Caramel Popcorn Balls

When I was growing up, one of my mom's friends made these delicious popcorn balls all the time. At least, that's what it seemed like to me. It's likely that she only made them a few times a year and spread the bounty to our family when she did, but in my mind her house was always full of these yummy, sticky, chewy popcorn balls. When I grew up and left for college, I went through my mom's recipe box and copied recipes so that I could have a taste of home when I was across the country at school. This is one of those recipes I made sure to get. I had no real idea how to make them, but I wanted the recipe anyway.

My favorite memory of popcorn balls, actually, comes from my college years. A friend of mine asked if I'd help him make some for an apartment of girls a few doors down from us. He didn't want to make popcorn balls, though. He wanted to make one gigantic popcorn ball. I agreed (I really wanted to see the end result) and we made the mother of all popcorn balls. It was about twice the size of a basketball. When he went to deliver it he found the door of their apartment open, but only a couple of the roommates were there napping in the living room. Not sure what to do, he said he threw the giant popcorn ball into the middle of the living room and left. I can only imagine their surprise waking up to a huge popcorn ball that came out of nowhere.

Anyway, this recipe is a definited keeper in my mind. It is a little tedious stirring the mixture until it comes to soft ball stage because it takes ten minutes or so. If you don't have a thermometer, make sure you set aside a glass of ice water and periodically check the stage by dropping some of the caramel into the water. When it doesn't dissolve in the water but forms a ball that is pliable when you squeeze it with your fingers, you're there. Make sure you don't go too long, though, or you'll have some hard candy on your hands. Also make sure to share the popcorn balls with your friends, co-workers and neighbors. It's part of the tradition.

Caramel Popcorn Balls

4 tablespoons butter
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup light corn syrup
12 oz evaporated milk
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 cup unpopped corn (this is about 2 big mixing bowls mostly full of popcorn.)

In saucepan, combine butter, brown sugar and corn syrup. Stir well and bring to a boil. Stir in milk, stirring constantly until mixture cooks to soft ball stage or 234 degrees. Remove from heat and add vanilla.

Pour over popped corn and mix until pieces are coated. Butter or wet hands lightly (I always use just a little water because I don't like greasy popcorn balls and I think the butter makes them go stale faster) and shape into balls about 3 inches in diameter.

Makes about 12-15 balls.

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