A family holiday tradition
By Scott Thoma
Like the toyshop at the North Pole in November, Helen Hiltner and her “little elves” are scurrying in preparation for Christmas.
Only, these elves are relatives that assist her in making popcorn balls each year. And they don’t construct just a few to place on the table for holiday guests to snack on. These workers pop, melt, color and shape over 2,000 popcorn balls in various colors.
Hiltner’s workshop is her kitchen in Paynesville. And her helpers are generally relatives. On this day, Hiltner, her brother John Keller, sister Doris Sieben, and brother-in-law Keith Sieben prepared some of the popcorn balls for the upcoming holidays.
“We each have our own place in the kitchen,” Hiltner explained. “I usually pop all the popcorn before we begin making the popcorn balls. Doris and I mix the colored syrup into the popcorn and shape them into balls. John mans the stove and Keith is at the sink cleaning everything.”
When asked how he got stuck with the cleaning part of the gig, Keith responded with a smile, “I was the last one here.”
Making popcorn balls isn’t just a simple operation for this crew. There’s a method to their madness.
Like scientists in a laboratory, their measuring of popcorn, oil, butter, corn syrup, sugar and food coloring is an exact science.
“And we only use quality ingredients,” Hiltner stated.
“Or the popcorn balls either won’t hold together or they are as hard as clay pigeons,” finished John.
This whole popcorn ball fetish began when Hiltner tried one that her friend, Debbie Strassberg, had made. She borrowed the recipe and has been using it ever since.
Hiltner’s inaugural popcorn-making year was 1980 when she made them mostly for her family for Christmas. But as the family has grown over the last 40 years, so have the number of popcorn balls.
“We have our Christmas at the Senior Center because we have such a large family,” Hiltner said. “We give each of the people attending a bag of popcorn balls.”
Hiltner also shares some with businesses she has close contact with such as her hairdresser, dentist, insurance agent, ladies at the bank, and her doctor and nurses.
“Some of the neighbors also know when I am making the popcorn balls by the number of cars out in front of the house,” Hiltner laughed. “So, of course, I have to give them some.”
As you enter Hiltner’s home during the popcorn ball-making time of the year, the smell of popcorn wafting through the air massages your nasal passage. And a look around makes it easy to see this isn’t their first rodeo. Everything is well organized in order to achieve maximum efficiency in a timely manner.
First, there are bed sheets laid out in the living room under several tables that hold the finished popcorn balls.
“Connie Keller (Helen’s sister-in-law who often helps make the popcorn balls) sewed the sheets all together to make one big one because we would trip on them when they weren’t sewn together,” said Doris. “The sheets are just in case the balls fall on the floor. It makes clean-up a lot easier.”
Hiltner also places a sheet under a table next to the stove when she is popping the corn to catch any oil or popcorn spillage.
Approximately 20 30-ounce bottles of popcorn are needed to make all the popcorn balls each year, which is roughly 72 double batches. It takes between 24-28 total hours to reach the finish line.
“It has to be Orville Redenbacher popcorn,” she insisted. “We’ve tried many other kinds and the popcorn balls either fall apart or get too hard. The same with all the other ingredients. We’ve learned that if you want quality popcorn balls, you have to buy name-brand quality ingredients. Even the food coloring has to be good quality.”
Because of the quality products they use, it’s understandable that the cost is higher.
“We try to buy things when they go on sale or we buy them in bulk,” Hiltner said.
The estimated cost of all the ingredients and other things that go into making around 2,000 popcorn balls is close to $600. Hiltner has carefully logged everything in a journal each year.
And she finds that the old-fashioned way of cooking the popcorn on the stove with a large covered pot works best.
“I’ve tried popcorn poppers and air poppers, but I like popping on the stove the best,” she said. “It just makes better popcorn.”
Even with tables set up, sheets on the floor and several people in the house, no one seems to be tripping over each other in this workshop because each person knows his/her place as the popcorn ball assembly line is in full operation.
“I’ve only had one mishap in 40 years and that was when a bunch of popcorn spilled on the floor,” Hiltner boasted. “And I’ve only been burnt once.”
The group of workers also make sure they wash their hands often and keep everything clean. They even clean the ceiling fans before making the popcorn so dust doesn’t flutter down if the fans are turned on.
Once the popcorn is all popped, it’s time to assemble the product.
John mixes the butter, sugar, corn syrup and food coloring in a pot and brings the mixture to a slow boil.
“When the mixture starts to have a light tint of brown at the top, that’s when I know it’s ready,” he said proudly. “You have to look closely because it’s hard to see.”
“Yeah, but how long did it take you to learn that,” Doris asked jokingly.
“About 40 years,” he laughed.
To make sure the syrup is ready, John then fills a shot glass with cold water and pours a little of the syrup mixture into it. He reaches his finger into the glass and pulls the syrup toward the top.
“If I pull on the syrup and about two-thirds of it comes out at one time, then it’s ready,” he explained. “If it’s not the right consistency, the popcorn balls will turn hard.”
The food coloring is then added to the mixture and the pot is handed off to Hiltner, who pours it into a pre-determined amount of popcorn in a large vat.
After the popcorn is mixed with the syrup mixture, Hiltner and her sister begin to grab handfuls and mold them into round balls.
“If men do this part, the popcorn balls turn out too hard,” Hiltner said. “They are stronger and have a tendency to pack them together too much.”
The colored balls are laid out on tables. There are 18 colors in all: red, green, pink, purple, orange, yellow, dusty rose, mint green and teal in regular colors; and purple, green, pink, blue, deep purple, green apple, apricot, turquoise and raspberry in neon colors.
Although they appear flavored, the popcorn balls are all the same buttery taste. Unlike store-bought popcorn balls that can sometimes be like biting into styrofoam, these are soft and chewy while still holding together well.
“This is our winter highlight,” remarked Doris.
Santa Claus would be proud.