My grandmother on my father’s side, Annie Mae, lived just a twenty-minute drive from my hog-farming grandma, Lula Mae, but the only thing they had in common was Mae. You see, Annie Mae lived “in town.” She drove a car with a peeling “I’m a Democrat” sticker on the back, was a devout Southern Baptist and the first in her family to go to college . . . but she’d never earn a passing grade in what the ladies of her day would call home economics. The doilies on her living room furniture might have been in just the right place, but you could write your name in the thick layer of dust surrounding them. When she passed away a few years ago, it was a coin flip as to who would have to clean her kitchen. I didn’t care too much about her domestic limitations. What I loved about Annie Mae—aside from her sweet tooth—was her jewelry. She had a copious collection of cocktail jewelry that she would put in a large box for my sisters and me to play with when we came over to visit. Long after my sisters grew bored, I’d still be sitting there adorned with jewelry, imagining which pieces I would wear for my next guest spot on The Mike Douglas Show.
Around Christmastime, it’s customary that even non-cooks get motivated to try their hand at the art of cooking. Annie Mae was no exception. She would make batches of Martha Washington candy that I would liken to chocolate-flavored coconut wax lips. Peanut brittle you could pave a street with. Sugar cookies that even Santa would leave behind. But the one thing she did better than anyone, then or since, was molasses popcorn balls. I would eat three before dinner, two after dinner, and squirrel away as many others as I could while the family was distracted by a dance number on The Lawrence Welk Show.
For a fall party a couple of years ago, I made Grandmother Annie Mae’s molasses popcorn balls studded with candied bacon. The guests are still asking me for the recipe. I’m happy to share it with you now. Most of all, I’m happy to have had Annie Mae in my life, and I’m honored to wear some of the fabulous jewelry (now vintage) she left me when I make these popcorn balls. I love you, Grandma.
Annie Mae’s Popcorn Balls
(sweet molasses and bacon)
12 cups warm cooked popcorn
1 1⁄2 cups sugar
2⁄3 cup molasses
Pinch of kosher salt
1⁄2 teaspoon vinegar
1⁄3 cup unsalted butter, plus more to grease baking sheet and hands
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
8 slices bacon, cooked crisp, diced
Grease a baking sheet with butter and set aside.
Put the popcorn in a large roasting pan and keep it warm while you make the molasses bacon coating.
In a heavy saucepan over medium-low heat, stir together the sugar, molasses, 1 cup water, the salt,
and vinegar. Cook, stirring constantly, until the mixture begins to boil and reaches 250 ̊F when tested with
a candy thermometer (this is the hard ball stage). Remove from the heat and stir in the butter, vanilla, and bacon. Slowly pour the mixture over the warm popcorn and mix well, using a wooden spoon. When the popcorn has cooled just enough to handle, butter your hands well and make baseball-sized balls by pressing the mixture together firmly, but gently enough not to crush the popcorn.
Put the warm popcorn balls onto the buttered baking sheet and let them cool until they have hardened. To store, wrap them individually in plastic wrap. Popcorn balls will keep for 5 to 7 days unrefrigerated.