Sunday, January 6, 2013

Popcorn Cake

Kiss your New Year's diet resolutions goodbye.
My friend Lydia sent me this sweet email after New Year’s:

I was going thru my Mom’s recipe box over the holidays and came across a recipe I wrote up during the ‘80s. It made me think of you: Popcorn Cake! Basically it's a popcorn ball recipe with M&Ms and peanuts added and smushed into a 9x13. If anything, it'd be an easy recipe to do w/the kids.

I shivered from head to toe. Because at the exact moment I was reading Lydia’s email, my own recipe for Popcorn Cake was sitting at my elbow, all ready to be put to use as the first recipe of 2013. Time Capsule kismet! And all the more reason to throw New Year’s resolutions to “eat healthier” to the wind and embark on a recipe at least two girls in the ‘80s were keen on.

And it’s not hard to see why. As Lydia aptly describes, Popcorn Cake really is a glorified popcorn ball. Our recipes are similar but not identical, which makes these “hand-me-down” recipes all the more fun to collect and compare. (She grew up in Southern California, so I can officially say Popcorn Cake was having a West Coast moment – at the very least.)

The air popper at work.
My recipe is vague in both measurement and directions, but no wonder because it’s hand-written by me, circa 1983. The misspellings prove I still had to face my fifth-grade nadir, Ms. Dee (see Cheese”bugar” Pie), but does provide a charming glimpse of my 8-year-old self, if I say so myself.

I have absolutely no recollection of ever eating this during my childhood, but it is full of childish ideas of gourmet: salted peanuts, M&Ms, marshmallows and, of course, the popcorn. It’s hard to remember today, when the microwave has made popcorn an every-day affair, but when I was a kid, it was an event to get out the popcorn popper.

Melting marshmallows ...
Toward that end, I air-popped nine cups of popcorn (about 1/3 c. of dry kernels) and tossed it with the peanuts and M&Ms. Melting the butter and oil and marshmallows on the stove, I was reminded of one of my very favorite no-bake yummies, the Rice Krispie treat. But as I looked at the big greasy pot of oozing marshmallows, I also started to question the authenticity of my hand-written records. This was going to be one oily popcorn ball! Perhaps my recipe should have stated, “1/2 cup butter or oil” instead of both?

Sure enough, pouring the melted marshmallow mixture over the popcorn resulted in a very moist concoction. And, because it was hot, it also caused the M&Ms to melt and add to the resultant goop – a nice trick, but one that further confirmed my suspicions that there was more than enough goo to go around.

The wet and dry ingredients meet, and melt.
Really, I’ll eat anything once (in case you haven’t noticed), and I was more than game to dive into a piece of Popcorn Cake. After letting it firm up for about an hour, I cut into the pan. I’m happy to report that Lydia and I weren’t far wrong whenever we stumbled upon our respective recipes during our formative years. Popcorn Cake is very moist (yes, next time I’ll just use butter or oil, but not both), but tastes like a cross between Cracker Jack, Rice Krispie Treat and popcorn ball. I’d like to think that is also cheaper and a wee bit healthier than a traditional Rice Krispie treat.

Popcorn Cake promises to trim down with less fat in 2013.
There’s no denying that my original recipe for Popcorn Cake could use a few tweaks. But it provided a great entrée to the new year, and a fun reminder that food can and does span the decades and the geography between us. Enjoy!

“My” Popcorn Cake (reprinted as originally hand-written)

-9c or more of cooked popcorn
-1c M&Ms
-1c salted Spanish peanuts

1.     Mix (above) ingredients in large bowl
2.     Melt together ½ c buter or margarine, ½ c Sufflower oil, 1 pkg small marshmellows
3.     Beat mixture so it isn’t separated
4.     Pore marshmellows mix popcorn mix and push down into mold or or pan which is greased well.

The original hand-written recipe card. At the top right are my illustrations for popcorn, M&Ms and marshmallows.
·      My grocery store had Spanish peanuts, but they weren’t salted. Since I was using plain popcorn, I went with roasted, salted peanuts, against the emphasis of my childhood self.
·      It is important to ensure the melted marshmallows and fat of your choosing are well combined. I found a wire whisk worked well (and added to my love of alliteration!).
·      Great tip from Lydia that I failed to follow : “Be sure to pick out the un-popped kernels. Want to avoid broken teeth.” I mean, is this woman wise or what?

Why Don’t You …
·      Experiment with other fats? My go-to Rice Krispie treat recipe uses ½ c. of peanut butter and just a few tablespoons of butter (in addition to the marshmallows), and I would love to try that here, too.

Lydia’s Popcorn Cake (featuring adult spelling)

Pour into a large bowl:
3/4 c popcorn kernels - popped. (I microwaved a bag, it's my 21st century addition)
6 oz Planters’ peanuts
8 oz (or more) M&Ms

Boil for 1 minute:
1 cup Karo syrup
1 tsp cream of tartar
1/3 cup sugar
1 tbsp butter    

Add 1 tsp baking soda. Stir. 

Pour over popcorn mixture, mix and pour into a buttered 9x13 pan.

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