Can a person have too many popcorn epiphanies?
I had my first last year, when Los Angeles chef Jessica Koslow taught me that using more oil than corn kernels yielded the best-textured, crunchiest popcorn.
But my latest revelation came a few months ago, when I sampled a caramel popcorn that was superior — lighter, crisper, more caramelized — to any I’d had before. It made me completely rethink my tepid appreciation of the stuff.
Maybe it was because I didn’t grow up eating Cracker Jack at baseball games or making popcorn balls, but, to me, caramel corn was the kind of thing best left to stick in other people’s teeth. I’d eat it if it was the only sweet thing around, but not enthusiastically.
Not so this batch. It had a delicate, candy-like crunch, the thinnest layer of toffee covering the crevices and contours of each fluffy kernel. Then, as you bit down, the coating shattered, and the popcorn dissolved. It wasn’t soggy or chewy or gummy. It was perfect.
The secret, I learned, was adding a bit of baking soda to the caramel. The baking soda reacts with the acid in the recipe (i.e., brown sugar) to create an airier, more brittle texture that’s not as sticky as the recipes without it. The charms of caramel corn finally made sense.
Naturally, when coming up with my own caramel corn recipe, I knew that adding baking soda would be key, but I also decided to nix the usual corn syrup, which doesn’t have that much flavor on its own. The easiest swap was another liquid sugar with more personality, like honey or maple syrup. I chose maple syrup because it’s slightly less sweet than honey, and gets on well with the pecans I also tossed into the bowl. (Cracker Jack fans can substitute roasted, salted peanuts.)
Finally, to make sure that every nut and corn kernel was blanketed in sweetness, I increased the amount of buttery caramel poured over the mix.
It baked up into a crackling, sugary, salty bliss that was impossible to stop devouring. It would make an excellent gift, though you should double the recipe if you want any left for your own personal snacking. And if you love caramel corn as much as I do now, you absolutely will.