Like so many of you (holla if you hear me!), nothing warms the cockles of my heart quite like an old school recipe with a kitschy name and just a hint of crazy. While visiting family back home in the midwest over Labor Day weekend, I got to digging through some old recipe files of my gramma's. Talk about warmed heart cockles--it was beyond fantastic to get a snapshot of the kinds of things that struck her fancy at any given moment in time. Some of the recipes were handwritten cards from friends and family, and that's obviously great (Aunt Marge's Yellow Cake!!), but I also loved finding her old clippings from newspapers and magazines, and thinking of her saying "Oh! Well, THAT sounds good!" before pulling out the scissors and then tucking the paper away in her accordion folder.
But a few of the items in the folder were more than just strips of newsprint. She actually kept quite a few recipe booklets and pamphlets from different brands that had whole collections of recipes, designed to promote whatever the featured product was. And these booklets were next-level terrific in terms of kitsch. There were a lot of pre-packaged ingredients, of course--scratch cooking and baking wasn't really the coolest thing to do a few decades ago--but to me that's part of the charm of old recipes. The overriding thought seems to be about pleasure, both in terms of convenience in the kitchen and how something tastes, more than it is about impressing people with the time spent on something. I may not be super interested in incorporating canned frosting and non-dairy whipped topping into every recipe I create from here on out, but the sentiment is definitely worth considering, especially given the fancy-pants nature of the food world these days.
One recipe booklet really caught my eye, because its star product was my personal kryptonite--popcorn. And given the quality of the paper and the typeface, this particular pamphlet most definitely pre-dated the use of microwave popcorn. There were several recipes that sounded, um, intriguing (like an "exotic", "oriental-style" popcorn involving soy sauce, sesame oil, and canned chow mein noodles--oh really now?), but I'm always on the lookout for old school recipes that can be switched up to use less-refined sugars and sweeteners to really bump up the flavor (you might have guessed as much). So when I spotted an entry for something called "Natural Munch" with a headnote exclaiming, Ideal for the Teenagers!...
As it turns out, what makes the Natural Munch from the booklet so "natural" and "ideal" for growing people is not the copious amounts of sugar in it (probably?), but rather the addition of wheat germ, which is just such a great old school ingredient I had to steal that idea and create my own caramel corn recipe using it. So off to the supermarket I went, like a deranged old hippie with a serious mission, and after asking two people, eventually spotted the wheat germ on the highest shelf (likely to be by the oatmeal and cereals in your supermarket, just FYI).
Once I had the magic ingredient in hand, I ran blissful and barefoot all the way back to my commune, wiry hair flying (I wish--it was more like a toddler whine-filled ride in a mid-sized SUV which is badly in need of a good vacuuming, but I digress). Soon after, I started in on a rework of standard-issue caramel corn, to create a little Natural Munch of my own.
To continue going with the "natural" flow, I loaded up my saucepan with flavorful Wholesome!™ Organic Honey and smoky Wholesome!™ Organic Turbinado Raw Cane Sugar, instead of corn syrup and white sugar, in addition to a good hit of sea salt and vanilla. So if you're ever on the lookout for a caramel corn recipe without white sugar or corn syrup, but with loads of flavor in their place, I'd say that this combination of honey and turbinado are your ticket.
Of course, salted peanuts are a must in any great caramel corn, and having them in the mix also happened to up the toasty quality of the wheat germ and turbinado, making for a great marriage of flavors and textures. As we're barreling into the prime season for caramel corn--tailgating, apple picking, and autumnal gatherings of all sorts--it only makes sense that you're ready to blow minds and take names with this twist on a classic. Even better if there's a few teenagers in the mix when you serve this stuff. It's IDEAL FOR TEENAGERS, after all.
Natural Munch Makes about 3 quarts
You'll need just shy of 1/2 cup unpopped kernels to yield enough popcorn for this recipe. You could also use "natural" flavored microwave popcorn if you prefer.
I like to use cocktail peanuts for caramel corn and other candy recipes, because the flavor is simple and dependable: just peanuts, oil, and salt. Other salted peanuts can contain spices like garlic or paprika even if it doesn't say so right on the can, which isn't usually the flavor I'm going for, so I'm careful to read the label when buying peanuts for sweet treat making.
10 cups (2 1/2 ounces/72 grams) popped popcorn Fine sea salt 1 cup (3 3/4 ounces/107 grams) cocktail peanuts 1 cup (4 ounces/113 grams) wheat germ 1 cup (7 ounces/200 grams) Wholesome!™ Organic Turbinado Raw Cane Sugar 1/3 cup (4 ounces/113 grams) Wholesome!™ Organic Honey 1/3 cup (2 5/8 ounces/75 grams) water 4 tablespoons (2 ounces/57 grams) unsalted butter 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Position a rack to the center of the oven and preheat it to 250°F. Line a large rimmed baking sheet with a silicone baking mat. Toss together the popcorn, a pinch of fine sea salt, the peanuts, and wheat germ, right on the baking sheet. Keep warm in the oven while you prepare the caramel.
In a medium, heavy-bottomed pot, combine the turbinado, honey, water, butter, and 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt. Stir together over medium-high heat until the butter is melted and the syrup begins to boil. Stop stirring, and clip a candy thermometer onto the side of the pan. Cook the caramel to 250°F. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the vanilla extract.
Remove the pan of popcorn from the oven. Pour the caramel over the popcorn mixture in an even, thin stream. Use a flexible heatproof spatula to turn and stir the popcorn, coating everything as evenly as possible.
Return the pan to the oven and bake until the caramel is not tacky to the touch and the corn is crisp, about 45 minutes to 1 hour, stirring every 10 minutes or so (the popcorn will become more evenly coated as you toss it during baking). Let cool completely on the pan before serving. Store in an airtight container for up to 1 week.
This fall, I'll be continuing to bring you occasional posts like this one, sponsored by the good people of Wholesome!™. Products and compensation provided by Wholesome!™; all opinions are my own. You can always trust that I'll only share information and products with you that I personally love and use in my own kitchen.