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April 2014

Mary's Modern Homemaking

A Delicious Treat Pops Up
By Mary Frances

Mary's Modern Homemaking archive

 


There's nothing like a big bowl of popcorn to snack on.

 

It's that time again: local fairs, festivals, and farmers markets will soon be here, bringing with them the smell of popcorn.

I love popcorn, especially the kind I used to get as a kid when the circus came to town: a pink square wrapped in plastic. So as I think of summer events, my craving kicks in, and I have to have some popcorn.

But not those little bags you toss in the microwave. While I love their convenience, I take issue with the ingredients. I cannot even pronounce them, let alone know what they are! So I opt for bags of popcorn kernels: one white and one yellow.

All the years I've been munching on them, however, I've had no idea of their history. So I did some research.

Corn has been around for thousands of years; it is thought to have originated in the Americas and was known as maize. Historically, it is unclear when corn was first popped. According to popular tradition, however, Native Americans were the first to figure out how to cook popcorn and even brought some to the first Thanksgiving. Colonialists are said to have added cream and sugar and eaten popcorn for breakfast like we eat cereal.

Today most of the world's popcorn crop is grown in the United States. About twenty-five states grow some of the best kernels. While Washington State is the top sweet corn producer in the United States, Nebraska produces the most popcorn.

In the late 1880s seed catalogs began offering popcorn seeds and farm journals started writing about them.

The invention of the popcorn machine in 1885 started the American popcorn revolution. This device meant street vendors could serve a big crowd. Pushing a steam- or gas-powered popper allowed the vendors to show up wherever people assembled.

Popcorn really took off during the 1890s, becoming even more popular during the Great Depression. While many businesses failed during this time, popcorn street vendors thrived. At only five cents a bag, popcorn was very affordable.

The first recorded marketed flavored popcorn was sold in 1893. It had a molasses flavor and soon became known as Cracker Jack.

Looking at those little kernels, I have often wondered how they go from being hard to becoming big fluffy bites. So here is the scoop. Each kernel contains a small amount of water stored inside a circle of soft starch. The soft starch is surrounded by the kernel's hard outer surface. As the kernels heat up, the water expands, building pressure against the hard surface until the layers explode! The soft starch then inflates and bursts, turning the kernel inside out.

Here is a page created by the Popcorn Board where you can watch an awesome video of corn popping in slow motion—as well as get interesting ideas for flavoring popcorn (pizza popcorn, anyone?): Pop Videos.

As part of the whole-grains food group, popcorn makes a very healthy snack. Popcorn is a much better alternative to the sugary sweets most kids eat. It is also full of fiber and antioxidants. According to the American Diabetes Association, popcorn is considered a starch exchange.

You can cook popcorn in a hot-air popper, on the stove with a little oil, or in the microwave.

To make microwave popcorn, place 1/4 cup or less of kernels in a plain brown sandwich bag, fold the top down a couple of times, place in microwave, and press a button. I have a popcorn setting on my microwave oven, so I just push and go.

 


Quickly make popcorn in your microwave oven.

 

In my opinion, plain (unflavored) popcorn is best, especially if you use the white kernel type since it has a naturally sweet taste. However, salt and butter are a good addition. Try a homemade caramel sauce for your own version of Cracker Jack. If you love the taste of cheese, sprinkle a little grated of your choice on top.

 


Yellow kernels (left) versus white kernels (right).


Which taste better?

 

Popcorn is still a popular snack in the United States, with many companies in the Pacific Northwest providing a variety of flavors.

Popcorn kernels can be purchased from Bob's Red Mill—pop them up at home and add your own toppings.

Or try the intriguing flavors of Pinkleton's Curious Caramel Corn, located in Portland, Ore., which uses organic Oregon butter and non-GMO heirloom popcorn.

Maybe the Seattle Popcorn Company, which also uses non-GMO kernels, has what you're craving: their Uncle Woody's brand comes in caramel, butterscotch, cinnamon butterscotch, truffle, white cheddar cheese, and chipolte flavors. When you're in Seattle, you can even tour their factory.

Not to be outdone, in Pocatello, Idaho, the The Popcorn Shop offers flavors such as huckleberry, tutti frutti, and cocoa.

Make it at home or purchase it as a gourmet treat—either way, popcorn seems to be the perfect snack food.

Here's my homemade version of Cracker Jack:

Caramel Corn with Nuts

4–6 cups popped corn
2 cups finely chopped walnuts, or nuts of your choice

Preheat oven to 250 F.

Line 2 baking sheets with foil. Thoroughly coat foil with butter or use a baking spray.

In a single layer, spread popcorn and nuts evenly on sheets.

In a small saucepan melt 1 cube butter (salted or unsalted) and then add 1 cup brown sugar and 1/4 cup molasses. Bring to a boil. Turn down heat and lightly boil (simmer) for 5 minutes. Be careful not to scorch/burn mixture.

Remove from heat and add 1 teaspoon vanilla.

Gently pour 1/2 the mixture over each sheet of popcorn.

Bake for 30 minutes. Switch sheets from top to bottom rack and bake another 30 minutes.

Remove from oven and gently fold popcorn around in mixture. Let cool.

Transfer to bowl, breaking into pieces if needed. Enjoy.

 


Tasty caramel corn with nuts.

 

 

Mary Frances lives in Ravensdale, Washington, and loves finding healthy ways to keep her castle clean. She believes that what we clean with can be just as important to our health as what we eat. When she's not cleaning, Mary Frances battles the blackberry vines in her yard. Also enjoy Mary Frances's blog, All American Gal.

 

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