Deck the Balls: Sweeten the holiday with chocolate-coated dessert balls

No matter if you call them truffles, bonbons or just plain dessert balls, no-bake confections dipped in chocolate are some of Christmas’ sweetest treats. Literally.

Most sweet ball recipes call for lots of confectioners’ or powdered sugar, and some even add a can of sweetened condensed milk. Because of all that extra sugar, it’s hard to eat a whole platter of them, but that doesn’t mean Santa wouldn’t take a bite or two out of one anyway.

Growing up, we always made what we called bonbons: a combination of shredded coconut, nuts and sweetened condensed milk that we then spent what seemed like hours rolling into small balls and dipping in melted chocolate.

It was the only time of year we brought out the double boiler, and I can still smell the warm wax melting into the chocolate on the stove. (It was also the only way I ate coconut until I was, oh, 20.)

When searching around for regional variations on this holiday staple, I found out that they are sometimes called Martha Washingtons, an intriguing name whose origin certainly can’t date back to the first lady herself.

When we were in college, my sister introduced me to the Oreo cream ball, a recipe so easy I didn’t think it would work, but after watching her mix together two ingredients — a brick of cream cheese and a bag of crushed up Oreos — and roll them into truffles, this Show-Me gal was a believer.

(Speaking of truffles, I’ve now come to think of chocolate ganache rolled in cocoa as truffles, but the nomenclature for these kinds of treats can be hard to peg down, especially when you consider how these kinds of heartland recipes get passed from generation to generation and from cook to cook.)

Although the bonbons win for nostalgia and the Oreos win for ease, my new favorite balls are chocolate-covered peanut butter ones.

Called Buckeyes if you’re north of the Mason-Dixon line, I’m inclined to call them Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup knock-offs, but the name doesn’t really matter. They have a softer texture than most balls, even cake balls, which require baking a cake, letting it cool, mixing it with a can of frosting and then coating in chocolate.

I’m not opposed to making cake balls (we dedicated an entire article to them back in 2010:, but these peanut butter balls, when made with salted butter and finely crushed pretzels, are just salty enough to help cut down on some of the sweetness that might turn off some people from the other dessert ball recipes.

Regardless of filling, it’s imperative that you keep the balls of filling cool so they don’t melt when you dip them in the warm chocolate. (If you set out to make several batches, you’ll be rotating trays of balls in and out of the fridge and freezer, so consider clearing out some extra space before you get started. Putting the coated balls in the fridge will help them set.)

Now, let’s talk about what you coat the balls in. Several baker friends don’t use shortening or paraffin to help smooth out regular old chocolate chips that have been melted in a double boiler or in the microwave. That’s a habit I can’t seem to break, but other cooks I’ve talked to swear by almond bark or melting candies, such as Wilton’s Candy Melts, that you’ll find at craft stores.

Although those melt easily and without any additional wax or shortening, I’m not a huge fan of the flavor. The green and red colored melting candies I used for the desserts photographed with this story were supposedly vanilla flavored, but they tasted more like cheap white chocolate, which I absolutely loathe.

No matter which kind of chocolate or faux chocolate you use, when you’re coating the balls, you’ll probably have to reheat the chocolate at least once, because it will cool down and harden as you work.

After you’ve coated the balls, you have a small window of time before the chocolate starts to set to decorate them with sprinkles, flaky sea salt or leftover ingredients, such as graham crackers, coconut or crushed pretzels.

With all this heating up and cooling down, dessert balls keep best if stored in the refrigerator until you’re ready to serve them, but without any eggs or milk to worry about, it’s OK to stick them back in the fridge after they’ve been out of the cold for a few hours. (Yes, I know sweetened condensed milk is dairy, but with all that sugar, a natural preservative, it’s not a food safety hazard.)

The one ball I didn’t tackle for this story was a rum (or tequila or bourbon) ball, but I’d love to get a few spirited (or non-boozy) ball recipes from readers to share on my blog.

After all, these kinds of balls never seem to fall out of fashion, especially around the holidays, so we’ll get to revisit them soon enough.

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