Popcorn is irresistible and so it has been for some time. Long before movie night microwave bags, popcorn was a savory snack and cultural symbol throughout the Americas. Domesticated by Pre-Columbian indigenous peoples in 5,000 B.C.E., popcorn is one of the oldest corns still cultivated today. Archeologists have even unearthed intact popped kernels in a New Mexican cave that date back 4,000 years!
“Pop” is one of six types of corn. Its small, dense kernels are full of flavor and “pop” when heated. Since the introduction of Orville Redenbacher’s “Gourmet Popping Corn” in the 1960s, most commercial popcorns are hybrid varieties. Heirloom popcorn varieties are strains of popcorn whose traits have been maintained over time. These varieties safeguard unique flavors and textures that otherwise would have been lost to commercialization.
Eating heirloom popcorn is a way to connect to history. The multicolor kernels are the visual signs that the popcorn will taste different. Although they still pop into white, fluffy morsels, heirloom varieties have complex flavors. Of course, you can still add butter, but it is also refreshing to taste the specialty snack with a diversity of seasonings.
Steen’s Popcorn Balls
Yields 3 dozen
1 cup sugar
1 ⅓ cups Steen’s cane syrup
2 tablespoons white vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
3 to 4 quarts popped corn, lightly salted (try SHED Heirloom Popcorn)
¾ cup roasted salted peanuts (optional)
2 tablespoons butter
¼ teaspoon baking soda
Prepare your work surface with waxed or parchment paper. Combine popcorn and peanuts and large bowl and set aside.
Melt sugar, syrup, ⅔ cup water, vinegar, and salt over medium heat in a saucepan. Cook for 5 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Cook until mixture reaches 260 degrees (use a candy thermometer) and be sure it does not boil over. Remove from heat and stir in butter and baking soda. The mixture will foam.
Pour ⅔ of syrup over popcorn mixture (set remaining ⅓ of syrup on very low heat) and mix well with a wooden spoon. Lather hands with butter and form mixture into balls, working quickly before the syrup hardens. Stir in remaining syrup if the balls do not hold together
Set popcorn balls on prepared surface and let cool. Serve once cooled, or wrap individually in waxed paper and enjoy later.
Recipe adapted from Julia Moskin and Kim Severson’s recipe on cooking.nytimes.com.