Monday, December 19, 2011

Caramel Corn

Our house smelled like a carnival on a Saturday night. Not the dodgy area of a carnival where the gas generators are belching out smoke to keep the Tilt-A-Whirl going and you find row upon row of Port-A-Pottys. And certainly not the part where you can hitch a ride on a pony or pet a goat. Our house smelled like the concession area of a carnival where you can enjoy fresh-squeezed lemonade, bright pink candy floss and sweet, sticky caramel corn.

 I've had this caramel corn recipe bookmarked on my iPad for months just waiting for Christmas. I thought it would be fun to give away to my office-mates. I love receiving home-made gifts at Christmas. Since I can't knit or sew or craft my only option when it comes to giving home-made Christmas cheer is food.

This recipe starts with popcorn, of course. You need 10 cups of it, lightly salted. (You can use bags of microwave popcorn but go for 'natural' flavoured versus buttered.) I actually make popcorn in the microwave using small paper lunch bags. I pour in enough popcorn to cover the bottom of the bag, fold over the top of the bag a couple of times then microwave for about 2 minutes. I did two bags like this and ended up with the required 10 cups of popcorn. Once your popcorn is popped and lightly salted, it should be placed in a large mixing bowl that is lightly coated with cooking spray. Now you can move on to the caramel part of the process.

Caramel is all about sugar and butter. Add a little salt and some heat and bam - you've got caramel. The heat component requires a good candy thermometer (or, if you have one a Thermapen, which I just happened to receive for my birthday). Once you've reached the desired temperature (250F) you toss in some baking soda and vanilla then coat your popcorn with the luxurious result. And just when you think your kitchen is the sweetest smelling place on the planet, it gets sweeter because you spread your now coated popcorn onto a baking sheet and let it bake for 1 hour in a 250F oven. The sugary-sweet perfume that slowly wafts through the house will cause children to put down their gaming devices and husbands to put down their newspapers to come ask 'what's that amazing smell?'.

If you are wise, you will immediately pack this caramel corn into gift bags for giving. Otherwise you will eat the entire batch yourself.

Caramel Corn, from Orangette

1 (3½-ounce) package plain (unbuttered natural flavor) microwave popcorn, or about 10 cups fresh popcorn popped by any method, lightly salted
1 cup packed light brown sugar
¼ cup light corn syrup
6 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
¼ tsp. salt
½ tsp. baking soda
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 cup lightly salted peanuts, roughly chopped

Preheat the oven to 250°F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.

If using microwave popcorn, pop the popcorn according to the package instructions. Coat a large mixing bowl with nonstick cooking spray, and dump the popcorn into the bowl, taking care to pick out and discard any unpopped kernels.

In a medium saucepan, whisk together the brown sugar, corn syrup, butter, salt, and 2 tablespoons of water. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Continue to simmer, whisking often, until the mixture reads 250°F on a candy thermometer, about 3 to 4 minutes. Immediately remove the pan from the heat, and whisk in the baking soda and vanilla. Quickly pour the hot caramel over the popcorn. Use a rubber spatula to gently fold the caramel into the popcorn, taking care to distribute it as evenly as you can. Stir in the peanuts, and transfer the mixture to the prepared baking sheet. Bake for 1 hour, stirring and turning the popcorn with a spatula every 20 minutes. Remove from the oven, and place on a cooling rack for 20 minutes. Gently break up the popcorn, and serve.

Store in an airtight container for up to 5 days (or thereabouts).

Yield: about 10 cups

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