Caramel corn. This may be an unpopular opinion, but I’ve never liked it. It is usually tooth-achingly sweet: the caramel doesn’t taste like caramel as much as it does plain sugar. And it is so, so sticky: you can’t eat it without it getting stuck in and between your teeth. Plus, it always seems to come in a ball the size of my fist. Do you take a bite straight off the side and risk getting all of your teeth stuck to the whole thing? Try to break it apart, making your hands sticky through multiple hand washings?
So, I’ve always taken a pass.
But then I found myself home alone with a sweet tooth and no chocolate in the house (the horror!). I did, however, have plenty of popcorn kernels. Then I remembered a caramel corn recipe I’d seen in one of my favorite cookbooks. Skeptical but desperate (again: no chocolate), I set to work.
And here, I was pleasantly surprised. The caramel corn is nutty, but not peanut butter-y; sweet, but not painfully so; and nice and warm from the cinnamon. It gets baked in a pan and broken apart, whereupon it shatters in an extremely satisfying manner. And it’s not very sticky at all, striking a balance somewhere between typical caramel baseball and the crunch of cracker jack.
I ate this by myself while watching a movie after dinner. But I can see it featuring in a pretty bowl at a holiday party or being wrapped up in cellophane and tied with a ribbon for little gifts for friends or colleagues.
Nutty spiced caramel corn (makes two baking trays’ worth)
Adapted from Amy Chaplin’s At Home in the Whole Food Kitchen
12 cups freshly popped popcorn (see note below)
1 cup corn syrup (light or dark) or brown rice syrup
6 tablespoons natural peanut butter (or any nut butter)
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
3 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon, plus more to sprinkle
Preheat oven to 350F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper or silat and set aside.
Place popcorn in a large mixing bowl; set aside.
Add corn syrup to a small pot over medium heat, and bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to low and cook for 2 minutes, stirring frequently. (You can also save a pot and do this in a large bowl in the microwave.) Remove from heat, and add cashew butter, salt, vanilla, and cinnamon; mix until smooth. Pour mixture over popcorn, and mix well to combine.
Spread over lined baking sheet and bake for 6 minutes; rotate tray, and continue baking for 2 to 3 more minutes (watch closely as the caramel burns fast). Remove from oven, and sprinkle with additional cinnamon. Allow to cool completely before breaking into pieces.
If you have any left over, it can be stored in an airtight container for 3-4 days.
Note: For 12 cups popcorn, you need to cook about 1/2 cup popcorn kernels. Warm 2 teaspoons neutral oil (such as canola) in a large lidded pot over high heat. Add popcorn and cover immediately; shake pot to coat corn with oil. Continue shaking pot until corn is popping rapidly, then lower heat slightly. Once popping slows to about 2 seconds between pops, remove from heat, shake again, and keep covered until all popping has stopped. Remove lid and use within an hour or so, as popcorn becomes stale quickly.