A friend told me that she made caramel popcorn with M&Ms and Oreos in it, but that she hadn’t saved any for me because she was sure it was not the kind of thing I’d go for. She got me almost right. I like my M&Ms solo and my Oreos with milk. But I love caramel popcorn. You might even say that I owe my life to Cracker Jack, the most famous kind of caramel corn.
I was a college student and dating Michael Greenspan. We agreed that we would get married, but we disagreed on how we would get engaged. Michael wanted to declare, “We’re engaged!” and, shallow moi, I wanted to put a ring on it.
For a guy who was so easygoing, Michael stood firm on the no-ring policy, arguing for its uselessness and for the fact that neither one of us could afford a ring. But I persisted, and one day, when we were walking through Prospect Park in Brooklyn, we bought a box of Cracker Jack and I said, “If the prize in the box is a ring, I get a diamond.” He agreed. There was a ring. And I got it and a “real” one. Last month was our 9 millionth wedding anniversary. And there was caramel popcorn . . . homemade!
Homemade and just a little spicy. Our anniversary corn had a smidge of chipotle, a spice I didn’t even know was in the world when I was a 19-year-old bride.
I started out with brown sugar caramel and decided to add a little honey. After that, cinnamon seemed like a good idea and ground chipotle even better. Had there been kids in the house, I might have nixed the chipotle, and had my husband been a bit more of a chilihead, I might have upped it. Once I had the butter, brown sugar and honey proportions right, it was clear I could have fun with spices.
The caramel corn is ready to munch as soon as it’s cool, but I like taking the extra step of baking the corn — the oven time “sets” the crunch. That said, all bets are off if humidity is an issue. Got humidity? Don’t bother with the bake, and just eat the popcorn straight away.
■Start with plain popcorn. It can be salted, but it shouldn’t be flavored.
■You can use ready-made, store-bought or popped-from-kernels popcorn. (I’m a Newman’s Own popper.)
■You’ll have enough caramel to coat five to six cups of popcorn, about the amount you get from a microwave-popcorn pack. If you want to double the amount, you can, but if you’ll be baking the corn, use two baking sheets.
■I like to give the bowl that I use to mix the caramel and corn a spritz of cooking spray; ditto the spatulas I use for the mixing. I do that even if the spatulas are silicone. I even give the parchment I use to line the baking sheet a light spray. It’s a small step that cuts down on the frustration of having things stick.
■You must allow the butter, brown sugar and honey to boil until it turns the color of light mahogany. You can go darker if you’d like. My druthers is to cook the caramel until it just begins to smoke. (Ah, life on the edge.) You can test the color by putting a drop on a white plate. Remember, as with so many things in baking: Color = flavor.
■Remove the pan from the heat when you stir in the baking soda mix and be prepared for drama; there’ll be a whole lot of bubbling and seething going on, and that’s just what you want.
■Keep stirring the caramel and corn together until you get as even a coating as you can. This takes a minute longer than you might think. If the caramel cools (it probably won’t, but just in case), put the bowl in the preheated oven or hold it about six inches above a burner for a few seconds.
■Stir the corn every 20 minutes while it’s in the oven and bake for about one hour, then cool the popcorn on the baking sheet.
Have fun with this recipe. Play around with the spices. Add M&Ms and Oreos, if you’d like. And if you add a ring . . . let me know how it works out for you.
Greenspan will host her Just Ask Dorie chat from 1 to 2 p.m. Wednesday at live.washingtonpost.com.
Humidity will do this popcorn in, but you can always re-crisp it in a 250-degree oven for a few minutes. The popcorn will keep in a dry place for up to 2 days. It keeps best in a paper bag.
From cookbook author Dorie Greenspan.
6 cups popped plain popcorn (not buttered or flavored)
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt, or as needed
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon, or as needed
1/4 teaspoon ground chipotle pepper, or as needed
12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into chunks
3/4 cup packed light or dark brown sugar
3 tablespoons honey
Lightly coat a large metal mixing bowl with cooking oil spray and pour the popcorn into it. Have at hand two heatproof flexible spatulas (sprayed for extra slipperiness, if you like).
If you’re crisping the popcorn in the oven (see headnote), center a rack in the oven and preheat it to 250 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper (which you can spray very lightly, if you like) or a silicone baking mat.
Whisk together the baking soda, salt, cinnamon and chipotle in a small bowl.
Put the butter, sugar and honey in a medium saucepan over medium heat and cook, stirring frequently, until the butter and sugar are melted. Bring the mixture to a boil and let it cook at a boil for 3 to 5 minutes, stirring frequently, until it’s a light mahogany color (you can drop a bit on a white plate to see the color more easily). You might see a little smoke, and that’s fine.
Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the baking soda mixture. The caramel will bubble and seethe — it’s the baking soda at work — and that’s just what you want. Stir to make sure that everything is evenly incorporated, and then pour the caramel over the popcorn.
Working with the heatproof spatulas, turn the popcorn around until it’s covered with caramel. This takes a couple of minutes. Keep turning and, if your kitchen is cold and the caramel thickens, pop the bowl in the oven for a few minutes before continuing. You won’t get a perfectly even caramel coating, but you’ll come close.
Let the popcorn cool in the bowl before eating. Or, to crisp the popcorn in the oven, scrape the mixture onto the baking sheet and spread it out. Bake (250 degrees) for 40 to 50 minutes, turning the popcorn twice to make sure that nothing sticks and everything bakes evenly. The caramel may bubble and spread, but it will be fine once the corn is fully baked. Cool on the baking sheet.