Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Flat-Broke Food: Popcorn, Caramel Corn & Popcorn Balls

     What's cheap, low-calorie (if you don't load it with butter, that is) and gives you a nice hit of fiber along with its crunchiness? Few snack foods can compete with popcorn in this department. It played a weekly role at our house, late Sunday afternoons. We had a huge Tupperware container, and Dad would pop it full of warm, salty popcorn which we enjoyed while watching Bonanza and Ed Sullivan. That popcorn hung around for after-school and between-times snacking until Wednesday or so...until the process repeated itself.

    Not only has popcorn been the last-minute meal for many an office worker, but it was featured in meals during the Depression. Ever had popcorn and milk? It's a surprising combination of warm and cold, salty and sweet. (And it's fun to see how many kernels you can jam in your glass.)

Commercial microwave popcorn is the easiest to make, but doesn't produce as much bang for the buck. Try making your own microwave popcorn. You'll need:

small paper bag
1 teaspoon olive or other oil
1/3 cup popcorn (adjust to your taste)

That's it. Pour popcorn in the bag and sprinkle oil on top. Fold top over a few times, and microwave 2 minutes on high, or until the kernels stop popping. Open the bag (careful of the steam), salt and butter to your heart's content.
    You don't even have to use oil -- Mark Bittman, of the New York Times' Diners' Journal, does it straight. (Go here for his report.)

     Once your popcorn is done, you can add all sorts of flavorings, from parmesan cheese to pizza spices. (Some good ideas are here, thanks to Donna Freedman.)
     My favorite, though, is caramel corn -- crunchy, sweet, lower calorie than many desserts, and still that wallop of fiber in every bite. There are a lot of recipes out there for oven or stove caramel corn. (Frugal Upstate's got a good one. Simply Recipes' version is pretty good, too.)
     But it's far easier to do it via microwave. This recipe makes great caramel corn -- and automatically cleans up when you throw away the paper bag! I've served it warm as a dessert course to raves, but it also is perfect for a home movie night or picnic. The recipe first made its way down through the MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) chapter in our area; I've used it for years. As always, adjust to your own taste.


large paper grocery sack
4-5 quarts of popped popcorn (take out any unpopped kernels, if you see them)
1 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup white or brown Karo syrup
1/2 cup margarine or butter (1 stick)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda (hold this back for a bit)

Put all but the popcorn in a 6-8 cup measure or bowl -- microwave at high 3-4 min. until the butter is melted, and it's boiling. Add baking soda, and stir until light and foamy. Put the popcorn in the bag, and pour the liquid mixture on top -- turn the edges over a few times, and gently shake the bag.
    Put the whole bag in the microwave. (It will fit awkwardly, if it's anything like mine.) Microwave 1 1/2 min. at high; shake the bag. Microwave again 1 1/2 min. Take the bag out, shake it one more time, then pour into a large bowl. Use a spatula to gently break apart the clumps. If you like Cracker Jack, try adding a cup or so of peanuts and/or chopped nuts to the mixture.

Finally, there are popcorn balls. Some people associate these with Christmas, but my mom always hands them out at Halloween. Cousins have been known to drive for miles just to get one of her popcorn balls. Again, there are lots of recipes out there for making popcorn balls -- most involve concocting a liquid syrup that eventually hardens. (Paula Deen's version is like this.) The Mama doesn't mess with that -- her version goes straight for the culinary jugular, in a style similar to Rice Krispies squares.


3 tablespoons butter or margarine
1 standard package marshmallows (about 40)
6 cups popped popcorn (take out any unpopped kernels -- i.e., 'old maids')

Put the butter and marshmallows in a large pan, on top of low to medium heat. Clear a spot on a cookie sheet, or nearby counter. Gently stir the marshmallow mixture until it's melted -- this is going to be a while, usually 7-10 min. Quickly mix the popcorn in and take it off the heat. Butter your hands. (Yes, slather them with butter -- or use the leftover paper from your butter/marg.) Working quickly, grab handfuls of the popcorn mixture and shape them into balls, then put on a sheet or counter to cool. (Some people like to shape the popcorn around a center surprise, like red hots, chocolate chips, M&Ms and such -- but purists just prefer the straight ball.) Continue until the mixture is used up -- cook gets to scrape out the pan! Wrap your popcorn balls in wax paper; this recipe makes 8-16 popcorn balls, depending on how large you make them. (It's easier to make a batch at a time, rather than doubling.)

(photos from Paula Deen and Simply Recipe websites)

While you're at it, go to the Rice Krispies website for the basic recipe, plus more ways to use this versatile snack. Yum.

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