Halloween has always been complicated for my family. When our two daughters were growing up, we lived miles from the nearest cabin and there were only a handful of young people living in the entire river valley where we had our home.
One memorable Halloween, Carl decided he wanted to set up something of a trick-or-treat opportunity for the girls. We hid small treats around the house. Carl cut holes for eyes and mouth out of a black garbage bag and crouched behind the worktable in the kitchen. When I walked into the room with the girls, he leapt up to scare them. They responded with blood-curdling screams and both began crying furiously and wouldn’t stop for about an hour. So ended our homespun celebration.
We tried a few other lame attempts at, say, a dress-up dinner party or in some years a sledding trip. But, for the majority of years that our daughters were young, it was just the four of us and not quite the same festive occasion as it might be shared with a crowd.
Carly and Mandy are long grown now and they both live in Anchorage when they aren’t working at one of our lodges in the summertime. They are big world travelers and have experienced Halloween in such notable locales as the streets of Los Angeles and San Francisco as the random opportunity has provided it. This week, Carly is attending a costume party at a friend’s house in Anchorage and she has asked us to make some homemade treats for her to bring.
We’ve decided to make popcorn balls. Easy enough, but we wanted to make a variety of flavors that Carly might not try normally.
First of all, we went to the store and bought organic popcorn. About 50 percent of all pesticides used in farming are consumed in corn growing. Corn (and, by default, popcorn) is one of the ingredients my family insists on being organic. Organic popcorn is easy to find these days. I don’t recommend using microwave popcorn. There are too many artificial ingredients added.
We like to make popcorn on the stove the old fashioned way, with a little oil and salt. Many people use an air popcorn maker and I know these are fantastic. We’ve just never had access to many electric appliances (like popcorn makers or microwaves) in my kitchen over the years, and that tradition has carried on even in our more modern life.
In our Halloween popcorn collection for Carly, we made several batches. We sprinkled on Furikake, a Japanese seaweed condiment in one batch. We used curry and coconut in batch number two, and fruit, nut and chocolate in our third. Finally, we just made a simple caramel popcorn ball. All were delicious but I ate two popcorn balls.
Here’s the basic recipe for popcorn balls. You can add spices, herbs, and other ingredients, as you prefer to dress them up for Halloween.
- 3 tablespoons canola or grapeseed oil
- ⅓ cup popcorn kernels
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1 cup sugar
- ½ cup organic light corn syrup
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Heat the oil over medium high in a 3-quart saucepan with a lid. Add in a couple of kernels of corn and wait until they pop. Then, add in the rest of the popcorn. Cover the pot and move it a little, shaking to keep all the popcorn moving as all the kernels pop. When the popping dies down, remove the pot from the heat, turn off the burner and let the popcorn cool slightly.
- Warm the heavy cream in a small saucepan. Set it aside. Put the sugar and the corn syrup in a deep heavy-bottomed saucepan. Cook over medium heat until the sugar dissolves. Stop stirring, turn up the heat slightly, and simmer until the sugar turns a deep golden brown (but not too dark). You are making caramel. If you wanted to actually measure the temperature of the caramel, it should be around 305 degrees. This takes about five minutes or so. Whisk the butter and salt into the caramel. Add in the warmed cream and the vanilla. Stir until the mixture is thickened, about five more minutes.
- You can add flavors to the caramel here if you wish: cayenne pepper, black peppercorn, cinnamon, black cherry juice, extracts like mint, curry and other spices. If you want to get some creative ideas, look at fancy chocolate bars in upscale stores for offbeat flavor combination ideas.
- You can add spices, herbs and other ingredients to the popcorn itself also before you pour the caramel over the corn.
- Oil your hands with butter, spray release, or cooking oil to prevent them from sticking to the caramel. Make sure the caramel and popcorn mixture cools slightly (and, by the way, you can leave the popcorn just like this rather than shaping into balls). Shape the corn into small bite-sized or larger popcorn balls. I used a small muffin tin to receive our finished popcorn balls and to allow them to air dry slightly.