Bourbon Ball Trifle tastefully twists a Kentucky Derby tradition

Derby postcardThe first Saturday in May is fast approaching and our thoughts are, once again, turning to the Kentucky Derby. Over our years of Derby partying, Gourmandistan has sampled plenty of bad bourbon balls. For those of you unfamiliar with this Kentucky candy, the bourbon ball was the invention of Ruth Hanly Booe, who began making candy in our state capital, Frankfort, after leasing a bar idled by Prohibition. While it’s possible that making candy in an old bar put the idea of liquor-infused candy into her mind, the official story is that she was “accidentally” given the idea by a “dignitary” in 1936. (Another version holds that a Kentucky governor spurred the notion by declaring that nothing was finer than a bite of chocolate followed by a sip of bourbon.) Booe’s bourbon ball, a pecan-topped shell of dark chocolate, enclosing a creamy-sweet, bourbon-laced center, became a Kentucky tradition.

Rebecca Ruth bourbon balls

Rebecca-Ruth bourbon balls

Unfortunately, so did inferior versions. We have suffered sloppy candies seeping too much bourbon. Too-fudgy, truffle-like creations lacking a creamy center. And of course, the sour, harsh consequences of using cheap whiskey. This Kentucky Derby, we wanted to rescue the bourbon ball from its terrible imitators. But making candy is fiddly, especially one with a bourbon and cream center. (It took Booe two years to perfect her recipe, which is still a secret.) Instead, we decided to take the idea of a bourbon ball and turn it into a trifle.

Bourbon ball trifle

A lovely dark chocolate cake separates layers of rich pudding and creamy mascarpone, both laced with fine bourbon whiskey. We differed a bit on the amount of bourbon in this recipe. Michelle, who usually hates bourbon, surprisingly thought it could use a little more booze. Steve, who actually enjoys a nice glass of sippin’ whiskey on occasion, thought the flavor of bourbon in the trifle was both pleasant and sufficient.

Bourbon ball trifle

We think making trifle is a surer thing than making candy, and “sure things” are nice to find at Derby time. While this trifle may not have ended our best Derby ever, it would be a lovely way to end almost any Derby party. Get yourself some nice bourbon, give this trifle a try, and give a toast to Ruth Hanly Booe. Her inspiration led to our creation. Happy Derby, everybody!


(inspired by this recipe)


  • Softened butter for greasing pan
  • ½ c. cocoa powder
  • 1-1/2 c. all-purpose flour
  • ½ tsp. baking soda
  • ¾ tsp. baking powder
  • ¾ tsp. kosher salt
  • 1-1/2 c. sugar
  • 1/3 c. crème fraîche
  • 1/3 c. milk
  • 1/3 c. neutral oil
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • ¾ c. brewed coffee, at room temperature

Cover a 13 x 9” pan with foil and grease with softened butter. Preheat oven to 300° F with a rack in the center.

Sift dry ingredients into the bowl of an electric mixer.

Place wet ingredients together in a bowl and whisk together. Slowly add wet mixture to dry ingredients and beat, scraping down the sides occasionally, until well-mixed. Beat at medium speed until batter is smooth. It is a very wet batter.

Pour batter into prepared baking pan. Bake for approximately 30 minutes until cake is set and a toothpick comes out clean.

Cool on a rack for a few minutes, then remove cake from pan by grabbing hold of the foil.


  • 2-1/2 c. milk, divided
  • ½ c. heavy cream
  • ¾ c. sugar
  • 3 TB cornstarch
  • ¼ c. cocoa powder
  • Pinch of salt
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 5 oz. bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
  • 2 TB unsalted butter
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • Bourbon

Scald 1-¾ c. of the milk and the heavy cream in a saucepan.

In a bowl, whisk together the sugar, cornstarch, cocoa, salt, the remaining ¾ c. milk and the egg yolks.

Slowly add the hot milk/cream mixture into the cocoa mixture, whisking. Return to the saucepan.

Over medium-low heat, continuously stir mixture until it thickens to a mayonnaise-like consistency. Whisk in chocolate and butter.

Strain into a bowl, through a fine strainer. Cover with plastic wrap and let cool to room temperature. If too thick, whisk in a little bourbon.

Bourbon mascarpone cream:

  • 8 oz. mascarpone
  • 1/3 c. confectioners’ sugar
  • 1-1/2 c. heavy cream
  • 1 tsp. bourbon

Put mascarpone, sugar and cream in bowl of electric mixer and beat to medium peaks. Add bourbon and beat until incorporated and mixture is fairly stiff.

Candied pecans:

  • 2 egg whites
  • ½ c. sugar
  • Pinch of kosher salt
  • 1 c. pecan pieces

Preheat oven to 325° F. Cover a baking sheet with parchment.

Whisk egg whites with sugar and salt. Toss in pecans and mix until coated.

Place nuts on baking sheet. Bake for 15-20 minutes, tossing occasionally with a spatula, until browned. Let cool.


With a round cookie cutter or cutters, cut cake into rounds for whichever size glass you’ll be using for serving. (We used eight 12-oz. double Old Fashioned glasses.)

Place cake round in the bottom of the glass, sprinkle with ¾ to 1 tsp. of bourbon. Put a scoop of pudding on top the cake, followed buy a scoop of mascarpone cream, spreading each layer to the edge of the glass. Sprinkle some candied pecans on top. Then, repeat layers.


    • I know you could make the real thing! I’m not much of a candy maker, but I am going to try to make bourbon balls one day. My grandmother always did, but in those days I thought they were disgusting. Definitely not a kid’s candy.

  1. Great story, and fab sounding recipe. Isn’t amazing the traditions that surround horse races. Our Melbourne Cup evokes plenty of boozy memories but they are mainly chilled champagne

  2. I’ve never had those bourbon balls. I feel like I’m missing out on some really delicious treats, especially when you stated they had creamy centres! And those trifles look good. Love the addition of the candied pecans.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: