A few years ago as a Valentine’s Day gift for my husband, I got him “bottomless popcorn-and-a-movie” (a Netflix subscription, an air popper, and two bags of popcorn kernels). It was a fun idea, I thought, until I realized that my husband loves really terrible movies. Really. Terrible.
It was about three days later that we got separate queues. Crisis averted.
Occasionally our movie tastes collide and we both want to watch the same movie, and that happened this week. My husband suggested making popcorn and watching it together, and I countered with something better:
Caramel corn! I had seen recipes popping up a few different places and finally caved in to the pressure.
My husband even helped by popping the popcorn while I prepared the caramel. No process photos because caramel is hot like lava and as delicious as this caramel corn is, it was not worth risking serious burns to take pictures while I made it.
Having made caramel several times for other recipes, it doesn’t scare me, but I did get a little distracted by the crazy chemical reaction when baking soda is added to the caramel before pouring it over the popcorn. According to Deb at Smitten Kitchen, the baking soda “makes the caramel airier and less brittle.” While I have experienced caramel bubbling and frothing when water is added at the end, I was impressed when the caramel foamed and expanded dramatically with the addition of baking soda. It also changed the color to an almost-alarming shade of orangey-brown that surprised me, but I may have just let my caramel get darker than recommended. My intrigue lasted about 10 seconds too long because I was marveling at the caramel instead of pouring it over my caramel corn. It was fine, I just had a few chunks of “popcorn brittle” where the caramel cooled in large pieces.
The original recipe calls for peanuts, but I decided to go a little fancier (read: I didn’t have that many peanuts) and combine peanuts, almonds, and pecans. It also called for a sweet-salty-spicy combo of caramel with salt and cayenne pepper, but the purist I married decided that cayenne would be too much. He also didn’t think it needed almonds, but he was over-ruled because almonds are both delicious and good for you.
The original recipe calls for 1/2 cup of un-popped corn popped on the stove. I popped about 3/4 cup of kernels in an air-popper and I still had plenty of caramel to go around.
It turned out really well. Even with my sweet tooth, I could only eat about a handful before I was sugared out. It made me glad I had extra popcorn, so I changed the amount for the recipe below.
Spray oil or vegetable oil
3/4 cup popcorn kernels, popped via your preferred method
2 cups chopped nuts (optional; I used peanuts, almonds, and pecans)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
3 cups sugar
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon kosher or other coarse salt
1/2 cup water
1.) Lightly spray or coat two large baking sheets, a large bowl, and two rubber spatulas with oil. Place popped corn (un-popped kernels removed) in the large bowl. Toss with nuts if using.
2.) Measure out baking soda and set nearby. In a medium saucepan, combine sugar, salt, butter, and water. Cook over high heat without stirring. Mixture will boil. After about 10 minutes or so, the mixture will turn a golden caramel color.
3.) Remove pan from heat and whisk in the baking soda — it will bubble up considerably. Instead of marveling over how cool it is, immediately pour the caramel over the popcorn and nuts. Carefully use the spatulas to “toss” the popcorn and caramel like a salad.
4.) When popcorn is somewhat evenly coated with caramel, divide the caramel corn onto the baking sheets and break apart into smaller pieces before it cools. Let cool about 15 minutes (to room temperature) before eating. Caramel corn will keep up to two weeks in an airtight container.