I met a girl once, when I was in college, who refused to step foot in the ocean because she was afraid. Her fear wasn’t founded in vicious riptides, creepy crawly tentacled creatures, finned fish with sharp teeth, or an inability to swim. No, she was afraid to swim in the ocean because, to put it in her words, “there is whale placenta in there, and that’s just gross.” Ummm, okay? I remember literally scratching my head when she said that, trying my best not to snicker at that highly unusual fear and working to wrap my mind around it. Makes sense, I guess? Sort of? No, not really.
But fears aren’t really grounded in good sense are they? They’re not really about being sensical or otherwise. Most of our fears stem from inexplicable demons that take up residence in our minds, for whatever reason. Some fears make sense; a fear of horses that develops after a bad fall while riding, for example. Some fears, on the other hand, do not make sense … whale placenta in the ocean, for example.
If you look up the list of “most common fears,” the majority of its contents are fairly predictable:
Usual suspects, right? Popcorn, incidentally, is nowhere to be found on that list.
I’ve gone a solid decade with nary a bag of popcorn being popped in my kitchen. Not a single kernel has been popped and then subsequently enjoyed in all of its salty, buttery goodness … at least not by me. This silly and altogether insignificant fact is attributed to a popcorn faux pas of which I was guilty during my very first semester of college.
A relatively small, brownish, low-wattage microwave sat in a corner of my z-shaped dorm room, perched on top of an equally small refrigerator. I’m almost positive that this microwave was used for nothing other than the popping of popcorn – we did it all the time. Popcorn for breakfast, popcorn for lunch, popcorn for dinner. It was very collegiate of us, my roommate and I, and it’s a wonder that I never tired of the stuff. Although perhaps I would have, had it not been for the one fateful bag that ruined everything. This one lowly, seemingly innocent bag of popcorn to which I refer was intended to provide snacking fodder during a marathon Sex and the City viewing, but unfortunately the fire alarm on my floor sounded right after I placed the bag in the microwave. It had been set to pop for what I thought was an appropriate amount of time, but apparently I had mistakenly pushed the wrong button – the button for something requiring a much longer cook time. Baked potato, maybe? Frozen veg? We fled the room, as you do when an alarm sounds, and when we re-entered after the coast was reported to be clear, I’m sorry to report that the same could not be said about the air in our room.
You could smell the burning stench of blackened popcorn as soon as you stepped into our hallway – at least a dozen doors down from our own.
“I thought this was supposed to be a drill!?” I heard someone say. “Something has definitely burned.”
Oh no! Oh no, no, no. I knew that I’d screwed up in letting the popcorn finish cooking without watching it, assuming that it would be fine since it was set to a timer. After all, that is one of the perks to microwave cooking, right?!? Wrong. Popcorn, I learned, needs to be watched and smelled and listened to regardless of the method of cookery being employed. The smell of burnt popcorn is an unmistakeable thing, and a terribly impossible one to eliminate. We tried our best, my sweet roomie and I, to rid our room of that charred, singed popcorn odor, but alas, it was still lingering in the air on the very last day of our residence there. As you might surmise, I still harbor guilt about my negligence to this day.
Thanks to that fateful, fragrant bag of popcorn, I have never popped another. Truly, I haven’t. I’ve eaten popcorn since then, sure. They were all bags popped by others though, I can promise you that. I didn’t grow an aversion to the food entirely; just a fear of popping it myself in a microwave. I grew up in a house where we never popped popcorn on the stovetop, so it had just never really dawned on me to do so … at least, not until recently it didn’t. I tested a couple of recipes with actual corn kernels in an actual pot on my actual stove and I found it very satisfying and incredibly delicious, actually. The popcorn recipe featured in this post stemmed from a desire to create a couple of simple, casual holiday dinner party snacking ideas and I just kept coming back to popcorn, for one reason or another. It is easy, adored by most (save for maybe my dentist father who often eschews the stuff for its post-consumption flossing requirement), and it doesn’t fill you up. That point was key for me, with this post. During this season of heavy, cheesy, gooey, rich, and decadent foods, I wanted to offer up a couple of simple ideas for snacks that won’t actually fill you up before the meal itself, as so many appetizers tend to do. These simple, almost non-recipe ideas do just that. They are tasty, crunchy and completely satisfying in the flavor department – and they leave you wanting to eat more – which is the true job requirement of an appetizer is it not?
So bust out those cheese graters and unearth your favorite popcorn cooking pot! These no muss, no fuss snacks are great whether you’re entertaining a large crowd or satisfying the cravings of your own party of one. Unless, of course, you have a fear of cheese graters. If that’s the case I might suggest you take your snack cravings elsewhere …
PARMESAN & BLACK SESAME LOLLIPOPS (makes about 6 lollipops)
2 cups freshly grated parmesan cheese
1.5 tablespoons toasted black sesame seeds
10 lollipop sticks (can be easily found in party or craft stores or ordered online, I used Amazon)
Preheat your oven to 425 degrees F.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat. You can use a round ring mold to help shape the lollipops if you prefer, but I just do it freehand. Using about 2 – 2.5 tablespoons of cheese for each pop, create flat circles of cheese on your baking mat, keeping them spaced several inches apart, since these will spread while they bake (I do about 4 per baking pan). I end up with circles that are about 3″ in diameter. Place a lollipop stick in the center of each cheese circle and then cover it with a little more cheese, to seal the stick inside.
Bake the lollipops for 5 minutes, or until the cheese has fully melted and browned very slightly around the edges. Allow the pops to cool completely before removing with a spatula. They need to be cool and crisp before removing. Serve on a platter or in an upright lollipop stand.
SMOKY BROWNED BUTTER & MANCHEGO POPCORN
3/4 cup of fresh popcorn kernels, popped according to the package directions
8 tablespoons butter (this is the holidays, after all)
3/4 cup grated Manchego cheese
1.5 teaspoons smoked Spanish paprika
Salt to taste
Place the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Melt completely. Continue to cook the butter until it becomes a golden, amber color and beans to smell nutty, swirling the pan a few times as it cooks. This should take about 3 – 5 minutes after the butter has fully melted.
As soon as the popcorn is done popping, transfer to a large bowl for seasoning. Pour the browned butter over the popcorn along with the cheese, paprika, and salt to taste (I use about 2 teaspoons at first, and then add from there as needed). Stir or toss the popcorn for several minutes, to evenly coat with the flavorings. Enjoy.