A merry Christmas

Popcorn balls are a sticky affair. The syrup sticks to the pan, to the mixing bowl, to the palms of your hands. They drip and ooze and make a mess of all they touch. Without wax paper or plastic wrap, it's hard to imagine how the cook could succeed.

But succeed they have, though not for so long as we tend to imagine. Though some stories place popcorn on the table at the first Thanksgiving, it wasn't until the mid 1800s that it became popular according to food historian and author Andrew Smith.

Still, the association with Christmas was quick. Smith attributes this to children; the tiny, explosive kernels became a holiday favorite both on the table and as a decoration with the little ones. Some families dyed and strung the corn on their trees, others mixed it with sticky molasses and made it into balls. Still others ate the corn as cereal, doused in sugar and cream.

We string it on the tree with cranberries, but up until this year, the white came from a bag. A trip to Maine this fall and one several weeks ago to Martha's Vineyard changed that; in both places, I discovered homegrown popcorn, still drying on the cob. I bought several ears in Maine, and headed over to Martha's Vineyard to learn a bit more about how to grow the stuff.

Rebecca Gilbert, who runs Native Earth Teaching Farm on the island, grows a field of stalks every year for her annual popcorn festival. "We have all the popcorn you can eat," she says. The festival takes place around Columbus Day, but Gilbert saves a few ears for the winter ahead. She showed me the jars she had stored up, and explained that popcorn has to have just the right moisture content in order to pop. If it's too wet, the only remedy is to wait for it to dry, but if it's too dry, a simple sprinkling of water over a pot of kernels will get them making noise.

Rather than string my homegrown popcorn on the tree—it seemed far too special a bunch for that—I made it into balls with maple syrup, boiling the sap down to a thick ribbon with a bit of butter, and pouring it over the popcorn. From there I gathered it into rounds with a piece of waxed paper, squeezing syrup and dry corn together until finally, they stuck. Left out to dry overnight, they formed hard, stiff balls, still sticky but with just enough crunch.

Perhaps this will spark a new tradition: popcorn ornaments, hung high and then devoured from the tree.


Makes about 6 large balls 

Put 1 cup maple syrup and 2 tablespoons butter in a heavy saucepan. Cook over medium heat until the mixture begins to thicken to almost a caramel-like consistency, or if you have a candy thermometer, until it reaches 260 degrees. Do not overcook, as the mixture will harden as it cools. Remove from heat and add 1 teaspoon vanilla. Stir well and pour over 1/2 cup popcorn, popped. Shape into balls using wax paper or plastic wrap and let harden overnight.  


Alison said...

This sounds positively delicious! I can't wait to try it, although I am hesitant to use so much of my precious maple syrup in one "sitting"... :)

Elspeth said...

They are so, so good! If you don't want to use up so much maple syrup (which I completely understand), you can also make them with caramel. We did one batch that way, making the caramel recipe from The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters, and the balls came out equally delicious, just a bit different. Any simple caramel recipe will work—just use about 1/2 cup, as that's what the syrup ends up cooking down to. Good luck!


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