Yesterday was brutally cold and windy in New York City and although I generally tune out when people complain about being bored, I was. I admit it. Jacob and I take a walk somewhere, anywhere — seriously, I may or may not have used “Let’s go buy mama some bourbon!” as an excuse to leave the apartment one recent day — everyday. Even if it is cold; that’s what the snowsuit and hat and footmuff and knit blanket (“We lost the baby!”) are for, right?
It turned out to be an excellent idea. I had intended to make this Spicy Caramel Popcorn from The Craft of Baking in the whirl of holiday gift-worthy treats but talked myself out of it after it seemed everywhere I clicked, another drool-worthy take on caramel popcorn appeared. I guess it is having a moment, huh? I haven’t tried those other recipes so I cannot compare them, I can only tell you that this here is good, very good. And very surprising.
It is salty. And spicy. The caramel isn’t accented with salt and heat, it is balanced with it; they’re all equal players out on the field. And the peanuts make you feel like you’re eating Cracker Jacks, for grown-ups. Minus the prize, that is, unless you went on a bourbon run too.
One year ago: Sugar-and-Spice Candied Nuts Oh you should really make these too!
Spicy Caramel Popcorn
Adapted from The Craft of Baking
This is a salty, spicy grown-up caramel popcorn — the taste will surprise you if you are expecting traditional caramel popcorn, and may delight you if you were never into the original.
That said, you might want to dial back both the spice and the salt a little, which is why I include the amounts in a range below. For example, DeMasco suggests using 1 1/2 tablespoons of Kosher salt, I used coarse sea salt instead, which is actually a little less salty, and still found the end result to be quite salty. It is harder to advise you on cayenne levels, as the amount you want to use will hinge on two factors: how much heat your jar of cayenne packs and how much heat you like in your food. The last time you used the suggested amount in a recipe, did it blow the roof of your mouth off, despite the fact that you actually like food with a kick? Mine has, many times, so I measured conservatively.
Want to make a traditional caramel popcorn with no spice or nuts? Just skip the cayenne and peanuts and use only a pinch of salt.
Note: Your volumes will look different from mine in the pictures because I only made a half-batch. Yes, I regretted it.
Makes 4 quarts
Nonstick cooking spray or vegetable oil
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 cup popcorn kernels
2 cups salted peanuts (optional)
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/4 to 3/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (see Note)
3 cups sugar
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons kosher or coarse sea salt (see Note)
Lightly coat two large, heatproof rubber spatulas, a very large mixing bowl and two large baking sheets with nonstick cooking spray or a thin slick of oil.
In a large saucepan or pot with a lid, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Add the popcorn kernels, cover and keep the saucepan moving until all of the kernels have popped, about 5 minutes. Transfer to the prepared bowl, removing any unpopped kernels. Toss with salted peanuts, if using.
In a small bowl, whisk together the baking soda and cayenne pepper.
Have the two large baking sheets ready. In a medium saucepan, combine the sugar, butter, salt and 1/2 cup water. Cook over high heat, without stirring, until the mixture becomes a light golden-yellow caramel, 10 to 14 minutes. Remove from the heat and carefully whisk in the baking-soda mixture (the mixture will bubble up).
Immediately pour the caramel mixture over the popcorn and don’t fuss if it doesn’t all come out of the pot — you’ll have plenty. Working quickly and carefully, use the prepared spatulas to toss the caramel and popcorn together, as if you were tossing a salad, until the popcorn is well coated.
Spread the popcorn onto the baking sheets and quickly separate them into small pieces while still warm. Cool to room temperature, about 15 minutes. Once cool, store in an airtight container for up to two weeks or two minutes, if you’ve got a family like mine.