Gingerbread Caramel Corn
Is anyone else feeling like a total Grown Up Cliche this holiday season? I don't know if it's because I'm actually older, or that I have two kids now and they've sucked everything from me including my brain cells and my metabolism or WHAT, but I don't think I've ever felt the craziness of the holidays quite like this year. Oof. And who has two thumbs and hasn't even started thinking about shopping for gifts? This lady. Fa-la-la-la-la!!!
Top of the Grown Up Cliche list is three holiday parties in the same weekend, and no idea how we're going to fit them all in. You too? Excellent. So let's talk hostess gifts. Maybe my Midwestern-ness is showing, but I do think it's nice to show up with a little something for folks insane enough to throw a big holiday gathering, especially considering how much effort that entails--shopping, running, organizing, obsessing, cleaning, and then re-cleaning once its all over. I'd say that kind of effort calls something thoughtful, festive, and preferably edible, so that the host/hostess doesn't have to find a place to put another freaking scented candle that they'll probably never use, in addition to having to re-scrub the bathroom once all the guests leave. So how about a big bag of Gingerbread Caramel Corn? Oh, and bourbon. Lots.
This sweet, salty, spicy, and just a touch savory recipe was inspired by our recent Thanksgiving jaunt to Chicago to spend the holiday with my huge, amazing, loud family. Ever since we moved to California, our trips out of town have almost always been on the shorter side--four or five days, max. This time, we decided to stretch it out further and do a whole week. And it was a fantastic idea, for a few reasons, not the least of which is that it takes a day to recover from a long-haul flight with two small children.
(Lest you think I'm exaggerating about the recovery: Picture, if you will, the movements of an Olympian competing in the discus throw. Except say that the disc itself comes alive and begins to propel the athlete, instead of the other way around. Now replace the disc with a nine-month-old baby with a will and limbs of steel, and the Olympic athlete with a haggard mother who hasn't made it to the gym in four weeks. Yes, that requires a day's recovery.)
But back to the popcorn. Another great thing about making our Chicago trip a little longer this time around was being able to spend as much time with family as we did sort of making our own fun with the kids and playing around the city, a city that, even after 10+ years in California, I still consider home. Now, I'm probably a little biased, being born and raised in the Chicago area and all, but you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who wouldn't rave about walking along Michigan Avenue during the holidays. It's movie-like magic, I'm telling you. Nostril freezing wind and all.
One day we braved the cold, bundled up our babies, and hopped the L downtown to do touristy things like take our girl to the American Girl store (talk about Chri$tma$ shopping, eesh!), and gorge ourselves on Garrett's popcorn. Even after days of feasting on everything from turkey and mashed potatoes to pizza, Italian beef sandwiches, and hot dogs, I was not leaving my fair city without having my kid try Garrett's popcorn for the first time. Priorities, obviously.
While we were there, we picked up bags of Garrett's classic caramel corn and unnnnreeeal cheese popcorn (that, plus wine = all anyone ever needs in this world), and sampled a new "seasonal flavor"--gingerbread caramel corn. Now, admittedly, at first I was all, "Pssh! I will NOT. Seasonal flavor?! What is this mess? It's for TOURISTS, is what it is." Then I remembered that I basically am a tourist in Chicago now, so I tackled the Garrett's employee and ripped from his hands the tray holding all the little plastic sampling cups of gingerbread caramel corn.
Upon landing back in San Francisco, we immediately got swept back up in work and school and just getting through the crazy days, but the first chance I got, I whipped up a Garrett's-inspired batch of Gingerbread Caramel Corn. And even though eating the whole pan in my kitchen isn't quite the same as pawing it into my face on Michigan Avenue, it's still pretty dang good.
Gingerbread Caramel Corn Makes about 2 quarts
I like to start by popping my corn in a 2 1/2 quart pot on the stove with a tablespoon or two of oil. Then I just dump the popcorn onto the baking sheet, wipe out the pan with a paper towel, and make my caramel in the same pot.
I love using dark muscovado sugar for its depth of flavor, but regular dark brown sugar works fine, too--in that case, just reduce the corn syrup to 1/3 cup and add another generous tablespoonful of molasses. The gingerbreadiness hedges on a good molasses punch here.
It goes without saying that you can adjust the spices to your liking, depending on what most screams "gingerbread!" to you--I like lots of cinnamon and ginger, but you could also add some freshly grated nutmeg and a pinch of cloves, too. I love the black pepper here--it adds a nice savory edge to the whole things, and balances the sweetness.
Use your salt generously for the most craveworthy corn--I salt the plain popcorn on the baking sheet, add salt to the caramel, and then before baking the coated caramel corn, hit it with some flaky, crunchy sea salt, such as Maldon salt.
8 to 9 cups popped popcorn (from about 1/3 cup unpopped kernels) Fine sea salt 1/2 cup packed dark muscovado sugar or regular dark brown sugar (see note) 1/4 cup water 7 tablespoons light corn syrup or brown rice syrup 1 tablespoon molasses 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract 1/2 teaspoon baking soda 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into pieces 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon 1/4-1/2 teaspoon ground ginger, to taste A few pinches of finely ground black pepper Flaky sea salt, for sprinkling
Preheat the oven to 250°F. Line a large rimmed baking sheet with a silicone baking mat or butter it generously.
Season the popcorn with salt, and remove any unpopped kernels from the popcorn. Pour the popcorn onto on the prepared baking sheet and keep warm in the oven while you prepare the caramel.
In a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine the corn syrup, molasses, dark brown sugar, water, and 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt and stir gently to combine. Bring the syrup to a boil over high heat—once the syrup is boiling, stop stirring. Clip a candy thermometer to the side of a pan and reduce the heat to medium. Cook the syrup until the temperature reaches 250°F.
When the syrup is up to temperature, pull the pan from the heat and remove the thermometer. Stir in the baking soda and vanilla—the syrup will foam up a bit. Stir in the butter until smooth and then the spices. Remove the warm pan of popcorn and pecans from the oven and quickly pour the syrup over the popcorn in a thin, steady stream. Use a heatproof spatula or bench scraper to toss the popcorn to coat. After a minute or so, the caramel should cool enough to use your hands, if your prefer--just spray your hands lightly with nonstick spray and toss away. Don't worry about it being completely, evenly coated--it will become more so during baking.
Spread the coated popcorn into an even layer and bake for about 60-70 minutes, stirring well every 15 minutes or so. At the end of the baking time, the caramel corn will still be a bit tacky, but will crisp and dry as it cools. Let cool completely on the baking sheet and store in an airtight container.