With Halloween just around the corner and my recent exploration into the history of popcorn, I was tempted to make a vintage popcorn treat. Popcorn balls were a fixture at Halloween parties during the 1950s, a time when treat-or-treaters regularly enjoyed homemade treats rather than packaged store-bought candies. The first recipe for popcorn balls was published in 1861 in E.F. Haskell’s Housekeeper’s Encyclopedia, and by the turn of the century many cookbooks included popcorn ball recipes.
This recipe comes from an absolutely adorable 1940s vintage cookbook called the Children’s Picture Cook Book by Margaret Gossett and Elizabeth Dauber. It’s written for kids in the kitchen, with every recipe and cooking step illustrated. I couldn’t resist sharing the step-by-step pictures for this recipe. They’re too cute!
These popcorn balls were really easy to make (not surprising, since the recipe comes from a children’s cookbook). I’ve given you the old-fashioned stovetop method for popping the corn, but you can feel free to use an air popper or another popping device if you prefer. Make sure you have a candy thermometer on hand, the syrup temperature is very important here. Otherwise it’s a really straightforward recipe. It’s also a fun one, especially at this time of year. The smell totally takes me back to my childhood. Enjoy!
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- 1/2 cup popcorn kernels
- 3-4 tbsp oil, choose one with a high smoke point like grapeseed or peanut
- 2 cups sugar
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/2 cup molasses or corn syrup
- 1 tsp vinegar
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 1/3 tsp salt
- Heat oil in a large pot over medium heat. You’ll want to use enough oil to just cover the bottom of the pan, so adjust the amount accordingly.
You can test your oil by tossing in a few kernels and covering the pot. Once they pop, you’ll know your oil is hot enough to add in the rest.
Add the rest of the popcorn in an even layer across the bottom of your pot.
- Remove the pot from the heat for 20 seconds to allow all of the kernels to come to the same temperature. Once 20 seconds have passed, return the pot to the heat and cover. Once the kernels are really popping, carefully move the pot back and forth across the burner.
When the popping slows down and there are long pauses between pops, remove the popcorn from the heat and immediately transfer to a large bowl. Set aside.
In a saucepot with a heavy bottom, boil sugar, water and molasses or corn syrup over medium heat, stirring occasionally.
Heat syrup until it reaches 260 degrees F. This can take anywhere from 10-30 minutes. The syrup will be extremely hot and sticky so be sure to cover your hand with an oven mitt when you take the temperature.
- Add in vinegar, vanilla and salt. Stir just enough to mix well.
Immediately pour syrup over popcorn and turn with a rubber spatula to be sure it is all coated evenly.
Allow the popcorn mixture to cool for a few minutes, then spray your hands lightly with cooking spray and gently shape the popcorn into balls about the size of an apple.
Place on a sheet tray lined with wax paper or parchment and allow to cool until hardened.
Once cool, wrap balls in plastic wrap or place in plastic zipper bags to keep them fresh.
- Note: we have reduced the amount of water from the original recipe printed in the vintage book to just 1/2 cup. This will cut the amount of time needed for the temperature to rise significantly, and should not effect the finished result.