From a photograph by Solomon D. Butcher of four daughters of rancher Joseph M. Chrisman, at their sod house in Custer County, Nebraska. From left to right, Harriet, Elizabeth, Lucie, and Ruth. Photographed in 1886.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Remember Popcorn Balls?

Old-fashioned popcorn treats



When I was a child in northern Nebraska, popcorn balls were a holiday treat. If there was a party, someone might bring a bowl of popcorn balls. After the Christmas program at school or church, you might get a little paper sack of hard candy with a popcorn ball tucked into the top of it.

The popcorn was held in ball form by an adhesive -- a syrup, cooked at a high temperature. When it reached about 275°, it was poured over the popped corn. Then the cook, working quickly with buttered hands, shaped the hot, sticky corn into balls. When the syrup cooled, it hardened. Popcorn balls were chewy, and sometimes scratchy.

Some people's popcorn balls were packed so hard that you could barely bite them, and other people's popcorn balls were barely stuck together. It depended on the cook's method, mood, and recipe.

The flavor of the syrup varied, too. Sometimes it was molasses-based. At Christmas time, the popcorn balls were often made with red or green syrup. I think some people used Kool-ade mix to add color and flavor.

Except for a batch of popcorn balls that I made about ten years ago just for fun, I don't think I've seen a popcorn ball for several decades. Have they fallen from favor, or am I just living outside the popcorn-ball zone?

I have six Mennonite and Amish church cookbooks. It is interesting that the only one that has any popcorn recipes is the Kansas Mennonite cookbook.

I checked several of my modern cookbooks and didn't find any recipes for popcorn balls, but my 1960s Fannie Farmer, Betty Crocker, and Good Housekeeping cookbooks all have popcorn ball recipes with several variations.

My 1947 edition of The Household Searchlight Recipe Book has a "Prize Winning Recipe" for popcorn balls from Winifred J. Wells of Mooers, New York. I've posted it and a recipe for an oven-baked popcorn crunch on my recipe blog.

Related site:
History of Popcorn, Caramel Corn, Cracker Jacks, Popcorn Balls. The Nebraska popcorn-ball "legend" at the bottom of the page is interesting. I've never seen heard of sugar cane growing in Nebraska, but maybe they mean sorghum? They do grow a lot of popcorn there.

Update:
Jello Popcorn Balls. My sister says the recipes at this site are similar to the popcorn balls she made when her older sons were little. (That would have around 20 years ago!) The Jello syrup doesn't require a long, hard boiling and a candy thermometer to make sure you've got it to the right stage.

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4 comments:

Eva said...

I do remember popcorn balls -- they were very hard to eat :-) Nowadays you wouldn't dare give out a homemade treat to trick or treaters, so I expect you would only find them at parties given by friends. And, honestly, they weren't that tasty, were they?

Genevieve said...

Hi, Eva. Thanks for visiting.

My husband also mentioned receiving popcorn balls when he went trick or treating as a child.

Were they tasty? Well, some were a lot better than others. I think it depended on who made them.

At least, they were fairly low in fat, and they probably didn't have any more sugar in them than the average frosted cupcake.

The B Baxter Family said...

I have very fond memories of my grandmother's popcorn balls. I finally urged my dad to find her recipe no matter what, and he found her copy of the Searchlight book you mention here. I just tried the recipe tonight to see if it's the one I remember her making. Hers were not tightly packed, got better with age, and were never chewy. She often handed them out for Halloween, and so did many people in our Oregon community. Thanks for sharing!

Genevieve said...

It's interesting that you mention the Searchlight Recipe Book. I guess the Household Magazine that spawned the Searchlight Recipe Book was national, not regional, even though it was published in Topeka, Kansas.

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