October is National Popcorn Month, and business is booming for the humble kernel. 

It's not only an enduring presence at movie theaters and county fairs, the simple snack food is also showing up as a featured ingredient at wedding social hours, in specialty food products, and on high-end restaurant menus. Sea-salt popcorn-crusted pork tenderloin, anyone?

Americans consume 16 billion quarts of popcorn each year, and sales hit an estimated $1.1 billion in 2014, according to the Popcorn Board, a nonprofit industry trade group. Gourmet popcorn burst onto the foodie scene about five years ago, and its popularity is showing no signs of slowing down, food industry observers say. Do-it-yourself popcorn bars are replacing or complementing traditional hors d'oevres at weddings and other big events, for example, and bowls of savory popcorn dusted with herbs and spices are showing up on appetizer menus and as a complimentary happy-hour alternative to chips or peanuts.

This summer's Fancy Food Show, the largest specialty food trade event in North America, showcased new and unique flavors for popcorn such as spicy sriracha, tandoori yogurt, and dark chocolate cherry cordial. Popcorn has been a prevalent ingredient at the Fancy Food Show for years, but 2015 featured interesting new twists like miniature kernels and ancient heirloom varieties, notes Louise Kramer, director of communications for the Specialty Food Association.

“I think the staying power is that popcorn has a healthy glow, and can provide a blank canvas for endless flavors whether subtle or not," Kramer said. “In addition, it's a comfort food, and has a distinctly American appeal for all those brought up on munching popcorn at the movies."

John Currence
Sriracha Lime Popcorn

Movie Concession Nostalgia

Movie concession nostalgia is what inspired celebrated pastry chef Farzam Fallah to create a dessert pairing Coca-Cola cake with popcorn ice cream and red licorice sauce for the hip Toronto restaurant, Richmond Station.

“It just made sense -- Coca-Cola, chocolate, popcorn, Twizzlers," Fallah said. “I feel like that's something everyone gets at the theater." 

Farzam Fallah's Movie Snacks Dessert

 

He christened his creation Movie Snacks, steeping popcorn in whole milk and cream overnight to create a unique flavor of ice cream that conjures up the slightly burnt butter-and-salt taste of movie popcorn. For the licorice puree, he cooked down dried cranberries with water and a splash of anise-flavored Pernod to mimic the taste of the moviegoing favorite. (Scroll down for the recipe.) 

"I took the basic flavor profiles and just elevated them," Fallah explained. "Guests loved it because it was playful, and the elements on the plate actually taste like what they are supposed to."

All this creative attention doesn't mean that the butter-and-salt air-popped kernels of yore are going away, however. "Certainly in the home, tradition still rules," said Popcorn Board spokeswoman Wendy Boersema-Rappel. "Regular, old-fashioned popcorn still has a lot of appeal for people."

Popcorn can be traced back as far as the 16th-century Aztecs, who cultivated it as a crop and featured it in traditional ceremonies and dances. The snack took off in North America in the late 19th century, when enterprising street vendors followed crowds around, pushing steam- or gas-powered poppers through fairs, parks, and expositions. National Popcorn Month launched about 30 years ago to tie in with the peak fall harvest of the Midwestern states that grow the grain, said Boersema-Rappel. The peak period for home-consumed popcorn sales is also the fall, she added.

However one celebrates the venerable snack food this month, one thing is clear: new and different takes on popcorn will continue to burst on the foodie scene. At the same time, fancy concoctions like rosemary-and-truffle-dusted popcorn and pecan praline bacon popcorn aren't likely to ever crowd out the original air-popped version that started it all.

"It's a seed that doesn't change a lot from when you harvest it to when you eat it," Boersema-Rappel points out. "It's farm to table in its simplest form."

Farzam Fallah's Movie Snacks Dessert

Coca-Cola Chocolate Cake

1 cup cocoa

1 lb. butter

16 eggs

3 cups sugar

1 cup sour cream

1 can Coca-Cola

4 cups all-purpose flour

1 tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. baking powder

2 tsp. salt

Bring the butter to a boil and stir in the cocoa, move the mixture into an electric mixing bowl and add your sugar while mixing on a low speed. Start adding your eggs one at a time. After all the eggs are incorporated, add the sour cream and Coca-Cola. Add the dry ingredients last. (Make sure the batter is mixed well, and pour into a greased 9x13 baking pan lined with parchment paper. Bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.

Popcorn Ice Cream

2 cups whole milk

2 cups cream with 35% fat

1/2 lb. sugar (approx. 1 cup)

1/4 cup popping corn1/4 cup salt

In a large saucepan, bring the milk, cream and sugar to a boil. In a separate large covered pot, pop the popcorn. When ready, remove both from heat. Transfer the milk base to a large metal bowl, add popcorn and steep overnight, covered in plastic wrap in the fridge. The following day, blend then strain the mix. Add salt and spin in an ice cream maker until it firms up. Transfer to freezer.

Licorice Puree

1 cup dried cranberries

1 cup water

Pernod to taste

In a large saucepan, bring the water and cranberries to a boil. Simmer for about 10 minutes. Remove from heat, blend, and pass through a fine-mesh sieve. Allow to cool, then stir in the Pernod.