Kernel Wisdom

Spices and skillet skills make popcorn the star of your Academy Awards bash

February 24, 2012

Raspberry and White Chocolate Popcorn (recipe follows story)

There is an element of unpredictability to the Oscars. Will Billy Crystal fill out a tux as well as James Franco? If Meryl Streep wins, will Rooney Mara take her down with a golf club? Can a silent movie dominate a ceremony where people can’t stop talking? Still, there is one guarantee: The night will go long. That’s why we’d recommend serving up a few bowls of homemade gourmet popcorn before the epic telecast begins.

For a top pop, start with killer kernels. Corporate chef Joe Goetze at Founding Farmers (1924 Pennsylvania Ave. NW; 202-822-8783) uses so-called “mushroom” popcorn in his restaurant’s rotating menu of popcorn flavors (salt and vinegar; barbecue spice; ranch). The kernels puff up to twice the size of your average Orville Redenbacher ones. The bigger, more toothsome variety is sold at gourmet supermarkets such as Wegmans and Whole Foods, or online at sites such as Popcorncounty.com.

To make the best bowl of corn, use a flat-bottomed pan or skillet with a tight-fitting lid (sorry, microwave!). Woks and other curved cookware don’t work well, because the kernels clump together at the bottom and heat doesn’t distribute evenly.

No matter what sort of strange butter substitutes you’ve tasted at the movies, at home, your popcorn should use a good oil. Westend Bistro’s (1190 22 St. NW; 202-974-4900) chef de cuisine, Joe Palma, who features a well-loved truffled popcorn on his bar bites menu, prefers canola or peanut oil, because they have high smoke points. “The hotter you can get your oil, the quicker the kernels are going to pop,” he says. “That way they soak up less oil and don’t get soggy.” Coconut, sunflower or pumpkin seed oil are also good choices.

Whichever one you choose, you need only one or two tablespoons of it. Make sure the bottom of your pan is thinly coated before you turn the burner to a medium-high heat. Hannah Miles, author of “Popcorn Treats” ($16, Ryland Peters & Small), recommends putting a few kernels in while the oil is still cold. When they blossom with a bang, you know you’ve hit the right temperature for top popping.

Once you’re primed to pop, put in about 1/2 cup of kernels (serves two to four) and put the lid on lockdown. Give the pan a quick shake to coat the kernels with oil, then shake it every 30 seconds to circulate the contents. Since you can’t see what you’re cooking, perk up your ears. First the stuff will pop slowly, then there will be an intense burst of activity, and then it will start to peter off. Take your pan off the heat when it gets down to five seconds between pops. “But leave the lid on for another minute or so, because some will still pop,” Miles says. “You don’t want them firing off around the kitchen.”

Then it’s time to season your popcorn. The first addition should always be freshly melted salted butter (about 1/3 cup), which helps other ingredients stick. From there you can go sweet or a savory, or kettle corn style (both).

Miles likes bringing together several ingredients so you don’t get a one-note snack. Her Paprika Smoky Bacon Popcorn (see sidebar) includes porky pieces, a dusting of paprika, sharp shredded cheddar and ground black pepper, while her Raspberry and White Chocolate Popcorn (see recipe sidebar) incorporates tangy raspberry powder, sweet chocolate chips and a dash of aromatic vanilla extract.

Or you can keep it super-simple. For maximum taste with minimum of effort, Amanda McClements of Metrocurean recommends sprinkling on some nutritional yeast flakes, which are available at Whole Foods or online at Amazon.com. “It has this very savory, umami flavor,” she says. “It tastes like a cross between soy and Parmesan cheese.”

Her other go-to toppings when she’s feeling lazy include a smattering of truffle salt (“a little goes a very long way”), a drizzle of soy sauce or a shower of pre-mixed powdered meat rub. No matter how you top your pop though, it’s guaranteed to be a winner, no matter how late your party runs.


Urban Accents' Popcorn Lovers Collection

Pop Secrets

When you feel so slothful that you barely have the energy to put on your Forever Lazy onesie and hit the couch, these treats will give you a popcorn fix without much fuss.

Popcorn Lovers Collection: ($21, Urban Accents) This kit includes supplies for gourmet popcorn: kernels, powdered toppings (sweet and salty kettlecorn; white cheddar; dill pickle) and popcorn boxes. If you’re feeling especially lethargic, you can always microwave a bag of Orville Redenbacher and shake on one of the seasonings.

PorKorn: Bayou Bakery ($4, 1515 N. Courthouse Road, Arlington; 703-243-2410) There’s an old American saying: “Everything goes better with bacon.” To ensure you get your daily dose of swine, chef-owner David Guas created this sweet-savory caramel popcorn laced with pieces of porker, peanuts and a dash of cayenne.

Buttered Popcorn Jelly Beans: ($8.99, Jelly Belly) You don’t even need to put a bag in the microwave and press a button to enjoy these yellow and ivory swirled jelly beans, which taste like a slightly sweeter version of movie popcorn without that greasy residue you know from the multiplex.

Paprika Smoky Bacon Popcorn

1⁄2 cup crispy smoked bacon pieces/real bacon bits
1–2 tablespoons sunflower or vegetable oil
1⁄3 cup popcorn kernels
5 tablespoons butter
2 teaspoons smoked Spanish paprika (pimentón)
freshly ground black pepper
1⁄3 cup grated cheddar cheese, to serve (optional)

In a food processor, blitz the crispy smoked bacon pieces/real bacon bits to a fine powder and set aside. Follow the advice in the story to pop the popcorn. Melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Pour over the warm popcorn. Sprinkle on bacon powder and paprika, and stir well to evenly coat. Season to taste with black pepper. Add the cheese, if using, while the popcorn is still warm. Serve warm or cold. Makes one large bowl.

Raspberry and White Chocolate Popcorn

1–2 tablespoons sunflower or vegetable oil
1⁄3 cup popcorn kernels
1⁄2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 tablespoons freeze-dried raspberry powder *
1⁄2 cup white chocolate chips

Follow the advice in the story to pop the popcorn. For the topping, melt the butter in a small saucepan and add the vanilla extract. Pour the butter over the popcorn and stir well until evenly coated. Sprinkle over the raspberry powder and stir in the white chocolate chips while the popcorn is still warm so that the chocolate melts into the popcorn. This popcorn can be eaten warm or cold. Makes one large bowl.

* Freeze-dried raspberry powder is available from health food shops and online. Or, to make your own, dry raspberries in an oven set to a very low temperature for about six to eight hours. Then pulse them to a fine powder in a blender.

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