Caramel Apples and Popcorn Balls ~ Jen

When I was growing up, Opal and Stubby lived down the street. They were part of the wave of Iowa immigrants that gave Long Beach, Ca the nickname “Iowa by the Sea”. From the collector’s plates lining the kitchen walls to the 1950s Ford truck parked in the driveway to the homecooked meals, they were a slice of Midwestern farm life living three doors down.

Opal didn’t give out candy at Halloween. Instead, she’d work for two days to prepare a giant basket of caramel apples and popcorn balls. I’d show up at the backdoor to “help”, which meant I got an early taste of the treats. I lost my first tooth after biting into one of her apples when I was six.

I remember that it was hard work to make caramel apples. So the first time I tried to make caramel apples, I was a bit perplexed by how fast it went. Melt a bag of caramels. Check. Ten minutes later I was dipping apples. Why did it take Opal so long, I thought. What’s the big deal?

Opal must have had a good chuckle up in heaven, because the caramel ran right off those apples and puddled on the cookie sheet.

This year, I was determined to get caramel apples right. And I wanted to try popcorn balls. So I searched for a caramel apple recipe that did not start with a bag of Kraft caramels and turned to Paula Deen for a popcorn ball recipe. Here’s what happened.

We made caramel from scratch. It has to come up to soft ball stage on the stove, which is 240 degrees. That’s 32 degrees above boiling. It took an hour of constantly stirring. AN HOUR. Worth it, thankfully. The caramel was a rich, deep brown color and smelled heavenly. It coated the apples and stuck.

These are my apples and a glass of Door county Christmas iced coffee.
These are my apples and a glass of Door county Christmas iced coffee.

Then we turned to the popcorn balls. And discovered that the recipe required us to bring the sugar syrup up to hard ball stage. That’s 250 degrees. Good Lord, Paula. We almost quit.

Then we ate some cooling caramel and found our second wind. Forty five minutes later, we had hard ball stage sugar syrup.

We had two huge bowls of popcorn, a pot of beyond boiling hot syrup and a recipe that urged us to “move quickly to form the balls”. It was not pretty, what happened next. In case anyone’s wondering, 250 degrees is for-the-love-of-God hot and I have the burned fingertips to prove it.


Out of curiosity, I looked up the Karo syrup popcorn ball recipe. Much easier. Oh, and the Karo recipe says “using plastic bags to protect hands from hot syrup, form popcorn into balls”.

You hear that? That’s Opal, still laughing.

The caramel apple recipe is a keeper. The popcorn ball recipe was good, but next time, I will start with Karo syrup and end with plastic bags and see if it all tastes the same.

Happy Fall!

If you ignore that she's perched on the edge of the counter, isn't she the cutest helper ever???
If you ignore that she’s perched on the edge of the counter, isn’t she the cutest helper ever???

Caramel Apples from Scratch (courtesy of The Baker Chick)

Popcorn Balls (courtesy of Paula Deen)

Popcorn Balls (

7 thoughts on “Caramel Apples and Popcorn Balls ~ Jen

  1. I made caramel apples last year from scratch on Valentine’s Day. They mostly stayed on the apples, except for one apple. There can’t be wax on the apples or it slides off. In Opal’s day, they probably never heard of food grade wax!
    I’ve never tried popcorn balls, because I think they are overrated–but I guarantee the Karo ones won’t taste as good. Burned fingertips and all!
    Your picture made my mouth water…

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