Thursday, September 29, 2011

One For Miss Eva: Buttery Toffee Apple Popcorn Balls

Shortly before my daughter went back to university the two of us celebrated the end of summer with one last girly day at the movies. She’s a big reader and loved the book “The Help” and was really excited when the movie finally came to theaters.

I won’t do a full blown movie review here so I’ll just say that it was a very entertaining story with a feel good ending and the bad guy (uh, girl) got hers in the end. What did strike me was how it took me back to my childhood in Houston, Texas.

When I was a little girl we had a maid named Miss Eva who would come to help my mother whenever she could afford it. We weren’t rich or even wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, but every now and then when my parents were a little flush Miss Eva would come to help out.

True to the theme of the movie, Miss Eva loved us and treated my sister and me like we were her own. She would wash, dry and fold our clothes, and let us help her put them away. She would then carefully iron our little cotton dresses while watching her favorite “stories”, never losing her temper with the thousands of questions we would ask her during the most dramatic parts.

On a couple of really special occasions, she would babysit us at night. These were really special times because Miss Eva would then get to cook for us. We loved it because not only was she a great cook but she loved spoiling us with her specialty, pink and blue Karo syrup popcorn balls.

I don’t really know if this was truly her specialty or if it was because we always had the simple ingredients on hand, but this was the pinnacle of our evening with her. She would mix up the ingredients then butter our hands and let us form a ball or two before finishing them herself. Once we were full of popcorn, corn syrup and food coloring, we would crawl up in her roomy white uniform covered lap and watch a Don Knotts movie until bedtime.

Miss Eva passed when I was about 15. Even though we had moved away and hadn’t seen her in several years, I was heartbroken when my mother told me the news. I can still hear her sweet soft laugh, smell her subtle rose like perfume and taste those special popcorn balls. So this one’s for you Miss Eva. My tastes may be a bit more sophisticated these days and my popcorn balls a little bit fancier than yours, but they definitely took root in those that you cooked for us all those years ago.

Buttery Toffee Apple Popcorn Balls

These popcorn balls are super gooey and sticky.  Beware if you have loose fillings because this caramel will certainly remove them for you. 

2 bags microwave popcorn (I like Pop Secret Homestyle)

2 ounces pecan halves

1 – 2.5 ounce bag crispy apple chips (I found Seneca brand in my grocer’s produce section)

4 ounces butter

1 cup light brown sugar

1/2 cup light corn syrup

2/3 cup sweetened condensed milk

1/2 teaspoon instant coffee granules, crushed to a powder with the back of a spoon

Pop popcorn according to package directions; carefully open popped corn and pour in a large bowl. Shake bowl to force all of the unpopped kernels to the bottom. Transfer popped kernels to another large bowl that has been lightly sprayed with non-stick cooking spray. Discard unpopped kernels and old maids.  Set popcorn aside to cool.

Place pecan halves in a non-stick frying pan set over medium heat; dry toast pecans until they are a golden brown and aroma is released; transfer to a plate to cool. Coarsely chop the nuts; set aside.

Melt butter in a large saucepan over medium high heat. Add the brown sugar, corn syrup, condensed and instant coffee granules. While stirring constantly, bring the mixture to a bowl. Add a candy thermometer to the pot and cook until it reads 230 degrees (for softer which I prefer) or 235 degrees (for harder) while continuing to stir constantly.

Carefully drizzle about 1/2 of the hot toffee mixture over the top of the popcorn. Sprinkle 1/2 of the nuts and apple chips over the top of the caramel. With two large spoons that have been sprayed with nonstick cooking spray, toss the popcorn to work the bottom kernels to the top. Drizzle the remaining caramel on top of the popcorn followed by the remaining nuts and apple chips; toss again to coat as much of the popcorn as possible.

Now, here’s the tricky part. You have to form the balls while the caramel is still warm but, not so hot that your hands burst into flames. I burn my hands EVERYTIME that I make these, so you might want to get the burn cream ready or just have caramel corn and not form the balls at all. It’s up to you. If you are going to form balls, you might want to use plastic gloves that have been sprayed with non-stick spray or I have seen where people cover their hands in plastic bags.

If you are going to form the balls, grab a small handful and press gently and firmly between your cupped hands to make the balls. I like to make them on the smaller side so they are easier to eat. Let cool and store in an air tight container.

Makes about 16 medium size popcorn balls

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