Popcorn balls have been regarded as a treat since the mid-19th century; however, the first recipe for them doesn’t appear to have been published until 1861 – in a New York cookbook, the Housekeeper’s Encyclopedia by E.F. Haskell. Her recipe was simple: “Boil honey, maple, or other sugar to the great thread; pop corn and stick the corn together in balls with the candy.”
That was the basic recipe for these crunchy confections. But it has been tweaked over the years. Since then they’ve been festively colored, stuck together with marshmallows, and adorned with candy and nuts. The possibilities are endless! (I chose to go the simple, old-fashioned route.)
Preparation here is key. Once the syrup is ready, things happen pretty quickly, so you don’t want to be scrambling to set things up. If you want to color them or give them the goody treatment, have the (candy, nuts, etc.) laid out on a plate or pie dish (something you can roll the sticky popcorn ball over and through).
You will also need the following items: Baking sheet (or a place to put the finished popcorn balls so they have a chance to set up), wax paper or silicone baking mat (to set them on so they don’t stick), candy thermometer (to prepare the syrup). If you don’t have one – you can always do it the old fashioned way – by dropping a bit of the hot syrup into cold water and watch to see it make threads.
If you are interested in purchasing one, this is the thermometer I like to use. It has easy to read numbers, a clip to hang on to your pot, and is dishwasher safe. I also especially appreciate the “handle” at the top which keeps it from getting too hot to handle. It’s $10 from amazon, with free shipping, arriving to your home in 2 days!
Adapted from Jolly Time Popcorn
These are the ingredients you need to make this syrup:
- 1 cup coconut sugar (Sucanat or organic cane sugar)
- 1/3 cup pure maple syrup or agave or honey
- 1/3 cup water
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
- 2 Tablespoons butter, vegan butter, or coconut oil/butter
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
First - make the popcorn: If you have an air popper, follow the directions. You may also use plain microwave popcorn OR if you want to do it the old-fashioned way (as I do), you only need a heavy sauce pan (at least a 3 quart) with a lid. You will also need:
- 2 Tablespoons oil
- Popcorn (enough to cover the bottom of the pan)
Measure the oil into the pan. Turn the heat up high. Add the popcorn kernels. Stand ready. I like to wait until the first of the popped corn makes its appearance before I cover the pan. Just give it a shake now and then until that occurs. Once it begins to pop, cover the pan and hang on to that lid! Oven mitts help so it doesn't get too hot for your hands. Shake it constantly over the heat until the popping slows down (or the lid comes up from the popped corn). Measure out 8 cups of cooked popcorn into a bowl large enough to mix without spilling it all over. The rest is good for nibbling! =)
To make the syrup: Mix water, maple syrup, coconut sugar, sea salt and butter together in a sauce pan and stir until boiling. Once it starts boiling, stop stirring and allow it to continue a full, rolling boil. Check it with the candy thermometer. It needs to reach 270 degrees Fahrenheit. At that point, remove the pan from the heat and add 1 teaspoon vanilla. If you want to color the popcorn balls, now is the time to add the food coloring. Give it just a quick stir. Then pour evenly over popcorn and stir with a wooden spoon. Make sure to coat all of the popcorn. When it has cooled enough to handle (it just takes a couple of minutes), coat your hands with butter, margarine, or coconut oil. This will keep your hands from becoming a sticky mess. Form into balls the size you like, gently pressing together. If you want to roll it in nuts, candy, dried fruit, etc. - do so now. Then set them on wax paper or a silicone baking sheet to firm up.
Makes 20 small popcorn balls about 2 - 2 1/2 inches across.
*In the U.S., the marshmallow industry is dominated by two main companies: Kraft Foods Inc. and Doumak Inc. Both companies manufacture only gluten-free marshmallows.