Popped Sorghum Balls
One of the more interesting offerings by Baker Creek is a sorghum variety whose seeds pop like popcorn. But, because they are smaller, the popped sorghum is only ¼ the size. One of Jeff’s early childhood memories is his family making popcorn balls out of sorghum syrup for holidays. On a whim we thought it would be fun to create miniature balls out of the tiny popped sorghum. We really liked the result, as the popped sorghum is a bit more flavorful that popped corn, and the tiny balls are just the right size for an after work snack. We freely adapted a dark syrup recipe based on molasses found in the 1946 edition of Irma Rombauer's The Joy of Cooking.
7 cups popped sorghum, sieved to remove unpopped grains
1 teaspoon oil
½ cup sorghum syrup
¼ cup sugar
Pop sorghum just as you would popcorn, being careful to always shake the pan so that the small grains won’t scorch. Because perhaps 1/3 of the grains won’t pop, we sieved ours through a steamer basket to reserve only fully popped grains for the balls. Unlike popcorn, unpopped sorghum is not hard and makes a wonderful nibble on its own right. We suspect they would be a wonderful addition to home-made granola.
Now make the syrup. Stir oil, sorghum, and sugar together in a heavy sauce pan. Heat gently, stirring constantly until the mixture comes to a boil. Stop stirring the mixture, and let come to 250° F. – or a medium soft-ball stage.
Pour hot syrup over the popped sorghum, and quickly stir to evenly distribute all the ingredients.
Form 2 tablespoon units into small balls as soon as the mixture is cool enough to handle. You'll need to work quickly to make sure that all the balls have been formed before the syrup cools and you may want all hands on deck at this stage.
Sorghum has an important role in Jeff’s family history. When his father, Fred, was young and living on the family farm, his family made extra money by making and selling sorghum syrup for themselves and others in the neighborhood. They never needed to buy molasses as a result.
Making sorghum syrup is not unlike that for making maple syrup: the sweet sap is collected and boiled down until it becomes thick. In the case of maple syrup, you only get 1 gallon for every 40 initial gallons of maple sap; for sorghum it is a more reasonable 1:8 ratio. The other main difference is that sorghum sap is gathered by grinding the stems and then pressing them through rollers – not unlike an old washing machine. Jeff’s grandparents were very particular about how they collected their sap and only crushed stems that had their seed head and leaves removed. And it was important to constantly remove the foam that came to the top. Fred is still amazed at how many current sorghum syrup makers do not do these things and how poor their syrup tastes.
Grandpa Charles Nekola tending the evaporator in 1951
Jeff's father Fred Nekola grinding sorghum stalks in the 1970s
The Nekola sorghum field ready for harvest in the 1970s
No matter if you make your own syrup or buy it from someone who does, you’ll find sorghum to be similar to molasses. However, they are quite different, with the sorghum being mellower and sweeter in flavor. There are some things for which sorghum is simply superior, and we think one of these is for cookies. This recipe is based on one for which Linda’s brother Tom won the blue ribbon at the Door County fair back in the 1970s.
½ cup canola oil
1 cup sugar
¼ cup sorghum syrup
2 cups flour
2 teaspoons soda
½ teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
Sugar for dusting
Using a paddle attachment, beat together the oil, sugar and syrup. Add in the egg and beat at high speed for 2 minutes or so until the mixture lightens in color and has becomes well creamed. Sift together the flour and remaining ingredients, and mix 1/3 at a time into the sugar and eggs at low speed until all the ingredients are incorporated. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 375° F. Divide cookie dough into 1 tablespoon units. Roll each into a ball and dip in the sugar. Place sugared balls about 2” apart on a cookie sheet. Bake for 8-10 minutes until just set. Remove from oven and cool on a rack until firm.