As the pastry chef at Craft restaurant in Manhattan, I’m not only surrounded by sweets all day, it’s also my job to taste them—all of them. It can be a bit much, so I usually just take little tastes. There is one thing, however, that I have a hard time staying away from: caramel popcorn. I find its salty sweetness addictive, even after making and tasting it hundreds of times.
And I’m not the only one who feels this way. We send out a small dish of caramel popcorn as part of our petit four plate, and it really strikes a chord with guests—in fact, they often ask for more. And I’m certain the same thing will happen when you share this with your friends and family. Caramel popcorn makes a great gift, too. But be forewarned, this stuff is so irresistible you might want to make two batches: one to munch on, one to wrap up.
For perfect popcorn, use a flat-based pot and hot oil
This might sound odd, but making popcorn on the stove is one of the first things new pastry cooks at Craft must learn. And believe me, it has been a challenge for many of them. Unlike me, they grew up thinking you pop popcorn by putting a bag in the microwave. Without guidance, their results on the stove would be charred popcorn from letting the pot get too hot, or tough popcorn from starting with a pan that’s too cold.
It’s important to use a flat-based pot that evenly distributes heat and to get the oil so hot that the popcorn pops quickly. I put the oil in the pot and set it on the stove over high heat. Then I go measure out the popcorn. When I get back to the stove, the oil is almost hot enough. To test the oil’s temperature, I put one kernel into the pot and cover it. When it pops, you’re ready to pop your corn. If your oil smokes, it’s too hot. Pull the pot off for a minute and then put it back on the heat and add your kernels. Once you’ve added the kernels, shake the pot back and forth while cooking to keep the kernels and the popped corn from burning.
Equipment you’ll need
Two heatproof rubber spatulas
• Large metal bowl, at least twice the volume of the popped popcorn
• Measuring cups and spoons
• 8-quart (or larger) stockpot with a tight-fitting lid
• 4-quart saucepan
• Wooden spoon
• Metal whisk
• Pastry brush
• Two rimmed baking sheets, lined with nonstick silicone mats, parchment, oraluminum foil
Making caramel is easier than you think
Making caramel is nothing to be afraid of: All it really requires is close attention. Caramel is only difficult to deal with when it burns or boils over, and if you’re watching it, neither should happen. But if it does burn, don’t pour the smoking mess into the sink or run cold water into the pot. Instead, set the pot in the sink and drizzle hot water into the pot while you stand back. Then, put the pot with the water back on the stove over low heat to make a thin syrup, which you can later pour down the drain.
Some caramels are cooked to an amber or dark golden color, which takes the sugar much closer to the point where it burns. The caramel for this recipe is rather light, so take it off of the heat as soon as there’s a hint of golden color.
The other potentially scary part comes next: When you add the baking soda and the caramel bubbles up. Don’t be alarmed; as long as you’ve used a deep pot, you’ll have plenty of room for the caramel to rise. If you’re still worried, move the pot near or into the sink when you add the baking soda. This way, if the caramel does bubble over, the mess will be minimal.