A decade or so ago, I was stuck at an airport, hungry and looking for something sugary. I believe it was San Francisco Airport, which has the little See’s Candy booth in the United departure area; they had bags of caramel corn and it wasn’t bad.
When I got home, I started thinking maybe I’d make some of my own for christmas gifting. So I looked around for some recipes and decided to try one that I found. But the results were unsatisfactory – there was a lot of brown sugar and corn syrup in the recipe and the caramel corn came out like Cracker Jack. I loved Cracker Jack when I was a kid but I instinctively figured out that, as a bulk-produced retail product for kids, it was probably made with the most inexpensive (hence: nastiest) stuff possible.
My usual approach when I am not sure of a recipe is to research a bunch of variants and look at the relative ratios of the key ingredients, and to see if one recipe or another has a particular ingredient. For example, if I notice that one recipe is made with (proportionally) 10% butter to sugar, and another is 10% Crisco to sugar, I begin to figure out the overall fat ratio to sugar ratio, then I normalize all my quantities for a certain size batch and see what looks right. Then I think about whether I want to try any experiments, and make some test batches. Sometimes, it’s a pain in the neck; when I figured out my Loukoum (Turkish Delight) recipe, I made about 10 batches (using reduced amounts of ingredients) that failed for various reasons. But: the scientific method prevails!
In the case of the caramel corn recipe, I didn’t want it to be as brown-sugary or as prone to getting gooey as the first recipe I tried. That meant backing off the the corn syrup and using hard fats (butter) instead of a mix of vegetable oil and butter. In the process of adjusting my recipe, I made it much more decadent. I replaced all the fats with butter and went with a classic confectioner’s caramel instead of the corn syrup, for a considerable amount of the corn syrup’s contribution. The hard fats and crunch caramel give an entirely different texture. That’s the good news. The bad news is that you get to make one caramel with your left hand, another with your right, and mix them together at the critical time. Trust me, it’s worth it.
This is a great project for cooperative play. One of you makes each of the caramels. Coordinate so you don’t get caramel on eachother. I can’t emphasize this enough: sugar burns are extremely unpleasant.
Things you’ll need:
- 2 pans to melt caramel in. I use a 1/2 gallon saucepan and a 2 gallon saucepan. Don’t try this in small pans; a boil-over of caramel is not something you want to clean up; in fact it can send you to the hospital
- A big canning pot . I use a 5 gallon one. You’re going to do all your big stirring and combining in this.
- 2 long-handled wooden stirring spoons
- 1 long-handled and strong stirring paddle
- 6 quarts of popped corn (use an air popper; do not butter or salt it)
- 2 cups of light brown sugar
- 1/2 cup of clear corn syrup
- 1/2 lb butter
- 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 cup pure white sugar
- 1/4 cup water
- 1/2 pound of roasted (lightly salted) cashews – to taste. Alternately, good un-oiled peanuts
- stay-dry packets, if you plan to bag and store any of the caramel corn [amazn]
- (Optional, 1lb of semisweet dark chocolate, to be melted and drizzled over top)
Put the popped corn in the big canning pot. Have a big (strong! carmel takes force to stir!) heat-resistant spoon to stir it with sitting nearby. I use a wooden spoon and have broken 2 so far. Nowadays I use a big bamboo stirring spoon that can pretty much lever a truck off the ground.
Pour the cashews into the popcorn pot. Do not stir them in. This way, when you add the caramel, it’ll hit the cashews first and cover them first. Yum!
Have a plan for what you are going to do if you manage to set the boiling sugar on fire. Do not pour it into the sink. It holds heat incredibly well. Do not – whatever you do – get it on yourself or you will be on your way to the emergency room with a potentially life-threatening injury. If anything happens like a pan gets knocked over, just get out of the way. Keep lids for both caramel pans handy by the stove: if there’s a fire, just cover the pan, take it off the heat and take it outside and pour the pan out onto something that can take the heat, e.g: those weeds you wanted to set fire to, or your neighbor’s lawn gnome. I once burned a batch of caramel and put it in a cardboard box on the porch. Turns out that it melted a hole right through the composite porch-floor and there was a cardboard box full of sugar for the ants and mice to have a field day with. Your best plan is not to set the sugar on fire. You should have a Plan B.
[update: keep the nuts aside.]
Put the baking soda in a spoon near the stove, ready for use. When you need it, you won’t have time to fumble for it.
When you get to the carmelizing, you will not have time to read directions. Read them now, think about them, and just Do It.
Put the butter, corn syrup, brown sugar, cream of tartar, and salt in the 2 gallon saucepan and melt it at medium temperature. While it’s doing that, go to the next step (below)…
Put the pure white sugar and the 1/4 cup water in the 1/2 gallon saucepan and heat at high heat, stirring constantly. In this pan you are going to be making a hard-crack light brown caramel. It’s heat-sensitive and touchy. Spend most of your attention on this pan. It should begin to boil rapidly. Once it begins to boil rapidly bring the other pan (with the brown sugar in it) to a rapid boil also.
It will take 10 minutes or so for the white sugar to begin to caramelize (depending on the heat and your stirring) and it will take 15 minutes or so for the brown sugar/butter to begin to caramelize. What you’re going to do is caramelize the white sugar and add it to the brown sugar mix. Trust me, this works great.
Stir both pans constantly but pay more attention to the pan with the white sugar in it. The sugar will begin to carmelize and will turn a kind of light straw-color when it starts.
You’re almost there and you need to be particularly careful of it and keep stirring. As soon as the white sugar caramel turns about the color of light (or dark depending on your taste) oak, pour it into the saucepan with the brown sugar caramel (which presumably you have also been remembering to stir, and which should be boiling merrily as well). Stir the brown sugar caramel as you’re pouring in the white sugar caramel! Be careful, when you mix the caramels the mixture will expand violently and might boil over if you don’t keep stirring.
I actually did the pour one-handed while I shot that with my iPhone. That was stupid, but it worked.
Mix/stir the combined caramels to about 260degrees / hard ball stage. It should start to take on a “boiling lava” appearance and if you pull the spoon out it’ll begin to make strings as the drips come off it.
[update: now put the nuts in the caramel, stir them thoroughly until they are coated and let them exchange some flavor with the caramel.]
I don’t have any pictures of what it looks like mixing the caramel into the popcorn – you have to do that quick;y and the caramel begins to set up fairly fast. This is where you need a big strong spoon. Try to get everything coated as completely as you can. When it’s done, I turn it out into a great big turkey roasting pan. Baking trays will also work.
Put it in the oven and let it cure for an hour at 100 degrees F. What you’re doing is driving out any residual moisture. You need to keep this stuff fairly dry or it will revert to goo.
If you’re feeling exceptionally decadent you can melt some good semi-sweet chocolate and drizzle it in thick blobs over the caramel corn. It’s really good, but it’s almost overkill.
When it’s cured, I usually break it up into chunks and put them in ziploc bags with little stay-dry packets.
You are going to wind up with 2 pans full of congealed caramel. It is difficult to remove, but there one technique: The Taoist Way. Caramel is sugar and dissolves in water as long as there is a diffusion gradient. So, what you need to do is put your pan under the faucet with just a little dribble of water going into it, and leave it for 15 minutes or so. If you want to stir, go ahead, but it doesn’t really make a difference. You just need to wait the stuff out. Heat won’t make much difference, stirring won’t make much difference – just time and a dribble of water.
Please don’t sell this stuff.
Is anyone interested in Loukoum? I would need to make a batch so I have photographs, which would mean … someone would get turkish delight. It’s a really hard recipe. If you think this one is tricky, turkish delight is much more technical. On the other hand, it’s not every day you get to make the original sugar “gum drop” and you get to mix polymerized corn starch with caramelized sugar! Oh, what could possibly go wrong?