I have a digital kitchen scale, which simplifies the weight measurement.
3. Oleo is margarine—you knew that, right? You can also use butter, of course. I’ve made them both ways. I think they stay a little moister with margarine.
4. Can you still buy 6-ounce cans of frozen concentrated orange juice? I haven’t seen one in years. I always buy a 12-ounce can, let it thaw a little, and spoon or pour out half. The rest we make into half a pitcher of orange juice.
5. Your hands will get sticky when you’re rolling the balls. It can help to put a little cooking oil on your palms, or to just wash them occasionally. (Or, if you’re feeling kid-like, go ahead and occasionally use your teeth to scrape the delicious goo off your palms! —Just make sure to wash your hands again!)
6. Some people roll them in chopped pecans instead of coconut. But I figure if the recipe specified Angel (Flake) brand coconut, then they probably developed the initial, official recipe, and the least we can do to thank them is to make at least some of them with coconut. And I personally like the tropical fruitiness of these cookies—a breath of fresh air amid all the black walnuts, molasses, raisins, dates, and so forth.
7. You should pack these in a container so they don’t dry out too quickly. Also, keep them in a cool place. We have an unheated sun porch, which is perfect.
8. I tried something new this year, and extremely decadent: Instead of rolling them all in coconut, I dipped some of them in melted dark chocolate morsels, which turned them into awesome orange-flavored little bonbons. It instantly transformed them from “cookies” into “candies.” I had to slap my own hand to keep away from them. Definitely recommended! (See, it pays to experiment in the kitchen!)