Popcorn Balls

The Fannie Farmer Cookbook was originally published in 1896. Fannie Farmer’s name is still well-known today.

A recipe for Popcorn Balls stated that it was “an authentic old-fashioned version.” Intrigued by a recipe considered “old-fashioned” in 1896, I decided to make it.

Preheat oven to 250. (All temperatures are Fahrenheit.)

Pop 3 quarts of unbuttered, unsalted popcorn. To do this frugally, add 1/3 cup of popcorn to a lunch-sized paper bag. Important—tape the bag shut. Microwave it on the popcorn setting until popping slows. This makes at least 10 cups of popcorn, which was plenty.

Coat a large, oven-safe bowl with shortening. Pour the popcorn in the bowl and keep warm in a 250 oven.

You’ll need 2 to 4 tablespoons of butter later. For now, butter a large spoon or fork and set it aside. You’ll need some wax paper for the hot popcorn balls as well.

In a 3-quart heavy pot, combine 2 cups light corn syrup, 1 tablespoon cider vinegar, and ½ teaspoon of salt. Stir to mix together.

Cook over medium heat. Use a candy thermometer to monitor the temperature of the syrup until it reaches the hard-ball stage of 250 degrees.

There was a strong vinegar smell when the syrup began to cook that dissipated after a few minutes.

The recipe says you can stir occasionally, but I had to make this twice because I forgot to add vanilla at the end the first time. The final caramel-type mixture worked better without stirring.

When the temperature reaches 200, watch carefully as it begins to shoot up quickly.

Remove from heat when it reaches 250. Add 2 teaspoons of vanilla. I was surprised that the vanilla sizzled. Stir to mix it in.

Remove the warm popcorn from the oven. Moving quickly, use the buttered spoon to toss the popcorn as you pour it slowly from the kettle. The caramel is very thick and pours in a thin ribbon while you move the popcorn around to cover it.

Butter your fingers. Since the popcorn sets quickly, as soon as the popcorn mixture cools enough to handle, begin shaping it into 3-inch balls. Start from the outside parts that have cooled a bit. Keep buttering your fingers to enable you to work with the sticky popcorn.

My husband and I both thought these popcorn balls tasted like Cracker Jacks. Delicious! But, if you cook it until 250, the caramel is little hard. I’d remove it at about 240—or even a little less. Experiment for the caramel consistency you enjoy.

I had fun learning how to make this, but the makers of Cracker Jacks have perfected it long ago. I think I’d buy a box next time. I bought Cracker Jacks a few months ago for a baseball party so they are still around.


-Sandra Merville Hart


Revised by Cunningham, Marion and Laber, Jeri. The Fannie Farmer Cookbook, Alfred A Knopf Inc., 1983.




I’ve Brought some Corn for Popping









“I’ve brought some corn for popping.” This line from the beloved Christmas carol “Let it Snow” started me wondering when the tradition of popping corn began.

People have known how to pop corn for thousands of years. Ears of popcorn were discovered in the Bat Cave in New Mexico that are about 4,000 years old. Found in 1948 and 1950, a penny is larger than the smallest of these ears while others are about 2 inches long.

Popcorn remnants discovered in Mexico have been dated to around 3600 BC.

Surprising, right?

One-thousand-year-old popcorn kernels found in North Chile still pop.

Aztec Indians in the 16th century used popcorn for ceremonial headdresses and necklaces. Young women danced a popcorn dance wearing popcorn garlands on their heads.

Pearls or Nonpareil were names that the kernels were sold under on the United States eastern coast in the 19th century.

Popcorn ground with cream or milk was a popular dish for breakfast in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Popcorn balls became beloved Christmas gifts in the 19th century. These were also used in decorating mantles and Christmas trees. Stringing popcorn was also popular as garland.

Street vendors pushed carts with steam or gas-powered poppers to sell popcorn at fairs and parks. The aroma alone must have sold the treat at outdoor festivities.

Popcorn was so inexpensive—5 or 10 cents a bag—that sales actually increased during the Great Depression. Selling popcorn at movie theaters increased the snack’s popularity.

Microwave popcorn made the snack a modern convenience since the 1980s.


“Early Popcorn History,” Popcorn.org, 2018/11/02


“Popcorn,” Wikipedia, 2018/11/02 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Popcorn.