Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Happy Golden Popcorn Balls

Halloween is just around the corner, and I have been remiss in not providing holiday-related goodies.  So in the next three days, I'll see how many I can pop out, and I promise to plan ahead for Thanksgiving.

Now, I have been trying my best not to only write about sweets, but since this holiday abounds with candy, and I can't very well put up a recipe about peeling grapes and calling them eyeballs, healthiness will have to wait a few days.

One of the things I like about Halloween is the popcorn balls.  My sources tell me that popcorn balls are not a Halloween-only thing - when the Ingalls family makes their popcorn balls, it's at Christmas time - but I only ever see them in the fall, usually with wrappers illustrated with spiders, besides the fact that they're in the treat bags of the kids in It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, so they count as Halloween in my book.  And that, children, is a run-on sentence.

Speaking of books, popcorn balls play a big part in the Christmas traditions of the Ingalls family in Laura Ingalls Wilder's These Happy Golden Years.  This book was not my favorite of the Little House series, because I liked the young and impulsive Laura, and this one has her teaching at a school and getting ready to marry Almanzo, but that didn't stop me from reading it a few times.  I loved this book series, particularly Little House in the Big Woods.

The book, the eighth in the series, was set in the 1880's in or around what is now DeSmet, South Dakota; it's a semi-autobiographical series, based on the author's real life but not necessarily true all the way.  In the spirit of this, I made mostly-true popcorn balls; that is, I didn't use the molasses that the book specifically says that the Ingallses used, because I don't like the flavor of molasses all that much.  I used a recipe that makes the popcorn more caramel and less treacle instead, though I did pop the popcorn on the stove-top like Mrs. Ingalls did when she made them with Laura, Carrie and Grace.

Laura's Popcorn Balls
4 tbsp. vegetable oil
2 cups unpopped popcorn
1/4 cup butter
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup light corn syrup
2/3 cup sweetened condensed milk
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

1.  Add 1 tbsp. of oil and two unpopped popcorn kernels to a large pot or saucepan, and heat over medium-high until the kernels pop.  Add a 1/2 cup of kernels to the pot and cover.  Shake the pot over the burner in a back-and-forth motion constantly until all the kernels have popped (by this, I mean you'll be scraping the pot over the burner, as it needs to stay near the heat).  Move the popped popcorn to a large bowl and repeat with the remaining kernels until all the popcorn has popped.  NOTE: If you don't want to pop the popcorn on the stovetop, use three bags of unflavored or natural microwave popcorn.
2. In a small saucepan, heat the butter, brown sugar, and corn syrup over medium high until melted together, and bring to a boil.  Add the condensed milk and simmer until the mix gets to the "soft ball" stage of candy making, or roughly 240 degrees on a candy thermometer.  Stir in the vanilla.
3. Pour the mixture - which is now caramel, by the way - over the popcorn and stir with a spoon to coat.  Once the mixture is cool enough to touch, butter or cooking-spray your hands and roll them into balls, in the same way that you would pack a snowball.

NOTES: Two cups of unpopped popcorn makes a very large amount of popped popcorn, and I needed three large bowls to hold it all, which I poured the caramel over as evenly as I could divide it.  You can cut down on the popcorn if you want your popcorn balls to be more caramelly.  Also, please note that if you leave the popcorn alone until it is fully cool, it won't be very easy to roll into balls, but it is still quite tasty as caramel popcorn.  This recipe made me 25 4-inch popcorn balls and a zip-top freezer bag full of caramel popcorn.

 These are awesome.  If you don't want caramel popcorn, there are lots of marshmallow-based popcorn ball recipes out there, too.

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