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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Caramel Popcorn Balls

As the holidays in Accra drew near, I found myself fixating on the idea of making popcorn balls. And so I began my nearly anthropological foray into the weird and wonderful world of strategically heating sugar. As a novice sugar-heater I learned to decode (perhaps a bit too late) the secret language of expert sugar-heaters. I develop techniques for shaping popcorn balls (again, perhaps a tad too late) that don’t burn the heck out of my hands. Ultimately, this is a post in which the recipe is just the centerpiece, memories of my Great-Grandmother set the stage, and the process had me alternately cursing and giggling. All in search of that crunchy sweet food nostalgia.

I have been thinking a lot lately about food nostalgia, in no small part because I have just spent the holiday season thousands of miles from home and family. When my husband and I decided to try to create a familiar sense of the holidays here in Accra, the first thing we both turned to was the food. Particular dishes are emblematic of the holidays. Terry fondly remembers his mother’s roasted red pepper soup with sambuca cream followed by a hearty roast. I have fond attachments to a patchwork of foods: gherkins and deviled eggs at my Grandma Pfingsten’s house on Christmas eve, my mother’s cinnamon rolls hot on Christmas morning, my Grandma Dottie’s mostacholi with Christmas dinner, Great-Aunt Joan’s pecan crescent cookies for dessert. But in particular, I remember my Great-Grandma Richter always brought two things to Christmas gatherings: a two pound bag of peel-and-eat shrimp and a brown grocery bag full of red and green popcorn balls.

My Great Grandma
My Great-Grandma Richter was sweet and gentle in a way that always left the inescapable sense of sass buried just below the surface. I wish I had a photo of her, it was written all over her face. I remember she was once in a photo in our local paper for a story about senior activities. She was playing cards with three other ladies, and in the full color news photo she is captured quite clearly sneaking a peek at her opponent’s hand of cards.

She was fiercely independent, as though living through the Great Depression had forever endowed her with a commitment to be on the side of the helping, rather than the helped. Even when her fingers were arthritic, she knitted continually; she simply downgraded from full sized afghans to small lap blankets for other seniors at the nursing home. Until the day her health finally forced her to give up her little bungalow home, she mowed the small lawn with a manual rotary lawn-mower rather than a gas one. She had a full cloud of white hair, always set with a permanent wave. She had an endless array of pants, which were all ultimately exactly the same but for the specific color or pattern. Her pants were always some synthetic blend, always high on her hips, with straight trouser legs that were cuffed just above her sensible beige orthopedic shoes. The trousers had a seam permanently sewn down the front of each pant leg, as though pressing a seam in with the iron was simply not enough.

She would often press her teeth into her lower lip and quickly suck air in short bursts, producing a characteristic sound. That was her signature move, and from time to time I catch myself doing the same thing when I get lost in thought and am trying to sort something out. I also have a particular affinity for wearing old fashioned trousers in unusual plaid or hound sooth patterns.

The other thing I inherited from my Great-Gram Richter was her sense of cooking by feel. My mother and grandmother both cook religiously by recipes. More often than not, I prefer to get into the kitchen and muck about with one part experience, one part forethought, and one part luck. Like my Great-Grandma, I have cultivated an uncanny sense of pinches and dashes and other such unspecified quantities. Unfortunately, I was too young to really learn from her experienced cooking before she died. All I was left with were the sensory impressions of what her characteristic food looked, smelled, and tasted like.

Every fall she canned delicious home-made cinnamon applesauce. I have never perfectly replicated that taste. For the holidays, she always came with a two-pound bag of peel-and-eat shrimp, and a large brown grocery bag full of red and green popcorn balls.

Recipe Search
Most of my Great Grandma Richter’s recipes did not survive her. She was someone who cooks by feel. Her ingredient list would contain “just enough apples” and the directions would tell you to stir “until they are right.” In other words, she didn’t have recipes a novice would understand, and certainly not a novice who was attached to the idea of measurements or precise directions. We have, thankfully, her old fashioned cranberry sauce, which I am sure I will trot out on this site in honor of some Thanksgiving in the future. But this didn’t help me with the popcorn balls.

So naturally I began poking around the internet in search of something that seemed right. Many of the recipes were actually for caramel corn balls, although few of them mentioned caramel directly. I could just tell from the inclusion of the butter in the ingredient list. After five or six recipes I was starting to see a solid pattern, but there was just one big problem. One hurdle between me and the recreation of a fond Christmas wish: almost all the recipes used corn syrup. It turns out that despite all my diligence, I could not find a bottle of corn syrup anywhere in Accra. It is just not used in any of the cuisines that are often made here. But I found one recipe using honey, and that seemed darn promising.

Although my Great-Grandma’s popcorn balls were not caramel corn (because I remember them being light pink and green, not caramel brown), I decided that it might not hurt to tweak tradition a little. Because caramel corn was sounding incredibly tasty right then, and was sort of stoking a little longing for my home and Chicago-style popcorn. Ultimately then, this recipe became a fusion of longing for Christmases past, with my Great Grandma, and present, in Chicago. Of course, to be fully faithful to my beloved Chicago-style popcorn, I would have had to dip the caramel corn into cheese. Mmmmm. But save that for another day.


Popcorn. approx 1/4 cup kernels. Roughly 8 cups popped.
1 slight cup honey
½ cup white sugar
½ cup brown sugar
½ cup water
20 grams salted butter
1 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla extract

Makes 8-10 medium popcorn balls.


Combine honey, white sugar, brown sugar, water, and salt in saucepan. Place over low heat, stirring until mixture begins to boil. Add butter. Stir and add vanilla just as the mixture begins to thicken. Cook to firm ball stage (248 degrees). Coat popcorn and press to balls.

No really, that’s all you need to know.

Okay, those are really only the expert directions. If you know what “firm ball stage” means, you probably have all you need to make tasty delicious caramel corn. For the rest of you, or those of you who will be entertained by my trial-by-sugar, read on.

People who routinely heat sugar have a secret language known only among other sugar-heaters. In this dazzling lexicon, terms like “firm ball” and “hard-crack” stand in for years of experience evaluating subtle qualitative differences. Of course, these phrases also correspond to temperatures on a candy thermometer. But being in the heart of Africa, I don’t even have a measuring spoon, let alone a candy thermometer. So I decided to try to do it by following the one-paragraph description of process for which “firm ball” is the short-hand.

Many other corn-syrup based recipes advocate cooking until the “hard-crack” stage, which apparently means when you drizzle the liquid into a cup of ice water it will form thin threads that get immediately hard. These other recipes caution against stopping early at the “ball” stage, because then you get gooey caramel corn, rather than crisp corn.

Generally being cavalier about trying new things, and inclined to combine the best from several recipes into my own particular approach, I used a honey-based recipe (because I couldn’t find corn syrup anywhere in Accra), but decided to use butter (because its delicious) and thought I would try to reach this mythical stage of enlightenment known as “hard crack.”

What is hard crack? An experienced sugar-heater online explained it: “When it has reached hard crack stage, it will form treads in the water. When you take the threads out of the water, they will be hard and brittle. If they are still soft and pliable, or if it forms a ball instead of threads, keep cooking and checking until you get hard, brittle threads.”

Observations from a first time sugar-heater. First it all melts together but is grainy. Then you keep stirring, and lo, it is all melted together with no discernible grains. Then it starts foaming. This foaming business was a bit unexpected because none of the recipes mentioned foaming, but I believe this is something all expert sugar-heaters take for granted. Undaunted, I stir on.

At some point all this foaming is making me nervous, and I feel like I have been stirring for a long time. This is probably because I am sweating bullets standing over the stove in 90 degree weather. That sort of thing tends to distort ones sense of time. So I decide to turn off the heat so the foam will settle down and I can get a look at the liquid. My husband T. is of the opinion that it is probably done. We peer into the amber liquid trying to divine its secrets. I prod it a little more with the spoon and decide it doesn’t seem nearly thick enough. “I think” I proclaim, “if we use this we will wind up with soggy popcorn soup.” Onward, we decide. Back to boil/foaming. Constant stirring. Constant vigilance is demanded of the novice sugar-heater. I think I may have stirred for at least 15 minutes.

By this time I am not heating it on high, but on the lowest setting on my little stove. My stove really has no concept of low, it is much more like hot, hotter, hottest, so I do not know what this would correspond to on my stove back home, but I will say the foam was about 1 inch high when heating on low, whereas it got 2-3 inches high when heating on the highest setting.

While stirring I keep drizzling little bits into the cup of ice water I have at my side. First it just blends into the water, leaving no discernible shapes behind. Then it forms little lumps at the bottom that are quite soft and delicious when you scoop them out and pop them into your mouth, as you really should. After the soft lumps each progressive drizzle got me closer and closer to firm round globes.

In retrospect I would say I should have stopped when I noticed that they formed those little balls almost as soon as they hit the water: they paused on their descent to the bottom of the cup, formed up, and then continued on down. When I scooped these little balls out of the ice water they reminded me immediately of caramel in consistency. They were chewy and a bit insistent, rather than soft and totally pliable. This would have been the moment to stop.

But ahh, hubris. I was still hunting that illusive hard-crack phase. Onward I plunged, oblivious to the danger!

It all happened so suddenly. It was more than a little surprising. I had T. standing at the ready with the already-popped popcorn and a slotted spoon for stirring the goodness onto the popcorn. All of the sudden I realized the caramel color had darkened quite rapidly and I could smell that it was starting to burn.

I rapidly completed the last bit of the instructions: Remove from heat; add vanilla and stir only to blend well. Pour slowly over 3 quarts of popcorn in large bowl.

“Ack! Quick quick, get ready!” I nudge over towards him, cramped in our small kitchen. I am wielding a burning hot pot with scalding sugar goodness, so I am trying to pour carefully and he is trying to stir and all without bumping into each other. I can smell already that the caramel is a little burned. But I have my fingers crossed that it is still edible. I don’t want to have to toss this one into the follies file.

No one warned me of this “things can go south pretty quickly” hazard. But commenters online did warn that forming the popcorn balls can be a challenge. Do it too early and you scald your hands. Wait too long and fahgettaboutit, the corn is all stuck to itself and your pan in one impressive discus.

These challenges mean a little bit of foresight can save you a lot of ache. In advance set out a row of baggies and a kitchen mitt or kitchen towel. You can work right out of the pot (although some in the end will be stuck unless you work quite quickly), otherwise try turning all the corn out from the pot onto a waxed piece of paper. If you want to be extra cautious, butter the waxed paper a bit. Scoop a big ladle of hot popcorn into a baggie. Then, using a hand in the mitt or wrapped in the towel, firmly press on the outside of the baggie to form the popcorn into a ball. You want to press fairly solidly, perhaps even using two hands. Of course you don’t want to pulverize it into popcorn dust.

If you are working alone you will have to work fairly quickly to get through all the popcorn before it cools.

Was it all worth it in the end? Absolutely. The caramel was a tad, but just a tad, overcooked. My husband dubbed the final effect, “sweet and smokey” but I found them oddly addictive once I got started. They became my little advent calendar counting down to Christmas. I wound end each night sitting in front of our little tree, crunching away on a popcorn ball by tree-light.

And in the end the whole trial of the process, follies and all, made me feel much more connected to my Great Grandma than I ever expected when I began. Somehow I found myself imagining her when she was a young woman, experiencing those challenges for the first time herself. It was wonderfully comforting.

Nutritional Information (10 servings) 209 calories, 1.9 grams fat, 1.0 grams fiber, 259 mg sodium.

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Nina Timm said...

My children will think they have died and gone to heaven - sugar heaven.

Your template is beautiful,is it a classic or did you design it yourself?

Thx for the inspiration!


Erin said...

Nina-The great thing about these popcorn balls is that they are built-in portion control. Rather than plowing through a whole bag of caramel popcorn, it is easy to limit to one popcorn ball. So the sugar hit isn't too bad.

Thanks for the design compliment! It is based off one of the blogger templates, but I did some heavy adapting to colors, background, link appearance etc myself.

JingerB said...

Can't wait to work on this recipe... just wondering though... when do you add the vanilla? With the butter? Thank you!!!

Erin said...

Jinger: Great catch! I'm going to edit the post. I do believe you add the vanilla at the very end, after the butter is stirred in but before it gets too thick.

Anonymous said...

Nice,interesting read.Kudos Nina.

Abi said...

How long will they stay good for? As in, if I'm wanted to make some for my son's birthday party, and I made them the day before, would they still taste good the next day?

Erin said...

Yes they will last for a bit, especially if they are wrapped and kept in an airtight container away from lots of moisture. That said, I made mine on a hot humid day in Ghana (Africa) and they still lasted 2 days in my house...which was how long it took us to eat them all :) I would say making them the night before is completely fine, just wrap them and store them in tupperware at room temperature.

Anonymous said...

Amazing popcorn balls! My daughter had a 'space' theme for her class and for a special snack we sent these 'popcorn planets'. They reminded me of my childhood. Great for a very special occasion with children and I almost felt good about them being nearly least without the corn syrup. This recipe will be in my stash of family favourites. Thanks for thinking outside the box! Well done!

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