Sunday, January 10, 2010

Merry January

Sharing a recipe for an edible Christmas gift in January is sort of like continuing to plug in the twinkle lights on your house long after the holidays are over. But I'm doing it anyway. I realized last night while making my way through my neighborhood, where plenty of houses are still colorfully lit, that I'm all for keeping the lights glowing. After all the cider and hot chocolate is sipped, the presents are opened and the anticipation (for me, the best part) is deflated, we're left in January with a surplus of cold night air. We should at least make it sparkle.

And what does a sweet bite do but add sparkle? Besides, caramel corn with salted peanuts isn't necessarily December-specific. It's not peppermint-flavored or chestnut-studded or clove-scented, so a handful tastes right any time of year. Go make some now!

Before I decided on the caramel popcorn, I'd planned a collection of cookies for Christmas gifts:

• Butter cookies with pretty swirly icing
• Chocolate dulce de leche bars with sea salt caramel
Triple peanut oatmeal cookies
Trios cookies with three kinds of jam
Spumoni chunk cookies with chocolate, pistachio and dried cherries
• Chocolate marshmallow cookies

I'd make multiple batches of each to give out for Christmas, assorted sets in little tins. I did the same thing last year with five other recipes, this one being my favorite. This involved a staggering grocery list of combined ingredients. 15 sticks of butter, 12 cups of sugar. But then I realized that's crazy. I didn't have time this year for that much baking, as much as I'd love to. Even without all those cookie recipes, my kitchen table already looked like this pre-holiday:

In a way — beyond the simplicity — the popcorn was a relief to make. Or, I should say, to make successfully. My only other experience in candying was my attempt to make cashew brittle for my dad's birthday last year, and that turned out tasting plainly chemical — with the main flavor being the baking soda added at the end. I learned the hard way how crucial a candy thermometer can be.

And, I have to say, I'm pretty proud of clearing the hurdle of microwavelessness to make this. It's the first question people ask when they hear about this deficiency: "But what about popcorn?" Well, usually, I just don't eat it. But now I know how fantastically easy it is to pop on top of the stove. A few nights before Christmas, Sara and I put our ears near my biggest lidded pot, wondering if the first burst would go off like gunfire. We fretted over the high pressure that might be building inside, then moved our faces away just to be safe. We imagined how alarming the world's very first (surely unplanned, don't you think?) popping of corn must have been.

Then a kernel popped with a muffled noise no louder than a whisper. Kind of a letdown, but at least we'd had the anticipation. And the fun of caramelizing, coating and sampling afterward more than made up for it.

Caramel Corn with Salted Peanuts
Via Orangette, where it was adapted from DamGoodSweet, by David Guas and Raquel Pelzel

The first two ingredients will make 10 cups of popcorn, and it's best to do it in two batches.

6 Tbsp. oil
2/3 cup popcorn
1 cup lightly salted peanuts, roughly chopped
1 cup packed light brown sugar
¼ cup light corn syrup
6 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
¼ tsp. salt
½ tsp. baking soda
2 tsp. vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 250°F and prepare a baking sheet with parchment paper. Heat 3 tablespoons of oil in a large lidded pot over medium-high heat, then pour in 1/3 cup of kernels, cover and shake around to coat. Listen for the thrill of that first little explosion. You'll know it's ready when the fusillade seems to have died down – and before anything burns. Spray nonstick cooking spray into your largest mixing bowl and pour in the popped popcorn, picking out and discarding any unpopped kernels. Repeat the popping step for the second batch, add that and the peanuts to the bowl, then lightly salt everything.

In a saucepan, whisk the brown sugar, corn syrup, butter, salt and 2 tablespoons of water and bring the mixture to a simmer over medium-high heat. Keep whisking and simmering until it hits 250°F on a candy thermometer. Take the pan off the heat and whisk in the baking soda and vanilla. Now is the time to be quick: tip the caramel over the popcorn and stir with a rubber spatula. It's a little tough to be as thorough as you'd like, but try to get some color on each piece. Spread this mixture to the baking sheet and bake for 1 hour, pausing every 20 minutes to stir the popcorn with a spatula — this is another chance to get things evenly coated.

When the time is up, leave it on a cooling rack for 20 minutes. Eat right away or divide into jars for gifts. I made this twice and filled about 10 Mason jars.