My mom was the creator of our holiday traditions. The way I, my sisters, brothers and even many of my nieces and nephews celebrate have a lot to do with the traditions that my mom set in motion many years ago….I’m sure soon after she and dad got married. I imagine that some of the ways that we celebrated Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas got their start during her childhood but I’m sure, since mom grew up during the depression and considering her family was poor, she never celebrated in quite the style that we did when I was young.
The making of Popcorn Balls, to give out for Trick or Treat, was one of our Halloween traditions that started around the time my sisters we little, sometime during the 40’s, and ended in the 70’s. Even though Mom stopped making them, my brother Don continued this tradition with his daughters many years after.
My sister Jean contacted me the other day asking if I had Mom’s Popcorn Ball recipe and if so, would I like to help her make popcorn balls some weekend before Halloween….she wanted to make some to give to her children and grandchildren. I emailed the recipe to my sister and today, with the help of our niece Pam, made popcorn balls for the first time, for me at least, in about 25 or 30 years.
While getting this post ready, I remembered a story that I had written a few years ago while putting together a cookbook for work. I was writing an explanation about the Popcorn Ball recipe I was including in the cookbook and got started and just went on and on….a lot like the post that I’m working on now. I ended up cutting it down a lot for the cookbook but saved the original. I was going to edit it and use if for my blog but then decided to post it in its entirety. I’m sure many of you won’t be interested in the story, so feel free to pass it by but I thought members of my family who read this blog might find it interesting. I wrote this about a year and a half before my mother passed away.
This story is my memory of what would have taken place around 1967 or 1968 when I would have been 10 or 11….my siblings may remember something completely different. :-)
This is Mom taken around 2001 or 2002
Making Popcorn Balls for Halloween
Every Halloween, for approximately 30 years, my family made popcorn balls. My mother started this tradition with my sisters, brothers and me and continued down to the eldest of my nieces and nephews. Making popcorn balls was quite a production and always a fun family project. Every year we would make over one hundred popcorn balls, one time we made 149. I remember rushing home from school, excited and anxious to have dinner over with so we could begin making them. I thought this was almost as much fun as going out for Trick or Treat.
Before the popcorn balls could be made, the ingredients had to be purchased along with waxed paper, Halloween napkins and rubber bands. One or two days before the night of Trick or Treat, we would begin the process of making popcorn balls. First the waxed paper had to be cut into squares large enough to wrap around a popcorn ball. Long sheets of waxed paper would be placed on the kitchen table, the popcorn balls were placed on these after they were formed. Mom would get out the popcorn popper, put oil and popcorn in the pan and place it on the stove to pop; soon the warm kitchen was filled with sounds and aroma of popping corn. Mom would pop several quarts of popcorn until she had enough to make popcorn balls for the neighborhood Trick or Treaters and some left over for our family to eat. Next she would make the syrup. I remember standing by her side watching as she placed all the ingredients in the saucepan and stirred until the sugar melted and the syrup was the right consistency. At that point she would remove a small portion of the syrup from the pan, place it in a cup of cold water, and swirl the syrup around until it hardened and formed a small ball. She sometimes had to do this a few times before the syrup was at the right stage. It felt like it took forever! I didn’t think it would ever be ready so that we could start shaping the popcorn balls, but finally it was. When the syrup was just right, it was stirred into the popcorn and was now ready for us to shape into balls. We’d rub butter all over our hands so we could grab handfuls of the hot syrup and popcorn mixture and not burn our hands while shaping it into balls. No matter how much butter I slathered onto my hands, I inevitably missed a tiny spot between my fingers and the hot syrup would stick to my skin and sting a little. Once all the popcorn was shaped into balls they were wrapped in the waxed paper squares, and then wrapped in paper napkins that were imprinted with Jack-o-Lanterns, Witches and Ghosts, then secured with rubber bands.
On Trick or Treat night the neighborhood children would head straight for our house, hoping to get there before we ran out of popcorn balls, but were sometimes disappointed because they were too late and ended up with candy instead. In later years as our neighborhood changed, all the families who had lived there for many generations were gone, the children grown and moved away, the elders passed on and rumors of tainted treats filled the news, we made fewer and fewer popcorn balls until we stopped completely and just handed out candy.
My sisters, brothers and I are much older now; my nieces’ and nephews’ are grown with children of their own. My mother has Alzheimer’s type dementia and has been in a nursing home since November of 2002 and her memories of our Halloween preparations may be cloudy or non-existent. Even though more than 30 years have gone by, I still remember the excitement, laughter, warmth and scents of our popcorn ball making days.
Mom’s Popcorn Balls
1 tablespoon butter
1 cup sugar
1-1/2 cups light corn syrup
Food coloring – we used red which gave them a pinkish tint
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ teaspoon salt
4 quarts popped corn*
Melt butter. Add sugar, corn syrup, food coloring, vanilla and salt. Boil on medium heat until very hard ball stage (260°F).
Pour over corn. Stir corn thoroughly while pouring syrup over it.
Butter hands lightly. Shape into balls. Makes 12 to 14 balls.
* We actually ended up using closer to 5 quarts in each batch....there seemed to be too much syrup in the pan for only 4.
The popcorn is ready and waiting...time to make the syrup. We actually used more than the 4 quarts of popcorn in each batch....there seemed to be an awful lot of syrup in the bottom of the pan.
Melt butter. Add sugar, corn syrup, food coloring, vanilla and salt.
Boil on medium heat until very hard ball stage (260 F).
Pour over corn. Stir corn thoroughly while pouring syrup over it.
Butter hands lightly...make sure you cover your whole hand because this stuff is hot and sticky. Shape into balls.