On January 19, National Popcorn Day pops onto the scene with a crunch! The annual celebration recognizes a treat that satisfies munchies, day or night.
As early as the 16th century, the Aztecs used popcorn in headdresses worn during ceremonies honoring Tlaloc, their god of maize and fertility. Early Spanish explorers were fascinated by the corn that burst into what looked like a white flower.
Popcorn started becoming popular in the United States in the middle 1800s. It wasn’t until Charles Cretors, a candy-store owner, developed a machine for popping corn with steam that the tasty treat became more abundantly poppable. By 1900 he had horse-drawn popcorn wagons going through the streets of Chicago.
At about the same time, Louise Ruckheim added peanuts and molasses to popcorn to bring Cracker Jack to the world. Then in 1908, the national anthem of baseball was born. Jack Norworth and Albert Von Tilzer wrote “Take Me out to the Ballgame.” From that point onward, popcorn, specifically Cracker Jack, became forever married to the game.
In addition to a box of popcorn at the movies, popcorn is used in two specialty snack favorites.
Home Made Cracker Jack
16 cups freshly-popped popcorn*
2 cups roasted, lightly salted peanuts (Spanish or regular)
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup light corn syrup
2 tablespoons molasses
1/2 teaspoon table salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
Sea salt, to taste
Preheat oven to 250°. Transfer the popped corn to a large large stock pot (or divide between 2 large mixing bowls), discarding any un-popped
kernels as you go. Add the peanuts and toss to combine. Melt butter in a heavy saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in brown sugar, corn syrup, molasses and salt. Increase heat to medium-high and bring to a gentle boil, stirring occasionally, until the temperature reads 250°F on a candy thermometer, about 5-8 minutes.
Remove from the heat and stir in vanilla and baking soda. Working quickly, pour the hot caramel into the pot and gently toss until the popped corn and nuts are evenly coated. (I prefer to use my hands to gently combine the mixture, once the caramel has cooled just a bit.
You can where gloves if you’d like.) Divide the popcorn mixture in half between 2 greased baking sheets, spreading into a thin, even layer. Bake, stirring every 15 minutes, for 50 minutes. Sprinkle Cracker Jack with a little sea salt and allow to cool in pans for 20 minutes. Separate the popcorn into individual pieces with your hands before serving. This is best eaten the day it’s made but can be stored in an airtight container for up to 3 days.
Traditional Popcorn Balls
7 quarts popped popcorn
1 cup sugar
1 cup light corn syrup
1/4 cup water
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Food coloring, optional
Place popcorn in a large baking pan; keep warm in a 200° oven.
In a heavy saucepan, combine the sugar, corn syrup, water and salt.
Cook over medium heat until a candy thermometer reads 235° (soft-ball stage).
Remove from the heat. Add the butter, vanilla and food coloring if desired; stir until butter is melted. Immediately pour over popcorn and stir until evenly coated.
When mixture is cool enough to handle, quickly shape into 3-in. balls, dipping hands in cold water to prevent sticking.