May’s flowers are finally here, and they were heralded by one of our country’s most beloved (and slightly ridiculous) traditions: the Kentucky Derby. Every year, the first Saturday in May brings a slew of over-sized hats and equestrian fanatics together for a nearly 140-year-old sporting event. This year’s race was won by a horse named California Chrome (pictured above*). For those of us who celebrate the race with food and drinks, there’s one vital ingredient: bourbon. We’re not talking just any old whiskey – Derby parties call for the barrel-aged, Kentucky-bred, high-proof real deal.
One thing I’ve learned about bourbon is that dessert recipes (especially chocolate) are made WAY better when you add the stuff. Bourbon adds a smoky and almost vanilla flavor that’s unlike any other sweets you’ve tried before. So for this year’s Derby, I made THREE treats with a bourbon kick: Kentucky Bourbon Balls, Browned Butter Bourbon Blondies, and (wait for it…) Bourbon Chocolate Cupcakes with Bourbon Ganache and Cinnamon Buttercream (!!!!)
Let’s start with the smallest of the three – these treats are both simple and addictive. You know you’ve got a winner when the main ingredients are cookies, nuts, and chocolate. I’ve made a similar recipe using spiced rum (see HERE) but the bourbon variety is by far my favorite. There are actually two ways to make bourbon balls: the first is the method I used, while the second omits the cookies entirely and relies on a powdered sugar and bourbon filling. It’s fairly sweet, with a more pronounced bourbon taste (the cookies help round it out, for obvious reasons).
You’ll need a few hours to pull these together, and a bit of patience – the filling prep and rolling aren’t an issue, but dipping the pieces into chocolate can be a bit messy. Melted chocolate is an ingredient that manages to get onto everything, so I have the setup ready to go before even melting the chocolate. The key is to keep the the bourbon balls cold for as long as possible. I froze all the pieces, and then dipped 1/3 into the chocolate while the others remained chilled.
Since it’s a no-bake recipe, use a bourbon that you would actually want to drink – these treats will only be as good as the alcohol you use. I used Jim Beam for all three recipes. That being said, I’m admittedly a bit of a bourbon snob and would never drink the stuff unless absolutely necessary – I can thank my friend Beth for that! The resulting bites were perfectly delicious, and there were hardly leftovers by the end of the party. Click HERE to see the recipe for these chocolate-covered treats!
The second recipe was a twist on a classic dessert that I’ve been making for years. Blondies are basically brownies, but with brown sugar replacing the chocolate. Like brownies, you can fill ’em with nuts, chocolate chips, candies, and more. These blondies take it to a whole new level with browned butter AND bourbon. The first ingredient is a recent discovery of mine (see here), and is honestly a game-changer in the world of baking.
The resulting bar was nutty and moist, with a hint of bourbon that rounded out the sweetness. They store beautifully, making them the perfect treat for picnics and parties. You can use dark or white chocolate, or even crushed walnuts. That’s the best thing about bars – you can make them your own, and they’ll still be just as delicious no matter what. One bite of this blondie and you’ll never go back – browned butter and bourbon will be your kitchen standbys. Click HERE to see the recipe for these golden beauties.
This last dessert was an experiment – I had found a GREAT recipe for bourbon chocolate cupcakes, but didn’t have nearly enough time to prepare the remaining components. I was left with a base recipe and no idea on what to do for frosting or filling. I ended up making a bourbon ganache, and it was a winner. This was a fairly basic ganache, with a splash of bourbon and touch of vanilla. Any extra ganache will keep in the refrigerator for a week (boozy ice cream sundaes, anyone?) For those who aren’t as keen on the bourbon taste, coffee or even milk make wonderful substitutes. As is, these are definitely cupcakes for adults.
I wanted a frosting to complement the bourbon spice, and whipped up a cinnamon buttercream. Again, a fairly basic recipe with a small twist – it was the perfect complement to an already stunning set of flavors. I was hoping to find a decorative Derby garnish (like this), but ended up crushing cinnamon sticks and arranging the pieces atop the frosting. The result was an intensely flavorful cupcake, all of which were demolished before the night’s end. Click HERE to see the recipe for these devilish cakes.
I grew up loving horses – they are magnificent animals, and have been a vital part of our culture for centuries. The Kentucky Derby showcases the best of the best: thoroughbreds whose pedigree and training have made them amongst the most valuable animals in the world. The average speed of a thoroughbred is about 36 mph, and can go up to nearly 40 mph. Like I said, they are truly remarkable creatures. For the musical pairing, I chose a classic “horse-themed” work: Franz von Suppé’s Overture to the Operetta Leichte Kavallerie (Light Cavalry). Premiered in 1866, the operetta itself is fairly esoteric and is rarely (if ever) performed. The overture, however, has stood the test of time and has become to most well-known composition of Suppé’s legacy. The operatta’s story doesn’t contain any actual horses or riders – it concerns the love affair of a Baron and a Hungarian countess. Nevertheless, the overture’s thematic material has come to be closely associated with horse-racing and actual cavalries. It’s a classic, and a perfect pairing for an event as time-honored and exciting as the Kentucky Derby. The below recording comes from the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra’s New Years Concert, with conductor Franz Welser-Möst – enjoy!
“Leichte Kavallerie,” Wikipedia.com
*California Chrome Photo – courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire