I tried my first two Martha Stewart recipes recently, and I must say that both turned out really well. I know she didn’t get to be so famous by not being a good chef, but sometimes you just don’t get on with a particular chef’s recipes – does anyone else find that? Martha’s worked a treat though, so I’m up for trying out more as I come across them. I’ll report back on the second Martha recipe in due course, but first up was the salted caramel popcorn, which was described as smelling like ‘a circus dream’. As long as it’s not a circus nightmare with scary clowns I’m OK with that. I made it to take into work to celebrate Miss Ruth’s unbirthday – all of our unbirthdays actually, but her real birthday is coming up, and both of us will be off work. I thought it’d be nice to celebrate early by putting all our teeth in jeopardy. It’s an unusual way to celebrate, I’ll give you that.
You can find the recipe here if you want to make your own, and I recommend that you go ahead and do just that, because it’s not as tricky as you might imagine – Caramel and Fleur de Sel Popcorn. The only thing I would add to the recipe is that I don’t have a sugar thermometer, and I judged when the caramel was ready to add the vanilla and bicarbonate of soda when it reached the soft ball stage. This means that when you drip a little of the caramel into a glass of cold water, it forms a ball as it sinks down to the bottom. It took very little time to reach this stage, and the way I knew it was ready to test was that it had darkened in colour. Caramel can burn very easily if you turn your back on it, so just keep an eye out for it changing colour and texture. Also, test early and test often, if you’re not sure. Better to waste lots of tiny drips than ruin a whole pan by leaving it on the heat for too long. Also, and this is pretty much a mandatory thing to say when giving any recipe that involves caramel, BE CAREFUL. If you get any on your skin, it will burn its way right through your arm, into the ground and through to Australia before you know what’s happening. Unless you live in Australia in which case it’ll burn through to here, instead. It isn’t quite at the temperature of the sun, but it is at about 144C so you know that’ll give you a really nasty burn, and the worst part of it is that it sticks to your skin like superglue, which makes the burn worse. If you DO get any on you, plunge (yes, plunge! This is urgent!) the affected area into a basin of cold water, or run cold water over the area immediately. Don’t try to pull the caramel off as you’ll further damage your skin. Really though, just be very, very careful.
Popping the corn is probably the most satisfying part of the whole recipe, and the easiest too. The key thing is not to have the heat up too high, especially if you’re using an electric hob. Stick with a medium heat and trust that the corn will do its thing at its own pace, and soon enough you’ll have a pot full of the stuff. It also makes a most excellent noise while popping. Making the caramel is also cool but has a higher stress factor due to the above mentioned risk of burning a hole in yourself, your floor and your neighbour’s floor and ceiling if you live in a block of flats, plus causing undue worry to any unsuspecting wallabies that might be in the path of the caramel. It’s a fast paced world, the world of caramel, so I have a photo of stage one, and a photo of stage three, but stage two all happened so fast that I couldn’t document it… Stage one is when the sugar, butter and syrup are melting companionably together – I subbed golden syrup for corn syrup, since that’s what’s readily available here in the UK. Stage three is when the soft ball stage has been reached, and you stir in the vanilla and bicarbonate of soda. It completely changes the look of the caramel and makes it all frothy and much lighter. It’s at this stage, too, that you’ll be glad you used a large pot, because as you can see it more or less doubles in size. You’ll either be glad you used a large pot or be devastated that you didn’t because now there’s a whole lot of rapidly cooling caramel on your oven that’s going to take an unenviable amount of cleaning. If this is the case you might want to consider just getting a new oven. Or moving house.
Once the caramel’s ready, pour it in batches into the bowl of popcorn. This isn’t what the recipe says, exactly, but I found it easier to pour in about a third of the caramel at a time and fold it through the popcorn after each addition. I think it’s because the caramel stays liquid while it’s in the hot pan, but starts to cool and harden as soon as you pour it into the cold bowl of popcorn, and of course the more it cools the more difficult it is to work with. I still worked quickly, but found this a more manageable approach than trying to pour a steady stream of caramel while simultaneously holding and stirring the bowl of popcorn. I’m not made of arms. I’d also recommend a rubber spatula, as the caramel won’t stick to this as much as a wooden spoon or other such implement, leading for a lower frustration factor.
Once it’s all mixed through, you want to transfer it to that baking sheet you prepared earlier. I chose to use grease proof paper to line the sheet instead of greasing it, and this worked with moderate success, though next time I’d both line AND grease the tin as there were some incidences of paperstick, which should be a word, though it isn’t. The popcorn is quite hard to work with at this stage, and again the rubber spatula is good for pressing it into an even layer as it’s less likely to crush the popcorn than a rigid wooden spoon would be. I was a bit cautious with the amount of fleur del sel, my main tip for that part would be to pinch the salt and sprinkle over by hand, rather than sprinkling from the spoon, as that way you can end up with lumps of salt in some areas and lack of salt in others.
Once I had the popcorn layered on the tray, I cut it into rough squares using a sharp knife, then I let it set in the fridge overnight – I thought that this would make it easier to snap into pieces in the morning, before putting it in a tin to take to work. I don’t know if it would have been *more* difficult had I let it set at room temperature, but certainly it was still very sticky and not at all snappy when it came to breaking it into pieces. The caramel never sets hard, like the caramel popcorn you buy in bags in the cinema, but it was all the more delicious for it, in my opinion. There’s also an element of fun to it, one of my colleagues described it as like being a naughty kid with sticky fingers, it takes you back to those barely remembered childhood memories of eating just for pleasure and not caring if whatever it was you were eating ended up all over your hands, arms, face and hair. What I’m trying to say is be ready to wash your hands afterwards, or perhaps provide little bowls of hot water and lemon, or moist towelettes.
So there you have it, lovely sticky, sweet-savoury, circus-dream-scented popcorn. It was a very popular choice at work, and hardly took any time to make which makes it a good weeknight treat. You could go ahead and eat it as soon as it’s cooled on the tray, which probably wouldn’t take much longer than half an hour, or it keeps for up to three days according to Martha who, for now, I implicitly trust in all matters culinary. On financial matters I shall seek other advice, though.