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Sugar Sweet, and
Heavy on the Crunch

By Kay Rentschler

You haven't thought of popcorn balls in years. And now, when you do, squeaky plastic foam, sugar epoxy and hand-forged machinations crafts projects, in short come to mind.

I've got news for you. A good popcorn ball makes kibble of even plain popcorn.

Not to be tossed back like caramel corn (the unexamined snack is not worth eating), a popcorn ball sits weightlessly in the palm, inviting admiring sniffs and glances, and takes a slow spin through the fingers like a whiffle ball in the pitcher's hand. Ghosts of butter, sugar and vanilla play upon its surface, chased by the olfactory rush of freshly popped corn.

A good popcorn ball is pretty, too, sparkly gold with a shaggy come-hither finish; not too large, but no two-biter either. You want to gnaw it like an apple, feel its fine taffy pull and gnash your teeth along its crisp contours. When you are finished, your hands will not be sticky and your jaw will not be tired. You will reach for another.

I mention these things with the privilege of hindsight. Making a popcorn ball is easy. Making a good one is not.

I thought I'd start with the easy part, the popcorn, and the easiest popcorn I could find, at that: a standard microwave bag yielding 11 1/2 cups. Much as I like their corn, I didn't want Paul and Orville getting in on the seasonings, so I bought no-frills "natural" popcorn.

A popcorn ball gets its sticking power from sticky stuff, of course, but you can't just mix raw honey or corn syrup. (That wouldn't make a ball, but you could upholster your arm.) I knew that the stable sugars in corn syrup keep sweet things soft and chewy and that I would have to boil the syrup with sugar.

I was prepared for a challenge: finding the correct proportions of corn syrup and sugar (for final texture), getting them to the correct temperature to pull things together, and arriving at a quantity small enough to keep the popcorn nimble, not leaden, and the snacker out of insulin shock. A challenge it was.

Most recipes take the syrup up to 260 degrees. This temperature produces fine popcorn balls, if you like biting into crustaceans. At 240 degrees, on the other hand, the more pliant soft-ball syrup produced pretty balls that fell apart when I turned my back.

Thermometers climb slowly above 220 degrees, but changes to the sugar are irrevocable. The winning number was 245: I pulled the saucepan from the heat and poured the syrup (now liquid glue) on the popped corn. The sugar's viscosity held things just to the sticking point, and the syrup volume was minimal enough not to overwhelm.

I resolved to take popcorn balls to their logical conclusion, but not to let them have their way with me. Butterscotch chips, red hots and peanuts would find no succor here. Toasted coconut and pecans were a different story. They were rich and beguiling, not bossy. A handful of baby marshmallows gave a supple pull to the whole; who can resist a marshmallow melted just out of sight?

But by far the biggest textural boon were the Rice Krispies a friend suggested. Their fragile round crackle between kernels added a bit of folly to a solid world.

Who said popcorn balls were kid stuff? It had to have been one of my friends. The one who snickered when I said I was working on them. The one who just asked for the recipe.

Recipe: All American Popcorn Balls

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