It’s the end of January and that means National Popcorn Day is upon us! The actual date is contested with some sources saying it’s the 19th (last Sunday) and others claiming it falls on Super Bowl Sunday. We’ve decided to compromise and celebrate right between these two dates. So whether you’re celebrating retroactively or preparing in advance for February 2nd, this Aztec Chocolate Caramel Popcorn is sure to please.
You may be surprised to learn that popcorn is an ancient food. In fact, researchers believe the very first method of cooking both wild and cultivated corn was by popping. Archaeological evidence from Peru suggests that people were enjoying popcorn as early as 4700 BCE. While corn was not a staple yet, it was used for flour and eaten in many other ways as well. According to Dolores Piperno, co-author of a study based on the findings in Peru and a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History,
Our results show that only a few thousand years [after its domestication] corn arrived in South America where its evolution into different varieties that are now common in the Andean region began,” Piperno said. “This evidence further indicates that in many areas corn arrived before pots did and that early experimentation with corn as a food was not dependent on the presence of pottery.
So without pottery how did they pop the corn? Most likely they roasted the cobs directly over hot coals or flames. Nearly 5,000 years later, other ancient Peruvians would invent the world’s first popcorn popper, “a shallow vessel with a handle and a hole on top”.
Popcorn was extremely important to the Aztecs who used it not only as a food source, but also in religious ceremonies and fashion. Father Bernardino de Sahagun wrote in the Florentine Codex that popcorn was ” . . . a kind of corn which bursts when parched and discloses its contents and makes itself look like a very white flower. . . . “ He goes on to write, “And also a number of young women danced, having so vowed, a popcorn dance. As thick as tassels of maize were their popcorn garlands. And these they placed upon (the girls’) heads.”
From being roasted on the cob around a prehistoric fire to being drowned in butter and munched on at the movie theater, popcorn has certainly come along way. The following recipe not only includes the popcorn loved by the Aztecs, it also incorporates another ancient food, Aztec chocolate. To learn more about ancient Mesoamerican chocolate read our blog post “Hot Chocolate: Gift of the Gods Since 1900 BCE.” So celebrate this National Popcorn Day with a recipe that reaches back to ancient times and enjoy the mix of past and present.
Aztec Chocolate Caramel Popcorn
*Recipe adapted from Better Homes and Gardens.
Makes: 40 servings, ½ cup each
- 14 cups popped popcorn
- 1 cup roasted and salted pumpkin seeds (pepitas)*
- 1 ½ cups packed brown sugar
- ¾ cup butter
- 1/3 cup light-color corn syrup
- ½ teaspoon baking soda
- ½ teaspoon vanilla
- 1 cup semisweet chocolate pieces
- 1 tablespoon shortening
- 2 teaspoons ground ancho chile pepper
- ½ teaspoon instant espresso coffee powder
- ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- Preheat oven to 300 degrees F. Remove all un-popped kernels from popped popcorn. Place popcorn and pumpkin seeds into a 17x12x2-inch roasting pan. Keep warm in oven while preparing caramel.
- Butter a large sheet of foil; set aside. For caramel, in a medium saucepan combine brown sugar, butter and corn syrup. Cook and stir over medium heat until mixture boils. Continue boiling at a moderate, steady rate, without stirring, for 5 minutes more.
- Remove saucepan from heat. Stir in baking soda and vanilla. Pour caramel over popcorn mixture; stir gently to coat. Bake for 15 minutes. Stir mixture; bake for 5 minutes more. Spread popcorn mixture on prepared foil; cool completely.
- In a small saucepan combine chocolate, shortening, ancho chile pepper, coffee powder and cinnamon. Cook and stir over low heat until chocolate is melted and smooth.
- Drizzle chocolate mixture over popcorn mixture; if desired, toss gently to coat. Let stand at room temperature or in the refrigerator until set. Break mixture into clusters. Spoon into gift container.
*Note: To roast raw pumpkin seeds, in a 15x10x1-inch baking pan combine 1 cup raw pumpkin seeds (pepitas), 2 tablespoons olive oil and 1/2 teaspoon salt; toss gently to coat. Spread pumpkin seeds in a single layer. Bake in a 350 degrees F oven for 10 minutes, stirring once halfway through baking.
*Make Ahead Instructions: Place popcorn in an airtight container; cover. Store at room temperature for up to 1 week.