Every year for Christmas, my husband’s maternal grandmother makes loads of her signature caramel corn, which she then bags up and hands out to everyone she knows. I’m an absolute fiend for the stuff, and greedily accept as many bags as she’s willing to give me. When we were visiting last summer, the talk turned to her caramel corn and my devout admiration. Like grandmas everywhere, she’s a thrifty soul who excels at squirreling away treasured keepsakes and toothsome goodies for a later date. She mentioned she happened to have a bag leftover from the holidays still in her pantry, and did I want it? Of course I did! In my opinion, stale popcorn (like Easter Peeps) only gets better over time. That caramel corn didn’t make it even halfway through our 10-hour drive home.
Lolly’s recipes are almost all stored cerebrally, and she’s not one for the internet, so I didn’t get her recipe in time to make it for Christmas. But with a free hour this weekend, I went ahead and made a big, glorious, golden, sugary batch. I had to adapt Lolly’s recipe slightly, since I don’t have an air-popper or a microwave at my disposal. It’s important to use air-pop rather than a buttery microwave or oily stovetop version since the caramel needs a non-greasy surface to cleanly adhere to. I ended up using two 4-oz. bags of purchased lite popcorn; either Skinny Pop™ or Naked Popcorn™ brands work well. If you’re used to grumbling, like me, about how gross and tasteless lite/fat-free popcorn is, just remember that you’re about to pour a million calories of fat and sugar over top of it, so maybe it’s not such a bad idea starting your base ingredient at the absolute caloric minimum.
Lolly’s Caramel Corn
makes: 8 qts.
2 cups light brown sugar
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1 cup butter
1/4 tsp. cream of tartar
1 1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla
8 oz. air-popped popcorn
1. Preheat oven to 250° with racks in upper and lower thirds. Line two large rimmed baking sheets with foil, making sure you have a 2-inch overhanging border on all sides. Spray foil with non-stick spray, divide popcorn evenly between trays and set aside.
2. Combine sugar, corn syrup, butter, cream of tartar and salt in a deep heavy-bottomed pot over high heat. Cook until a candy thermometer registers 260°, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla, being careful to avoid spatters. Carefully pour caramel over popcorn on prepared trays, using a silicone spatula to scrape all caramel from the pot. Still using the spatula, gently fold caramel into popcorn and spread coated corn evenly on trays.
3. Place trays in oven for 25-30 minutes. Remove and stir popcorn once again to evenly coat. Cool completely and break caramel corn into bite-size chunks. Store in an air-tight container at room temperature up to two weeks (or possibly even longer if you have the will-power to make it last).
Note: Once again, I’d just like to say a cautionary word about the risks of working with caramel, and stress the importance of wearing long sleeves and gloves to protect against accidental spatters and drips. Molten sugar burns are no joke, so be extra careful, don’t rush, and avoid letting the stuff get anywhere near your precious self.