In my brief stint as an Amateur Gourmet there have been few genuine kitchen disasters. Let’s see: there was the time I burnt my Martha Stewart Coconut Cake frosting; the time I almost poisoned Lauren with Isaac Mitzrahi’s parchament paper fish; and the time I used 5 Tbs instead of 5 tsps of salt in a batch of what became known as The Salty Brownies.
But it can easily be said that with any of those disastrous kitchen episodes, I learned my lesson. Should I ever make Martha’s coconut cake again, I’d time the sugar syrup and the egg whites perfectly. And with Isaac’s fish I’d fold the parchment much tighter, and I’d cut down on the wine. And, of course, now I’m extra careful with the difference between a Tablespoon and a teaspoon.
Yet one cursed kitchen concoction haunts me; forcing me into failure every time I attempt it. There is no lesson learned, no improvement. Each time I have a go, it fails in its own dazzling way. The item in question–homemade caramel corn–is the bane of my culinary existence. And tonight’s good spirited attempt ended, as they all do, in miserable failure.
Here’s the deal: I know what I’m probably doing wrong. All the recipes I follow tell you to pop the popcorn in a pot with oil and plain popcorn kernals. I don’t have any plain popcorn kernals. I just have the kind you pop in the microwave. So I cheat and use a bag of Newman’s Own Plain Organic Popcorn (a good choice, one would think, because it’s plain and can carry the flavors you add later) popping it properly in the microwave.
The next part is where things always go wrong. This is the part where you make the hot caramel sugar syrup. The idea is you make the syrup, and then you dump the popcorn in and stir it around, pour it out on a cookie sheet and whala! you have caramel corn.
The first time I tried this, I dumped the popcorn into the hot syrup and whala! the popcorn immediately shriveled and died under the heat; the white part of the popcorn literally melted away. It was like watching a balloon deflate. Kind of funny, yet kind of sad.
Other scenarios had the syrup too sticky, or–worse–too watery. Nothing more horibble than drowned popcorn.
Tonight I thought I was in good hands because I used Nancy Silverton’s Sandwich book recipes for bar snacks. So far, her recipes have really come through and I figured: finally, I have a legitimate caramel corn recipe that I can trust.
Yet, the fact of my cursed caramel corn status prevented me from buying the vanilla bean she suggests you add to the sugar mixture. I couldn’t, in good conscience, pay $6 for something I knew would end up in the garbage.
So, instead, I added everything else to the pot: sugar, water and vanilla extract (<--well, I subbed that for the vanilla bean):
Perhaps importantly, I was out of corn syrup and so I went online and found that you could sub corn syrup for more water and sugar. This probably contributed to the disaster.
Then I added Nancy’s special mix of spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, and ground cloves
I turned up the heat:
And after several minutes of swishing sloshing and bubbling, I nervously added the popcorn.
Did it deflate? No. Well, a little. But all seemed well. I stirred it around, like Nancy suggests, and then I dumped it out on a cookie sheet.
It smelled good enough. It looked fairly decent. But then I tasted it.
The sugar had crystallized on the outside of the popcorn, creating chalky sugary patches that stuck together, and making the first bite very similar to eating sand on the beach. I could see how the flavors–especially the apple pie spices–could make for some really dynamite caramel corn. Unfortunately, this caramel corn’s destiny was not my mouth, but the mouth of the garbage can:
Oh woe is me. Will I ever succeed at caramel corn? Only time–and a lot more sugar–will tell.