If you Google "popcorn breakfast cereal" (which I've done many, many times), you'll find lots of chatter about popcorn as the O.G. breakfast cereal.
(Editor's Note: And since the original publication of this article, the New York Times reported evidence that English colonists—believed to have been introduced to puffed corn in February of 1630 by the Wampanoag Indians—ate it for breakfast with milk and sugar "as the first puffed cereal.")
On many web forums and myth-buster sites, you'll hear tell of rumors that, way back in the nineteenth century, people were pouring milk over popped corn: ye olde Corn Pops. One primary piece of evidence for this speculation comes from Laura Ingall Wilder's Farmer Boy, set in the 1850s:
You can fill a glass to the brim with milk and fill another glass of the same size brim full of popcorn, and then you can put all the popcorn kernel by kernel into the milk and the milk will not run over. You cannot do this with bread. Popcorn and milk are the only two things that will go into the same place. Then, too, they are good to eat.
(You'll also come across a few recipes for "popcorn cereal," which consist of two ingredients and a methodology I'm sure you can intuit.)
I'm not here to verify or refute these popcorn myths. Instead, I'm here to tell you that even if these myths are just plain bogus, there's a good idea there regardless.
Pouring milk over popcorn as-is might not be a smart choice: If you've ever interacted with damp popcorn, you can imagine how quickly it would sog and mush if you intentionally soaked it.
But what if you used kettle or caramel corn—where sugar syrup acts as a "raincoat" to protect it from the milk—instead? The popcorn would soften, its hard edges subsiding, while the outsides would remain crunchy.
Calling all lovers of sog and lovers of crunch, alike: This is YOUR cereal!
Then we took this idea one step further and set out to create popcorn granola—which, as it turns out, was not at all hard to do. To make popcorn granola, we substituted popped popcorn for the oats in Nekisia Davis' Genius Granola, adding a lot of popcorn (7 to 8 cups) to make up for the density discrepancy between popped corn and oats; replaced the sunflower seeds with sliced almonds; and proceeded with the recipe as written.
After giving the granola time to dry and harden outside of the oven, we tasted it: Sweet and crunchy, with huge clumps of shaggy, sugar-coated popped kernels, nuts, and pumpkin seeds, it was as good on its own as it was with cold milk, which cut some of the sweetness.
It was only a matter of time before we tried popcorn granola bars. We followed the recipe for no-bake Bulk Bin Snack Bars, replacing the oats with 5 to 6 cups of popped popcorn. We had to loosen the almond butter-oil-honey-apple sauce mixture by heating the almond butter and adding additional oil, but other than that, the recipe worked as written, yielding airier, squisher bars.
We declared both experiments successful.
Here's what to keep in mind when you try it yourself:
You can't substitute popcorn for oats 1:1. Since popcorn is so much more voluminous, you will need to use much more popcorn to absorb all of the granola liquids. For the Genius granola recipe, I used 7 to 8 cups of popped popcorn (from about 1/3 cup raw kernels) to sub in for 3 cups of oats.
Popcorn absorbs oils and sugars differently than oats. It doesn't become as "wet" as oats, which means you might be left with liquid that accumulates at the bottom of the baking sheet and forms a sort of candy brittle.
Bake at a low temperature (or don't bake at all). For the granola, you want to toast the nuts and seeds and melt the liquids into a sugary syrup, but you need to avoid burning the already-cooked corn. So don't veer above 300° F (but that shouldn't be a problem with most granola recipes).
Anticipate an airier texture. Your granola will be at once squishier and crunchier than it would had you used oats. The granola bars will be more puffed and cushioned than the standard bars.
Don't be scared of squashing your popcorn. It's okay if some of the popcorn breaks apart a little. The size variance will make the eating experience more exciting (and it means that the granola-binding syrup (or granola bar-binding "sauce") will reach more crevices, leaving fewer spongy, all-popcorn spots.
Get the full recipes right here:
- 7 to 8 cups popped popcorn (from about 1/3 cup kernels)
- 1 cup raw hulled pumpkin seeds
- 1 cup sliced almonds
- 1 cup unsweetened coconut chips
- 1 1/4 cups raw pecans, left whole or very roughly chopped
- 3/4 cup pure maple syrup
- 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
Popcorn "Granola" Bars
- 1 cup almond or peanut butter
- 1/3 cup honey, agave, or maple syrup
- 1/4 cup unsweetened applesauce or fruit compote (I, strangely enough, used quince sauce!)
- Olive oil, as needed
- 4 to 6 cups popcorn
- 1 1/2 cups whole walnuts or almonds or a combination
- 1/3 cup raw hulled pumpkin seeds
- 1/2 cup unsweetened shredded coconut
- 1/3 cup raw hulled sunflower seeds
- 1/3 cup ground flax seed