Back in the days when we were still allowed to bring homemade treats to school for holiday parties, my mom would make honey butter popcorn. She would pop enough corn to fill a clean brown paper grocery bag, and boil brown sugar, honey, butter, and vanilla extract together.
When it was thick, she’d pour the hot syrup over the popcorn, tossing vigorously with a long handled wooden spoon. The popcorn would also get a generous sprinkling of salt as she stirred the syrup in. As soon as the coated corn wasn’t molten hot, we’d be allowed a few tastes.
When it was cooled enough to handle, but not entirely firm, she’d portion it out into plastic sandwich bags and tie them off with the colored ribbon that you could curl with a scissors blade. I was always excited to share that popcorn with my friends at school, thinking it the very best offering possible.
These days, I still think that crisp, sweet popcorn is one of the very best treats around. It’s one of those things that I love to make but only cook up a batch when I know I can move most of it out of the house immediately. My self control wanes when there is caramel corn within reach.
Last Saturday, some dear friends had their annual holiday party. It’s an event that features a wide array of delicious, sugary, holiday-themed confections and I needed something worthy to add to the spread. After a quick appraisal of my pantry stores and the amount of time left before we needed to leave for the party, caramel popcorn was the winner.
These days, I use an approach that marries how my mom would make hers, with the low heat toasting that Molly Wizenberg wrote about some six years ago. It results in a crisp, deeply caramel-y corn that keeps its texture best if you stash it in jars or zip-top bags the moment it is cool.
This popcorn also makes a terrific addition to holiday cookie plates and gift bags. If you’re mailing out treat boxes, a quart bag of this corn bulks out your offering without increasing your shipping costs much. It can also serve as an edible cushion for more fragile baked goods and jars. Pair it with a bag of Eleanor’s roasted Chex Mix, for the pinnacle of sweet and salty.
Before we get to the recipe, a note. There is a suggestion in the very back of Food in Jars that you infuse flaky sea salt with vanilla beans. If you’ve made it and have a jar kicking around, make sure to use it on this popcorn. The subtle hint of vanilla you get from the salt makes a darned fine addition to the popcorn.
Oh, and just one last thing. If you are looking for a good way to make stove top popcorn, may I suggest the Whirley-Pop? It is definitely a unitasker (forgive me, Alton Brown), but I love mine with an unreasonable amount of passion. If you are a popcorn lover looking to break your dependence on the microwave stuff and have a sliver of spare storage space, you should get one.
- 12 cups of freshly popped corn (I find that between 2/3 and 3/4 cup of unpopped kernels gets me there)
- 1 cup packed dark brown sugar
- 6 tablespoons salted butter
- 1/4 cup honey
- 2 tablespoons water
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
- 1 1/2 teaspoons flaky sea salt (vanilla infused, if you have it)
- Place the popcorn in a very large mixing bowl, taking care to fish out any unpopped kernels.
- Line a large, rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper and preheat the oven to 250°F.
- In a small saucepan, combine the sugar, butter, honey, and water. Bring to a boil and cook until a candy thermometer reads 250°F.
- Remove the caramel from the stove and whisk in the baking soda and vanilla extract (the syrup will sputter and splash a little when you add these ingredients. Take care).
- Using a flexible, heatproof spatula, scrape all the caramel out of the pan and over the popcorn. Then stir the caramel into the corn, so that each kernel has some coverage. Finally, stir in the flaky salt.
- Place the coated popcorn on the prepared baking sheet in as even a layer as you can get.
- Bake the corn for 45-60 minutes, until the air in your kitchen smells like toasted butter and sugar, and the caramel has darkened ever so slightly.
- Remove the pan from the oven and let the corn cool.
- Once it is cool enough to touch, break it into clumps and funnel it into airtight storage containers of your choice (jars, bags, tins, etc.).
- Share with friends!
Make sure that you use a candy thermometer to as you cook the syrup, as it's hard to get the caramel to the right point without it.