Molasses Popcorn Balls


Sometimes every rule needs an exception.

A basic “rule” for this blog is to never post a recipe that I haven’t tested–very recently–at least once, if not more. I have also been trying to include photos on every entry, even if my camera skills are pretty basic.

This entry, however, is going to be an exception. The recipe below is one I haven’t made in years and don’t plan to try for awhile more, so it’s not tested, and won’t have photos to show results.

Still, because it’s been in the family for a long time, I thought I’d put it out here and hope some of you might try it and add a photo of your efforts in the comments below.

Why now? A Facebook post about popcorn balls made with light corn syrup reminded me of Mom’s better, in my opinion, recipe, and a niece responded, asking if I had Mom’s recipe. It didn’t take long to find the yellowed and battered Molasses Popcorn Balls card, in her own handwriting.

As I recall, the “season” for popcorn balls started around Halloween. If she hadn’t made homemade doughnuts to give out for trick or treat, there were likely to be popcorn balls–back in the days when homemade treats were far more common than any wrapped candy from a store.

There were other times when we made these too, usually on a cold winter evening.  Those were the times when we sat together as a family, playing some games or listening to a radio program (we were among the last people I knew to get a television). Dad had a terrific sweet tooth, and so he would often say, I’ll crack some nuts if you (Mom and us kids) want to make fudge–or divinity. If we didn’t have any more of the hickory nuts we’d gathered in the fall, he might instead bring up some apples from the basement and peel a few, using his pocket knife to make a spiral of peeling we’d grab before it fell on the floor.

And sometimes, to go with those apples, Mom would bring out the popcorn popper and make popcorn balls. After Halloween, these were a rare treat because they are, admitedly, pretty messy to make, but the deep molasses fragrance after the smell of popping corn could warm up even the coldesst, dreariest evening.

With all these memories stirred, and Halloween around the corner, it seems like a good time to pull out this “heritage recipe” and maybe have a family night making these together. For total authenticity, find an old radio program to download and listen to while you are working.

Following is, first, Mom’s original recipe, one that does not include any idea of how much popcorn to use, other than knowing that, in the end, you should have 12 balls. Hers were usually the size of a baseball after packing together, if that helps any.

If you look closely, you’ll see my own notes and adaptations, dated May/68–so you know the card is OLD! I’ve included those changes following the transcription of Mom’s original below. Finally, there are the comments Mom had also included on the back.

These popcorn balls were often sticky, but they were full of flavor and very much like rich caramel corn–or like old-fashioned Cracker Jack, without the peanuts. We would sometimes butter our fingers or even grab up the sticky popcorn with pieces of waxed paper protecting our hand as we molded them into shape.

A couple of notes:

As noted above, there is no measurement for popcorn anywhere on the card, but, based on the volume of syrup, it probably was a lot. She used a saucepan about the size of those stove-top poppers you see in the stores, and I am going to guess she made at least two batches for this recipe.

I’d suggest popping a lot more corn than you need, put some (8 cups or so?) in a big bowl and begin pouring the syrup over it. If you need to add more corn, you can just toss some in as you stir, until the mixture seems just about “right.” And if you end up with too much corn to make the balls stick, then you have caramel corn. If you don’t have enough popped corn, well then, you have some very, very sweet, very, very sticky popcorn balls that may need to be eaten with a spoon–or at least have popsicle sticks stuck in the center to keep your fingers relatively unstuck!

Use a bigger pan than you might think you need, and be prepared: when you add the soda, the mixture will bubble up vehemently.

You do need to be careful not to handle the mixture when it is too hot–you can burn yourself pretty easily if you do. At the same time, waiting too long for the mixture to cool makes it almost impossible to get the balls to come together. (Maybe that is why my variation is for caramel corn instead of popcorn balls!)

Molasses Popcorn Balls

1 3/4 c light molasses
2 c sugar
2/3 c water
2 t vinegar

Cook to hard ball stage (250 degrees).
Remove from heat.
Stir in 1/2 t soda – mixing thoroly.
Pour over corn, stirrig up from bottom of dish so all corn is covered. Shape into balls.
Makes 12 balls. 

 good w/variations May/68

My changes to the popcorn balls recipe were somewhat minimal:

1/2 c. light molasses–but I would have used “dark” or regular molasses, since I never had light molasses in the cupboard
3 c sugar
Continue with Mom’s original recipe.

OR the caramel corn! 

1/2 c white syrup (this would mean light corn syrup)
3 c brown sugar
1/2 c water
2 t. vinegar
1 T butter
add 1 T salt to this mixture before cooking. 
Cook (with an arrow pointing to the 250 degrees)
Another arrow confirms that 1/2 t soda should be added just with the popcorn bals.

Though my notes on the card don’t have much more explanation than Mom’s, I remember laying  waxed paper on a cookie sheet and then spreading the caramel corn out on that to dry. 

(I will be frank here: My sister Merry has a much easier and better oven caramel corn recipe that I will probably be trying sometime in the next few weeks. I plan to post that soon, so you can compare and make up your own mind about which is better.)

And the notes on the back

As with many of Mom’s recipe cards, there were little notations and extras on the back of the card. This one was no exception. Here is, verbatim, what she had added.

A quickie:
   Melt 1/2 lb light caramel candy with 2 T water – in top of double boileer. Stir until smooth and pour over 2 qts salted popcorn. Spread on buttered cookie sheet. Cool, break apart.

And one more, final, final, note for our family:

If you notice on the card, and on my transcription, Mom’s instructions for adding the soda were to stir it in “-mixing thoroly.”

Mom was a stickler for correct spelling, but she also spelled a few words in a very unique way, “tho”, “thoro”, and “thoroly” the main ones I ever noticed. She explained that Grandpa Brereton had been a great believer in the University of Chicago “simplified spelling” movement and had taught her some of these “simplified” words. I just checked and there is a lot of information on this out on the internet, much of it behind paywalls. Still, the Wikipedia article seems pretty accurate, so you might want to check this out:

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