What do you get when you put the Basil Queen and the Popcorn Ball Princess in a kitchen with vast quantities of popcorn, white sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup, and butter, on the night before Halloween?
Popcorn balls, of course!
I had plans for a Halloween dinner that involved dining like zombies. It didn't pan out, because I couldn't find fresh calves' brains. (Frozen brains aren't the same.) So instead of fried brains with sherry butter and capers, à la Ruth Reichl, I'm presenting Bella's family recipe for popcorn balls.
Popcorn balls, if you're not familiar with them, are an old-fashioned American sweet: giant clusters of freshly popped corn held together by vast quantities of chewy caramel. Like kettle corn, but even better. Bella makes amazingly sticky, chewy, dental-work-endangering examples of this art, which, in case you've forgotten, is how she got her title as the Popcorn Ball Princess.
Bella makes popcorn balls every year on the night before Halloween, and a handful of lucky friends get to share in the fruits of her endeavour. The process of wrestling with a mountain of popped corn and a giant pot of molten caramel requires at least two pairs of hands, so she invited me along to help.
Popcorn balls qualify as candy, though of a fairly basic type. My experiences with candymaking have been limited to a few experiments with small quantities of salt caramel, so standing over a massive pot of molten sugar as it churned and bubbled its way towards the hard-crack stage was scary, but exciting.
It was definitely one of the more memorable Halloween-ish activities I've been involved in. Even if it didn't involve any brains.
(And not a bad way to celebrate an anniversary - did I mention that this blog is now a year old?)
Bobbie Sue's Popcorn Balls
This is a two-person process. Do not attempt it alone.
3 cups popcorn seeds (for a total of 48 cups of popped corn)
3 cups white sugar
3 cups brown sugar
2 cups corn syrup
1 cup water
4 teaspoons vinegar
3 cups butter (6 sticks) at room temperature, plus extra for greasing hands
Lay out sheets of waxed paper on a flat surface.
You can prepare the popped corn and the caramel at the same time (that's part of the reason why you need two people), but the popped corn must be ready before the caramel is done, because once the caramel is done, it's not going to wait.
Pop the corn. You will be making a lot of popped corn. You will need a very, very large pot or bowl to hold the popped corn - big enough to cook or bathe a three year-old in.
Get out a large, solid, heavy-bottomed pot, not quite as large as the one holding the popcorn, but large enough to cook a baby. Molten sugar bubbles up as it cooks, and you will be very, very sorry if you use a pot that is too small.
Put the white sugar, brown sugar, corn syrup, water, and vinegar in the pot. Heat, stirring slowly, until the mixture reaches a boil and starts to bubble.
Put your candy thermometer in the mixture, and cook, stirring continuously, until it reaches 260F, also known as the hard-ball stage. (It's the point at which a spoonful of the mixture, dropped into cold water, will form a hard ball.)
Once the mixture hits the hard-ball stage, reduce the heat, and stir in the butter, a stick at a time. When the butter has been fully incorporated, remove the pot from heat and get ready to work quickly.
One person needs to stir the popcorn while the other pours the caramel into the mixture. You may need to move the pot around; if you create a moving stream of molten caramel, keep a careful eye on the other person's hands. Molten caramel causes nasty, nasty burns.
When all the caramel has been incorporated into the popcorn, you'll want to grease your hands up to the wrists in butter. Take handfuls of the popcorn mixture, and shape into balls roughly three inches in diameter, setting them on the waxed paper as you go. Be sure to only take handfuls off the top, so that you're only working with the stuff that's had some time to cool, and re-butter your hands as necessary.
When all the popcorn balls have been formed and allowed to cool, wrap them in more waxed paper. Give them only to people you really like.