Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Back to Basics: Caramel Corn

A day or so before the Academy Awards I decided that I wanted to make something a little bit special to nibble on while I watched. I know a lot of people have viewing parties, drink champagne and eat fancy appetizers, but around here that sort of celebration would be lost on my guys. They kind of look upon watching this star studded marathon with the same excitement that I do when they watch the Super Bowl.

After tossing a couple of theater themed ideas around in my head, I landed on caramel corn. Since I haven't made any in years, and we're not really crazy about the store bought stuff, I knew that this would give my family a reason to smile when the Oscars came on.

As I planned the execution of this snack, I decided that I really wanted to get back to basics and cook my popcorn the old fashioned way. Don't know what I'm talking about? Well, you're not alone. I'm talking about the way my grandma used to make it, in a big pot, with a lid and just a little bit of oil, on top of the stove.

It occurred to me that younger generations (including my own children) probably have no idea that you can actually cook popcorn some other way than in the microwave. Then I started wondering what they would do if they found themselves on a desert island with no microwave and a bag of old fashioned popcorn. Well, they'd probably starve. I am ashamed to say that they have grown up watching me pull a bag out of the microwave, time, after time, after time.

Even though I'd like to blame the microwave for changing the way I cook popcorn, I really can't. I have only my own laziness to blame, thinking that it was not only quicker but easier. In reality it isn't easier at all, just a very little bit quicker and a tiny bit less messy, but big deal, you have to wash a pot. I say that's a pretty good trade to help the environment and get rid of all that stuff they put in the microwave versions.

Now that I hopefully have you convinced how easy plain popcorn is, I'm going to kick it up a notch and cover it in a buttery toffee glaze. Indescribably delicious, this caramel corn is so much better than that stuff from the grocery store, you probably won't be able to eat anything else ever again. It does take a little bit of time with the boiling and baking, but the whole process is very easy and totally rewarding.

Caramel Corn

9 tablespoons vegetable or light olive oil, divided
1 cup popcorn kernels, divided
3/4 cup (1 - 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
1 - 1/2 cups lightly packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/3 cup light corn syrup
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

Place 4-1/2 tablespoons of oil in the bottom of a Dutch oven, set over medium high heat. Pour 1/2 cup of popcorn (This should cover the bottom of the Dutch oven in a single layer. If it is too much for your pot, pop the popcorn in three batches, using 3 tablespoons of oil and 1/3 cup popcorn at a time.). Cover the pan with a tight fitting lid. Once the popcorn starts to pop, crack the lid just a smidge to let the steam escape and shake it gently every 15 - 30 seconds or so.

Remove the pot from the heat once the popcorn stops popping. Transfer popped popcorn to a large roasting pan that has been sprayed with non-stick cooking spray. Repeat with the remaining oil and popcorn; set aside.

Place the butter in a large size saucepan that is set over medium high heat. Once butter is melted add the brown sugar, salt and corn syrup; stir to combine. Stirring frequently, bring the mixture to a boil. Stop stirring and reduce heat just slightly to maintain a rolling boil. Boil without stirring for a full 5 minutes.

After 5 minutes boiling time, carefully add the baking soda (mixture will increase in volume) and vanilla extract. Stirring constantly, boil for 1 minute longer.

Carefully drizzle the caramel over the top of the popcorn while stirring popcorn with a large spoon. Gently stir to coat as much of the popcorn as possible.

Place popcorn into the preheated oven and bake for 15 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes. At the end of 15 minutes, remove a spoonful of the popcorn and cool on the counter top. Taste test the popcorn once it is cool. If it is crunchy and not sticky it is ready, if not repeat until it is crunchy.

Transfer popcorn to cookie sheets or parchment paper that has been sprayed with non-stick cooking spray, gently separating clumps as you do. Cool and store in air tight containers.

This makes a bunch, so share with your friends. They'll love you for it.

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