Each December 23 as a kid, my family would pack up our van with luggage and gifts and drive two-and-a-half hours north from our home in central Mississippi to the Holly Springs, a small town a short drive southeast of Memphis. We’d arrive at my grandfather’s home there, drop off our things, and then head to my Aunt Dolly’s house across town where, for the next three days, we’d spend all our time eating (roast turkey and caramel cake), drinking (sodas for the kids and vodka on the rocks for the grown-ups), and lounging in ugly Christmas sweaters in between.
But while all the food and drinks we enjoyed at her house were wonderful, nothing beat the taste of my Aunt Barbara Jane’s Christmas cookies. They were the only food we had to eat in the early morning hours at my grandfather’s house before we were showered and dressed and back at Aunt Dolly’s house for another day of revelry. Because my grandfather was a bachelor who never spent anytime cooking at home, we would eat her cookies so as not to make a mess in his kitchen.
Her cookies were four distinct types of holiday treats that she’d bake and bring with her in giant metal tins decorated with Victorian images of Santa and his reindeer—and they never varied throughout all the years we were there. Oatmeal raisin cookies, crisp and chewy and classic. Powdered sugar-buried wedding cookies, crumbly and redolent with toasted pecans. Salted peanut and pretzel mounds with melted chocolate almond bark. And sausage balls, little orbs of baked meat and cheese bound together by Bisquick mix.
Because they were the only savory option, the sausage balls were mine and everyone else’s favorite treat. Instead of plates of eggs, toast, and bacon, we had those balls, nuked in the microwave by the half-dozen and enjoyed slightly rubbery but warm and satisfying with a cup of coffee.
In the years since, during my own holiday parties, I’ve made them using a from-scratch version of Bisquick and fresh breakfast sausage that I bought from my local butcher. But I’ve also relied on the supermarket versions when strapped for time or energy to great success. These are not fancy treats, after all, and I make them more to remind myself of the best time of year, when my extended family would crowd into a two-bedroom home, sprawl out in sleeping bags on the couch and living room floor, and wake up to the smells of sausage in the air. —Ben Mims
Test Kitchen Notes
Featured in: Food52's Holiday Cookie Chronicles —The Editors
- Prep time 10 minutes
- Cook time 30 minutes
- Serves a crowd
2 1/3 cups
(292g) all-purpose flour
(38g) powdered sugar
plus 1 teaspoon baking powder
(455g) extra-sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
(455g) ground breakfast pork sausage (casings removed if using links)
- Heat the oven to 300°F (150°C). Line two large, rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper.
- In a large bowl, whisk or sift together the flour, cornstarch, sugar, baking powder and soda, and salt. Add the cheese and sausage and use your hands to lightly knead everything together until evenly combined. (Try to avoid kneading the mixture too forcefully or the balls will get too tough.)
- Use a 1-ounce ice cream scoop or eyeball it with your fingers and roll the dough into golf ball–sized balls, spacing them about 1 inch (2.5cm) apart on the baking sheets.
- Bake both sheets, rotating them from top to bottom and front to back halfway through cooking, until the balls are golden brown on the outside and cooked through inside, 25 to 30 minutes. Transfer the sheets to wire racks and let cool completely. Store the balls in airtight containers in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.
- To rewarm, nuke individual or pairs of balls in the microwave for 5 to 10 seconds, or reheat larger batches on a baking sheet in a 350°F (180°C) oven for 10 minutes.