Remember when no one freaked out when you’d get homemade candy and cookies in your trick-or-treat bag? Eric and I are children of the '70s. We both spent our childhoods in small Northern California towns -- his had a couple thousand people; mine, just a couple hundred. We each have memories of homemade popcorn balls, cookies, and candy being passed out in our neighborhoods on Halloween. We didn’t personally know the people that were handing them out, yet we (our parents) trusted that they were safe.
We now live a block outside a city with a population of somewhere around 100,000. While that is huge compared to our childhood towns (which, by the way, haven't grown in population), after living in Portland, Oregon, for 15 years, it feels tiny. There are four kids that live on our street, and we know each of them. They are often beneficiaries of my baking projects, so I decided, why not make something for them for Halloween? I debated for a while on what to make. Cookies with royal icing (specifically spider webs) made the short list. As did popcorn balls. I’ve never made popcorn balls, and by Friday I was getting kind of lazy about the whole project, so popcorn balls it was.
While I was browsing for recipes, I was disappointed to see so many of them telling me to use microwave popcorn. Does no one pop their own popcorn anymore? I used a hot-air popper for years, but eventually discovered I could achieve the same effect by using a paper bag in a microwave, so I ditched the extra appliance and now keep a paper bag in the pantry next to the popcorn canister.
I suppose it’s time to replace the bag...
The recipe I found appealed to me because it described their flavor as "Cracker-Jacky". It called for eight quarts of popcorn. Eight quarts?! That’s a lot of popcorn. I wanted popcorn balls for four kids, not 40.
1 C. granulated sugar
3/4 C. light corn syrup
1/4 C. molasses
2 tbsp. butter
1/2 tsp. salt
8 quarts (1 gallon) popped popcorn, unpopped kernels removed
I figured two quarts would be plenty, but it didn’t think adjusting the recipe accordingly would give me enough caramel. So I kind of eyeballed it.
The recipe instructs you to add the peanuts to the popcorn after you’ve melted the rest of the ingredients together and poured them in with the popcorn. But either there wasn’t enough caramel mixture, or I didn’t work fast enough (or a little of both), because the peanuts just didn’t stick, and most of them ended up in the bottom of the bowl.
So I tried again. I used the same amount of popcorn, but used about 1/4 c. sugar, 1/3 c. corn syrup, 1/8 c. molasses, the full 2 T of butter, and a pinch of salt. Much, much better.
We added spooky rings, a couple pieces of candy, a tube of bubbles, some glow sticks, and Silly Putty to Halloween bags and called it done.
As for the popcorn balls, they are good, but they’re missing something. Like, flavor. They need a lot more caramel, or some secret ingredient that I’m not privy to. I could probably figure it out, but they don't interest me enough to bother. If I decide to bake for the neighbor kids next year, I’ll most likely go with cookies. Better yet, my favorite, caramel.