Caramel Corn

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Caramel Corn 33

I’ve been experimenting quite a bit recently with caramel (not “carmel”, like Newfoundlanders and many Americans call it, that drives me bonkers) corn — something to which I am entirely addicted, but usually too lazy to make.  I think I’ve finally come up with a recipe I like, however, so now you can have it.  This version is plain jane, but feel free to jazz it up with chopped salted nuts for extra pizzazz.

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First, start with 10 cups popped popcorn.  This is generally about 1 cup of the unpopped stuff.  We don’t have an air popper here, and I’m afraid of the chemicals in microwave packets, so I’ll let you in on how I make my own popcorn (when I’m not doing it this way).  Take about 1/3 cup of popcorn and plop it in the bottom of a brown paper lunch bag.

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Fold the top edge down once and then again, over itself.

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Put that on its side in your microwave and cook away.  Every microwave is different when it comes to popcorn, but I’ve found that on mine, cooking it for 2 minutes and 35 seconds on power level 9 (out of 10) pops nearly every kernel, every time, without burning anything.  Make sure to save people’s teeth by sifting out all the unpopped kernels before you use this stuff.

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Now, preheat your oven to 250°F and spray a large roasting pan.  I used the one I save for turkey time.  You could also use a large metal bowl if that’s all you have. Plop your popcorn in the roasting pan for now.

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Scrounge around and find yourself a wooden spoon (always preferable to metal in candy making), a spatula, a whisk, and a candy thermometer.  Keep those all handy.

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Find a large pot, too, and plop in 1 cup butter, 2 cups brown sugar, 1/2 cup corn syrup (any colour, doesn’t matter), and 1/2 teaspoon salt.

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On the side, have two small dishes ready with 1/2 teaspoon baking soda and 2 teaspoons vanilla.

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Bring the contents of the pot to a boil, stirring often, and clip the candy thermometer to the side. The reason you use the wooden spoon here is because sugar crystallizes more quickly on metal than wood, and crystallization is not what you want at this particular juncture.

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Once the mixture starts boiling, stir it constantly for 1 minute.

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Then take the spoon out and let it boil on its own for 5 minutes.  It’s going to boil up pretty high, so make sure you use a large pot for this. At this point, your candy thermometer should be reading 250°F, which is the magic number for the hard ball stage — exactly what we want.

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Turn off the heat and stir your mixture for about a minute.  Then remove it entirely from the heat.

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Whisk in your vanilla and baking soda.  It will fizz up, so be careful.  See how the texture and colour has changed?  Well, you can’t in that photo because it’s a terrible photo, but it will become smooth and a light opaque brown almost immediately. Keep whisking until it more or less stops fizzing.

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Slowly and in a controlled stream, pour your caramel over your waiting popcorn, mixing with a spatula.  Don’t worry if you don’t get it entirely incorporated.

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I suggest leaving all your caramel tools soaking in hot water for a few minutes.  It makes cleanup so much easier.

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Pop the roasting pan filled with popcorn in the oven and bake it for an hour, stirring it all over every 15 minutes.  While the caramel had started to harden on you before you stuck it in there, baking it at this low heat enables it to ooze all over the place and cover everything evenly.

So when you’re stirring, make sure to scrape the bottom of the pan, because you will always find a nice puddle of caramel down there.

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Spread a counter with waxed paper and spray it, too.  Once the hour is up, take the pan from the oven and spread the popcorn in a thin layer on the waxed paper to cool. Squish it down with your spatula to spread it out. Doing that now will make it both cool faster and be easier to separate after it’s cooled.

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Once it has fully cooled, break it up into pieces and store it in a sealed container for up to a few days.

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Or package it in wee bags for a bake sale, which is what I did.

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I found the “Hello” stickers lying around in my office supply cupboard.  I figured what the heck, eh?

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MUGS Bake Sale 1

The Perfect Pop

The Perfect Pop

One of my research participants told me about this method of popping corn.  It was a cold night in January and we would both rather be elsewhere — in this particular situation, we would both rather be home in front of the fire, digging into a book we’d both started reading at the same time, and stuffing our faces with popcorn.  She told me about this new/old method she’d re-discovered: the art of cooking popcorn on the stove top.

We’d had an air-popper growing up, which was fun to watch, but noisy, and when you poured the melted butter over the popcorn you often ended up with soggy popcorn in some places and no butter at all in others.  The flavour-distribution method needed work.

Then of course there are the microwave popcorns, which always seem to leave a weird film on my teeth and which all taste (to me) faintly of chemicals.  I’m also not a huge fan of using the microwave, unless it’s to melt butter for baking or heat up my tea.

Everyone has their own method for making popcorn on the stove, and I tried a bunch of them (including the method prescribed by my research participant).  The best and simplest method I came up with was a combination of her recipe, this one, and this one.  You should definitely test out different approaches to see which works best for you, your stove, and your pots and pans.

So.  Take yourself a large saucepan with a lid (the amounts below will give you about 12 cups of popcorn).

Add 1/4 cup vegetable oil to the bottom (anything with a high smoke point will do, like canola, sunflower, peanut, or grapeseed.  I like to use peanut oil because I think it tastes better on the popcorn).  Place over medium heat and let it get nice and toasty.

The Perfect Pop

Plop 3 or 4 kernels of popping corn (my research participant tells me that No-Name brand kernels are terrible for popping this way, so use another brand if you can) into the pan and cover with a lid.  When you hear the kernels pop (you use more than one in case that one is a dud), you know the oil is hot enough for popping.

The Perfect Pop

Pour in 1/2 cup popping corn.  For a sweet treat, add 1/4 cup sugar as well (if you use white sugar it tastes like candy corn, and if you use brown sugar, it’s like caramel corn).  For a salty taste, add in 2 tablespoons salt instead.

The Perfect Pop

Stir it all really well, cover, and remove it from the heat.  Wait for 30 seconds.  This brings all the kernels up to the same, almost-popping temperature.

The Perfect Pop

Put the pan back on the heat.  Very shortly thereafter the corn should start popping like crazy, and all at once.  Keep the pan covered but leave the lid slightly ajar to let the steam escape, and every few seconds, give the pan a shake back and forth on the burner to keep the popped kernels from burning.  When you get to the point where there are about 2-3 seconds between pops, it’s time to take the pan off the heat.

The Perfect Pop

Pour the popped corn into a large bowl.  If you used sugar, allow the corn to cool slightly (so you don’t burn your tongue), and break up the large clumps with a spoon.   Then feel free to gorge yourself silly.  I did find that the sugar version has a slightly smaller yield, and I think that has something to do with the stickiness of the sugar tamping down the explosive properties of the corn.

The Perfect Pop

Some of the kernels got caramelized before they’d reached their full potential.  But perhaps I just didn’t stir it well enough.

The Perfect Pop