A Special Adult Snack: Salty, Spicy, Caramel Popcorn

Chow on 11.15.12
Contributing Writer bio

Photo: Katherine Martinko

This is adult popcorn. In addition to the addictive sweetness of caramel, it gets an unexpected kick from kosher salt and cayenne that would probably deter most kids. That’s OK; it means more for you! I’m a recent convert to the combination of sweet and spicy. There was a Mayan-style dark chocolate bar with red pepper flakes in it at the café in my university that I used to buy on a regular basis to get me through the two-hour Latin lecture. Together with a coffee, it never failed to do the trick, and also convinced me that the sweet-with-spicy combination can be really delicious.

I stumbled across this recipe when it was mentioned in an issue of Better Homes & Gardens, directing me to a link on the highly successful Smitten Kitchen blog. (A cookbook by the same name recently came out.) The recipe made a large batch, full of caramel-encrusted peanuts, which I love. The caramel, salt, and cayenne all hold their own, each making its presence equally known and none too overpowering. The popcorn keeps for two weeks in an airtight container – if you can resist snacking on it for that long.

Salty, Spicy, Caramel Popcorn

Vegetable oil
½ cup popcorn kernels
2 cups unsalted peanuts (optional)
1-1/2 tsp baking soda
½ tsp cayenne pepper (use more or less, depending on how you like it)
3 cups white sugar
3 tbsp unsalted butter
4 tsp kosher salt

Lightly coat two large spatulas, a very large mixing bowl (size is important!), and two large baking sheets with vegetable oil.

In a large pot with a lid, heat 3 tbsp vegetable oil over medium-high heat.  Add the popcorn kernels, cover, and keep shaking the pot until all the kernels have popped.  Transfer to the greased bowl, removing any unpopped kernels.  Toss with the peanuts, if using.

In a small bowl, whisk together the baking soda and cayenne pepper. Have the two baking sheets ready.  In a medium saucepan, combine the sugar, butter, salt, and ½ cup water.  Cook over high heat, not stirring after all ingredients have melted and been combined, until the mixture becomes a light golden-yellow caramel, about 10 minutes.  Remove from the heat and whisk in the baking soda mixture.

Immediately pour the caramel mixture over the popcorn.  Working quickly and carefully, use the prepared spatulas to toss the caramel and popcorn together, as if you were tossing a salad, until the popcorn is well coated. Spread the popcorn onto the baking sheets and quickly separate them into small pieces while still warm.  Cool to room temperature, about 15 minutes.  Once cool, store in an airtight container for up to two weeks.

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