A 19th-century classic.
Mentions of “balls of pop-corn” start showing up in newspapers in the late 1850s, where they’d be sold at county fairs. The earliest known recipe for popcorn balls, however, is the skeletal version from 1861’s The Housekeeper’s Encyclopedia of Useful Information for the Housekeeper in All Branches of Cooking and Domestic Economy:
Pop Corn Balls — Boil honey, maple, or other sugar to the great thread; pop corn and stick the corn together in balls with the candy.
About “grand thread.” In the days before precision instruments to measure temperature, 17th century French confectioners came up with an elaborate system of ways to test sugar. Like the modern terms soft ball, hard ball, or soft crack, the terms refer to how the sugar reacted when tested.
Unlike the modern terms, the first four stages of candy-testing were done by dipping the index finger in molten sugar, touching it to the thumb of the same hand, and seeing how far the sugar thread would stretch before breaking. Do not do this, ever. For what it’s worth, the grand thread corresponded to about 220 deg. F., and just under 80% sugar.
While the made-from-corn popcorn balls are delicious, the phrase “popcorn balls” is sometimes used to refer to hydrangeas, which are poisonous, and children and pets have died from eating them. The name started to attach in the 1850s and stuck, unfortunately.
1/2 c. packed brown sugar
1/2 c. dark corn syrup
1/4 c. margarine or butter
1/2 t. salt
8 c. popcorn
Heat brown sugar, corn syrup, margarine and salt to simmering in 4-quart Dutch oven over medium heat, stirring constantly. Add popcorn. Cook, stirring constantly, until popcorn is well coated, about 2 minutes. Cool slightly.
Dip hands in cold water; shape mixture into 2-inch balls. Place on waxed paper; cool completely. Wrap individually in plastic wrap or place in plastic bags and tie.