Super Bowl 2014 and Aztec Chocolate Caramel Popcorn—Sweet Victory All Around

Image courtesy of marsmet522.

Image courtesy of marsmet522.

Bon Appetit Wednesday! on January 22 showcased this recipe—strategically posted between National Popcorn Day and the National Football League’s Super Bowl XLVIII in the United States—and described the relationship between the Aztecs, popcorn and chocolate.  In honor of the Super Bowl being played today, we are re-posting the recipe for the football parties being held far and wide. But so you know, fans of the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks may want to take a page from Aztec sporting history as kickoff approaches.

A sample ullamaliztli tlachtli (ball court) (On display at Mexico's National Anthropological Museum, 2009)

A sample ullamaliztli tlachtli (ball court)
(On display at Mexico’s National Anthropological Museum, 2009)

It is believed that the Olmec Empire (1200 BCE – circa 400 BCE) originated the ballgame that was later played by many Mesoamericans, including the Mayans and Aztecs.  The Aztec game was known as ullamaliztli and was so culturally important as to be the second construction of any new settlement after the shrine to the god Huitzilopochtli.  Employing an ulli or nine-pound hard rubber ball (rubber was a common substance in Mesoamerican life), the game required using the elbows, knees, hips and head—but never the hands—in keeping the ball aloft, sometimes for more than an hour at a time.  The game was played on an I-shaped court called a tlachtli or tlachco with surrounding areas for spectators and skull racks called tzompantli for sacrificial victims.

An actual ring used in the ancient Mesoamerican ball game, Ullamaliztli (On display in Mexico City)

An actual ring used in the ancient Mesoamerican ball game, Ullamaliztli.
(On display in Mexico City)

Some courts had vertical stone hoops for the balls to pass through, which if so happened, would immediately signal the end of the game.  However, that feat seems almost impossible given the hoop dimensions.  Sometimes players wore protective gear of deerskin but nonetheless were often bruised and bloodied by the speed and ferocity of the sport.  And as with any competition, stakes could be high.  Research posits that some losing teams were sacrificed (and possibly winners as well since sacrifice was considered an honor), gambling was rampant (with property, personal freedom and even children wagered) and political disputes resolved.  The game also had religious significance:

It was meant to mirror the ball court of the heavens, this [the earth] being the ball court of the underworld where the sun passed each night. The game represented the battle between day and night, and so was also related to the human blood sacrifices that were intended to keep the sun moving in the sky.[1]

Today’s version of ullamaliztli is known as ulama and has a number of variations—with less carnage—in different countries.

So when you dig into that bowl of Aztec Chocolate Caramel Popcorn and watch the Broncos and Seahawks battle to final victory, just think of the historical sweep of competition, politics, religion and snacks.  And in the case of our Aztec popcorn delight, victory—or defeat—never tasted so sweet.

Aztec Chocolate Caramel Popcorn

aztec 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


  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.


Other Resources

Filloy Nadal, Laura (2001). “Rubber and Rubber Balls in Mesoamerica”. In E. Michael Whittington (ed.). The Sport of Life and Death: The Mesoamerican Ballgame (Published in conjunction with an exhibition of the same name organized by the Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte, NC. ed.). New York: Thames & Hudson. pp. 20–31. ISBN 0-500-05108-9OCLC 49029226

Orr, Heather (2005). “Ballgames: The Mesoamerican Ballgame”. In Lindsay Jones (Ed.). Encyclopedia of Religion. Detroit: Macmillan Reference, Vol. 2. pp. 749–752.

Wilkerson, S. Jeffrey K. (1991). “Then They Were Sacrificed: The Ritual Ballgame of Northeastern Mesoamerica Through Time and Space”. In Vernon Scarborough and David R. Wilcox (eds.). The Mesoamerican Ballgame. Tucson: University of Arizona 

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