My family is known for three things: big parties, sidecars, and popcorn balls. Oh yeah, and legal incest (my mom's sister married my dad's brother. I'll give you a minute to think about it and we can address it at a later time but I swear it's totally legit.) but that's neither here nor there. The popcorn ball history is a long and beloved one in our family mainly because it's a fun treat to eat and an event that everyone can be a part of. If you have kids, making popcorn balls is a mouth-watering, eye-popping Willy Wonka daydream that will leave an indelible mark on their childhood memories. It also serves as a hey!-learning-can-be-fun activity that teaches them the step-by-step process of cooking and following directions. But above all, popcorn balls are great because they're cheap, simple and impossible to mess up. We make them every Christmas in festive colors but also for baby showers, school bake sales, science fairs (my little brother gave them out alongside his report of how popcorn pops!), and birthday parties. I can't tell you how many friends and coworkers still ask me about popcorn balls. They're the all-around prize-winners.
When I say they're the easiest thing in the world to make, I mean it. We made three different batches is less than an hour—popping to wrapping and jarring. We aimed for some Christmasy flair for the kids alongside the trays of toffee, Russian tea cakes, and candied nuts. Although who am I kidding, kids eat anything with sugar. They'll get their sticky paws on it all.
We popped three brown paper bags full of plain, unsalted popcorn using a popcorn popper. I can't remember the last time I popped popcorn on the stove but I'm sure it's all the same. Popcorn doesn't do well with moisture so we bagged and sealed what we weren't using and set aside. And as a general note, find and dispose of any unpopped kernels because they can ruin the whole experience if bitten into.
The basic recipe is sugar, corn syrup, cider vinegar, butter, and vanilla. All but the butter and vanilla is combined first, including the food dye, and heated on the stove. Then the butter and vanilla get thrown in just before pouring over the popcorn.
You can choose any colors to add to the syrup and I'll tell you that kids go for the brightest, craziest colors, like greens and blues. I'd suggest adding dye little by little or you might get a yellow that looks orange, like we did.
We doubled and tripled the recipe to make huge quantities of balls to give as gifts and set out for eating. When working at the stove, the syrup will get really hot so keep children away and use wooden spoons! Many recipes gauge when the syrup is ready by measuring with a candy thermometer (260 degrees F) but my mother uses the water trick. As it boils and thickens, you drop a spoonful of the syrup into a cup of cold water and then pinch it with your fingers. If it stays together, taffy-like then it's ready. Otherwise give it another minute or two and test again.
After you've tested that the syrup is ready, remove from heat and add the butter and vanilla. While hot, pour over the popcorn and stir quickly to coat the whole batch.
The syrup will rapidly cool down so work quickly to cover the popcorn. After it's relatively cool and mixed, the kids can join in. We all butter our hands and dig in, shaping snowball-sized balls and placing them on parchment to set. The balls should be gently shaped, not packed tightly. If you're having a hard time forming balls because the syrup is sticking to you, wash your hands and re-butter them.
Our red batch came out kind of pink but so chewy! We might have thrown in an extra teaspoon or two of vanilla—the chewy ones are always the best.
The green batch came out perfectly. As soon as they were balled, laid out and plastic-wrapped, they mysteriously disappeared. I think it was because a hungry, mischievous group of 11-year-old boys swept through on their way home from school. The usual suspects.
Some quick ball-forming while everything is still hot and malleable is key. Kids go crazy with buttered hands and brightly colored treats, and will no doubt be secretly licking their fingers and eating abandoned popcorn fragments. I have distinct memories of popcorn ball craze from my childhood, long before my first Easy Bake Oven. The sound of popcorn popping and smell of intense sugar means it's baking time with mom.
If some of the balls droop or pull apart while setting, just gently push them back together. We had a problem with this on the first batch because of too much vanilla. Vanilla is good for the chewiness but don't overdo it.
They all taste the same but I'm not sure how appetizing the yellow ones look, which was an accident as a result of too much food coloring. Golden and buttery but not as festive as the red and green. Hmm.
In years in the past, we've done up the popcorn balls in pretty bags and ribbons for gifting but this year skipped it. We usually wrap them in saran wrap and jar them, to be displayed on a counter full of holiday treats. They make really fun gifts no matter how they're presented.
It's only been a few days and already most of this first round is gone. My sister is home from school and has popcorn balls at the top of her list to make so fortunately there will be replacements!
Be careful on your teeth and don't forget to brush them afterwards. And enjoy the popcorn ball fun!