Popcorn ball tradition

This story originally appeared in the Tuesday, October 19, 2004 edition of The Kansas City Star

Popcorn balls are to Halloween what fruitcake is to Christmas. A tradition everybody enjoys but nobody eats.

So, for the sake of the children, we offer these popcorn ball tips and recipes in hopes of inflicting, er, uh, perpetuating this tradition into yet another generation.

Seriously, folks, making popcorn balls is a great activity for kids. But, because it involves boiling hot sticky substances, it does require adult supervision.

Popcorn is a naturally healthy snack, says Nichole Burnett, a family and consumer sciences county extension agent in Johnson County's K-State Research and Extension office,

"It contains fiber and is low in calories," she says. "Only 31 calories in one cup."

Here's her favorite recipe:

Popcorn balls

3 tablespoons margarine

3 cups mini-marshmallows

1 to 2 drops orange food coloring (optional for Halloween theme)

8 cups popped popcorn

In a microwave-safe medium bowl, combine margarine and marshmallows. Microwave on medium power 2 minutes or until margarine is melted and marshmallows are soft. Remove bowl from microwave and stir to combine ingredients. Add a few drops food coloring, if desired.

Measure popped popcorn into a large mixing bowl and pour marshmallow mixture over popcorn. Stir to coat popcorn.

Tear off 6 sheets of wax paper, approximately 10 by 10 inches each. Place 1 cup of popcorn mixture in center of wax paper square. Fold corners of paper up around popcorn and twist top, pressing popcorn to make a ball. Repeat for each square.

Store in airtight container.

Burnett explains that popcorn is a special variety of dried corn that has moisture in the kernel.

"When this moisture is heated, it turns to steam, and when the pressure gets too great, the kernel pops," she says. "It explodes, turns inside out and expands up to 35 times its original size. Be careful to use only popped kernels when preparing the popcorn balls. Biting into a hard kernel can hurt a tooth. Popcorn can also cause a young child to choke. Do not give popcorn to children under 3 years of age. This sugary mixture is hot, so you might want to wait just a little bit if young hands are shaping the popcorn balls."

Lindy Robinson, assistant dean of hospitality, fashion and interior design at Johnson County Community College, recommends this variation for chocoholics:

Chocolate popcorn balls

Makes 12 balls

5 cups popped corn

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup water

1/3 cup light corn syrup

3 tablespoon butter

3 squares unsweetened chocolate, melted

Place cooked corn in large bowl. Bring remaining ingredients to a boil and cook to the hard ball stage (254 degrees). Pour slowly over popped corn. Mix quickly. Butter hands and shape cooled mixture into 2-inch balls.

For a version that may appeal more to adult palates, Robinson suggests substituting a cup of dry, grated sharp cheese, such as asiago, for the chocolate. Melt the cheese with 1/4 cup butter and stir into the mixture with the other ingredients.

Popcorn variations

October is National Popcorn Poppin' Month, and here are some additional tips for crafting popcorn balls at home:

To color the popcorn balls, add a few drops of food coloring to the smooth marshmallow mixture. Mix well to distribute color evenly. Then pour over popcorn as instructed.

Butter hands before shaping into balls.

To make popcorn ball "ghosts," wrap a small popcorn ball in plastic wrap. Place ball in a large white napkin. Tie the napkin together over the popcorn ball with white string. The ends should hang out to form the body. Draw a face with a black marker.

Peanut butter variation: Add one tablespoon of peanut butter melted with 1 tablespoon of butter to the basic recipe.

Peanut variation: Shelled peanuts can be added to any of the recipes

Caramel corn variation: Melt 1/2 pound light caramel candy with 2 tablespoons water in a double boiler. Stir to a smooth sauce. Pour this over 2 quarts of popped corn and make balls as specified in the basic recipe.

Candy variation: Candies such as red hots, gummy bears and M's may be added. Be careful not to add too many candies or the balls will not stick together. Also, wait until the mixture has cooled a bit before adding candies that may melt.

SOURCES: K-State's Kids a Cookin' Web site:

http://www.oznet.ksu.edu www.popcorn.org