Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Sweet and Salty Popcorn Balls (and why I'm not crafty)

A ridiculous amount of this disappeared. Magically.
So, when my friend Carla from Good Cook said she wanted some posts about popcorn balls, I said, sure, I can do that.

I even had a recipe for caramel-like toffee thing that I knew I could use for the "glue." I'd made the caramel before but never wrote about it. I was waiting for something to use it with/for/in.

So, popcorn balls. Sure. Easy.



I received two popcorn ballers (plastic molds for making the popcorn balls), one round and one oval/football shaped. The molds are a pretty good idea because your other option, I guess, is to form the balls with your hands. Sounds mildly painful considering you're dealing with melted sugar.

My first idea was to make a cheese-and-caramel sort of popcorn ball. There's a booth at the local farmers market that sells a mix of cheese popcorn and caramel popcorn and it's ridiculously good. I wanted to recreate that in a popcorn ball.

So far, so good.

I popped two batches of popcorn (about 5 quarts of popped  popcorn) and set out on my journey towards humiliation. You see, the bloggers in the Facebook group that Carla runs had starting making and posting their popcorn ball masterpieces. Some of them posted disclaimers that said, "hey, don't judge me ... my five-year-old made this."

And then they posted photos of Frankenstein-like monsters, and trains, and adorable gingerbread houses, and even turkeys and owls.

I considered renting some children, because my first attempt at making a "cute" popcorn ball was not quite a success. I used the oval/football shaped mold and decided to make it look like a fish. When I looked at the photos I realized it looked more like a dog with mutantly misplaced ears and a mohawk.

Mutant popcorn poodle
So I tried again, this time making it look more like a dog. A mutant popcorn poodle.

To glue the parts on, I used peanut butter. It made sense, since there was peanut butter in the caramel, but these weren't popcorn balls you could walk around with - the attached parts came of easily. Which was good for easy munching.

For something more secure, I'd suggest royal icing as a glue, or even melted chocolate. You could also use melted caramel, but I used all mine on the popcorn.

I used dried apricots for the ears and a dried cherry for the nose. The eyes were store-bought sugar decorations.

Better. Maybe. Sort of. But not great.

So, I decided to dispense with the cute popcorn ball and go back to my original plan - to make tasty cheese and caramel popcorn balls. Just balls. Round planetary objects. Yeah, that's what they were. Planets.

So much better.

Sweet-and-Salty Popcorn Balls
with peanut-butter caramel and cheese

It's round. Stare at it. It's like a planet, right? Right???
5-6 quarts popped popcorn
1 1/2 cups white sugar
1 stick (8 tablespoons, 1/4 pound) butter
1/2 cup chunky peanut butter
Cheese, as needed (something that melts well - colby is a good choice)

Have the popcorn popped and standing by in a bowl large enough to allow you to mix the popcorn without it spilling over the sides and onto the floor. Alternatively, have a dog standing nearby to catch fallen popcorn.

Just kidding. Maybe.

Put the sugar in a heavy-bottomed pan and heat on medium until the sugar melts and turns brown. Not black-brown-burned. You want a dark golden or rich brown. Add the butter. Gently. Things will bubble. Stir. The sugar will likely clump up and/or harden, but it will melt again. When the butter has melted and the mixture stirs easily, add the peanut butter and stir it in.

This is a thick caramel/toffee/candy, not a thin drizzly coating.

Add spoon fulls of the caramel to the popcorn and stir it around so that it coat the popcorn rather than the popcorn adhering to balls of the caramel. You'll see what I mean.

You can keep the caramel over LOW heat while you stir in spoon fulls, but watch it so it doesn't burn. Add as much of the caramel as you like. If you have some left over, pour it onto a silpat and let it cool there.

This stuff is really good ... the peanut butter makes it taste like peanut brittle. Even though it's only 1/2 cup, you can taste it.

For cheeseless caramel popcorn balls:

While the caramel is still warm and sticky on the popcorn, shovel the popcorn mixture into the popcorn ball mold, overfilling it, and mash the top on, compressing the popcorn a bit so it takes on the shape of the mold. Check it and shove extra popcorn in if you have gaps and holes in the ball. Mash the top on again.

Remove the popcorn ball from the mold and continue making more. Work quickly, before the caramel cools.

Left over caramel-coated popcorn is great for snacking. Quite a bit of it disappeared before I even started on the cheesy version.

For cheese caramel popcorn balls:

As some point, that caramel is going to harden to the point where it will no longer be sticky, but we can still make CHEESY caramel popcorn balls. Gather up what looks like about twice as much of the prepared caramel popcorn that would fit into the mold and put it onto a microwaveable plate or bowl. Grate a generous amount of cheese on top and mix it in. Grate a little more. This is our new "glue" so you need enough to keep the popcorn sticking together.

Use a cheese that melts easily like colby or a mild cheddar or gruyere. You can add something like parmesan for extra flavor, but don't count on that for the stickiness.

Microwave the cheese-covered popcorn until the cheese melts. The caramel will also soften a bit.

Shovel the popcorn into the mold as before and mash the top on. Add more popcorn, if needed to fill holes and gaps in the ball. Remove from the mold.

It's best to melt the cheese onto the popcorn one batch at a time, since the cheese cools pretty quickly.

Continue making as many popcorn balls as you like.

Just the cheese:

If you don't like sweets, the caramel isn't necessary. You could make popcorn balls with just the cheese. Just melt the cheese on the popped corn, and shove them in the molds.

For an added punch of savory flavor, you could add herbs and spices to the popcorn, or add more cheese flavor with powdered cheddar cheese.

As part of the Good Cook Kitchen Experts program, Good Cook sends me cooking gadgets for my use.