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Old-school tricks for up-to-date Halloween

Embellish popcorn balls or caramel apples with toffee, pecans, chocolate chips and marshmallows for an updated twist on classic treats. (Adriana Janovich)
Embellish popcorn balls or caramel apples with toffee, pecans, chocolate chips and marshmallows for an updated twist on classic treats. (Adriana Janovich)
Between the plastic pumpkins, faux cemetery signs, and bits of bite-sized, factory-processed candy, it’s no surprise Halloween can seem highly commercialized, overly complicated and somewhat stressful.

A couple of old-school – and simple – recipes for homemade sweets might help slow down the orange-and-black cyclone that can take over Oct. 31.

Plus, families can make – and munch on – them together.

This Halloween, go back to the basics with two old-fashioned, easy-to-make classics: caramel apples and popcorn balls.

Roll your own

Caramel apples combine a crisp fall favorite with a rich, gooey layer of goodness.

And they’re actually pretty good for you.

On their own, apples are a source of fiber and Vitamin C, along with a little natural sweetness. If rolled in your favorite crushed nuts, this classic treat even provides a bit of protein.

Plus, they are, as the old saying goes, as American as apple pie.

Dan Walker, a sales representative for Kraft Foods, is credited with first dipping an apple into his company’s melted caramel candies in the 1950s. The first caramel apple-making machine followed quickly; it was invented by Vito Raimondi and his uncle William Raimondi in Chicago in 1960.

Today, chains like the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory sell gourmet, Halloween-themed versions for as much as $11.99 each.

You can roll them yourself at home for much less.

But don’t confuse caramel apples with candied apples, which are decidedly different. Dressed in a stiff shell of sugar, corn syrup, water, cinnamon and red food coloring, they predate caramel apples by about half a century. (The process of candying apples goes back even further; in ancient times, sugar and honey were used to preserve the fruit.)

These days, many caramel apple recipes call for Granny Smith apples, which offer a tart contrast to the buttery caramel. Honeycrisp apples are sweeter and provide a satisfying crunch. Some opt for the more neutral flavor of Red Delicious. Pink Lady or Gala apples tend to be smaller, which might be more manageable when coating and decorating. I used Fuji.

You can make your own caramel. But in the interest of easiness, melting Werther’s Original Chewy Caramels works just fine. And it’s fast. (At least once you’ve unwrapped them all.)

After you’ve caramel-coated your favorite apple, create your own perfect coating combination. Experiment with chopped or slivered nuts – pistachios, pecans, peanuts, almonds, walnuts, cashews, macadamia nuts – and crushed candy – toffee, Butterfinger, Snickers, Baby Ruth, and pretty much anything from Prosser, Wash.-based Chukar Cherries.

Children might want to make happy faces with M&M’s or Reese’s Pieces. For other crushed toppings, try Oreos, salted pretzels or graham crackers. What about sprinkles, marshmallows or shredded coconut?

Or, go for simple and opt for flakes of sea salt.

Once they’re chilled, you might also want to drizzle your creations with melted chocolate, butterscotch or white chocolate chips.

Wanna be a (popcorn) baller

Hard evidence – read: cookbooks – suggests popcorn balls date back to the mid-19th century.

The “Housekeeper’s Encyclopedia” by New York cookbook author E.F. Haskell included a recipe for popcorn balls back in 1861.

But the mythical origin might be more interesting.

The legend comes out of Nebraska, the Cornhusker State, where both corn and sorghum are important cash crops. As the story goes, Nebraskans had endured a year of very wet and very hot weather. It came to be called “The Year of Striped Weather.”

One day, it rained so much that syrup from a soaked sorghum field poured into a nearby cornfield. The weather turned, becoming super hot and popping all of the kernels of corn. (Can you see where this is going?) The extreme wet and extreme hot were followed by – what else? – a tornado, which whipped the syrup and the popped corn into balls.

I discovered the treats in elementary school. One or two would inevitably show up during classroom Halloween celebrations – at least they did in those early years.

As I grew older, popcorn balls stopped appearing altogether. It seemed the mothers who had regularly made them at Halloween gradually gave up the tradition. Maybe they thought their kids had outgrown it, or maybe they opted for store-bought, factory-wrapped candy instead.

These days, popcorn balls – like caramel apples – seem to bring a sense of nostalgia along with their sweetness.

Make basic popcorn balls, or experiment – adding nuts, crushed candy, and chocolate, butterscotch or white chocolate chips.

My helpers – ages 4 and 7, the children of a friend – had no problem forming the sticky clusters – and sampling them along the way. Their popcorn balls were decidedly smaller than mine, however – bite-sized confections compared to my baseball-sized variety.

But they were super-easy to make, like Rice Krispie’s treats but a little more hands-on.

Classic Caramel Apples

Adapted from

6 apples

Wooden craft sticks

1 (14-ounce) package individually-wrapped caramels, unwrapped

2 tablespoons milk (Water or evaporated milk can be substituted)

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Remove the stem from each apple and press a craft stick into the top or stem end. Butter a baking sheet. Place caramels, milk and vanilla extract in a stainless steel mixing bowl. Set the bowl over a pot of water on the stovetop, and bring it to a boil, stirring occasionally. (Or, place the caramels, milk and vanilla extract in a microwave-safe container and melt them in the microwave.) Once the mixture is thoroughly melted and combined, remove it from heat. Roll each apple quickly around the edges of the bowl until well coated. Use a butter knife to trim excess caramel from the bottom of the apple. Place on prepared baking sheet and refrigerate to set.

For S’mores Caramel Apples, combine 1 ½ cups of miniature marshmallows and 1 ½ cups crushed graham crackers and spread on a baking sheet. Roll the coated apples in the mixture until evenly decorated. Place 1 cup semi-sweet or milk chocolate chips in a microwave-safe bowl. Melt in the microwave for 30-second intervals, stirring between each, until melted and smooth. Drizzle over the apples. Refrigerate apples until ready to serve.

For Rocky Road, combine 1 ½ cups of miniature marshmallows and 1 ½ cups chopped, toasted pecans and spread on a baking sheet. Follow steps listed above, including the chocolate drizzle.

Note: Be careful not to use too much milk. It can cause the caramel to become too runny and slide into a pool on the baking sheet at the base of the apple – along with any decorations you’ve added.

Popcorn Balls

Adapted from

3 cups miniature marshmallows

1/4 cup butter

8 cups freshly popped popcorn

Place marshmallows and butter in a large pot over medium-low heat, and melt them together, stirring often. Cook until blended and smooth, about 5 minutes, and remove from heat. Stir in the popcorn. With greased hands, shape the mixture into 3-inch balls.

For Rocky Road Popcorn Balls, stir peanuts into the popcorn and marshmallow mixture, thoroughly coating. Stir in chocolate chips and do the same. Then, form into balls.