When you’re out tasting wine on a lazy weekend in Sonoma, you might expect your wine to be paired with cheese, crackers or maybe even some fresh-from-the-vine grapes. You’re probably not expecting to pair wine with caramel corn. If you happen to be visiting the Kendall Jackson Wine Center in Santa Rosa, California, however, you might need to change your expectations a bit because the caramel corn that they make there and serve as a pairing with one of their sweet, late-harvest wines is absolutely fantastic.
And fortunately for those of you who don’t live near the Sonoma Valley – or those of us who just returned from there – the chefs at Kendall Jackson have kindly shared their recipe on their blog so that anyone can make it at home.
Kendall Jackson’s Double Gold Caramel Corn is pretty much the perfect caramel corn, especially if you like the salty-sweet taste of kettle corn. It is sweet and salty, with a generous amount of kosher salt added to the caramel before it coats the popcorn. The addition of salt prevents the popcorn from being overly sweet (which many caramel corns are) and makes your mouth water every time you pop a piece in.
The instructions left by the chefs are quite specific and, if you follow them carefully, you’ll end up with perfectly crisp caramel corn. The caramel is made with butter, brown sugar and corn syrup on the stove top. Salt, vanilla and a small amount of baking soda (to aerate the caramel and prevent it from becoming too dense and difficult to bite into) are added before the caramel is tossed onto air-popped popcorn (you can buy this, plain, at the grocery store). The coated caramel corn is baked at a low temperature to dry it out and keep the popcorn crisp and fresh. You’ll have to wait until it cools down to dig in, but the recipe is not difficult and not too time consuming. If you’re like me, you’ll go through a batch of this fairly quickly – especially if you have a bottle of the amazing Kendall-Jackson Late Harvest Chardonnay to pair it with. Store the popcorn in an airtight container after it has completely cooled if you’re not eating it all at once.
Popcorn has been around for about 5000 years. At a site known as the “Bat Cave” in New Mexico, an anthropologist and a botanist, along with several graduate students, discovered layers of prehistoric “trash” stretching back thousands of years, which contained all manner of corn cobs and even popped corn. There were many unpopped kernels so well preserved that they popped when placed in hot oil by the scientists.
Popcorn balls are a food around which legends have sprung up, though the truth is probably that it was easier for shop owners to sell popcorn in pre-measured amounts than it was to sell it loose. In fact, they were one of the most popular candies around the turn of the last century, when popcorn was enjoying huge popularity. Since the most popular time of year for popcorn is late fall, it is no surprise that popcorn balls quickly became favorite holiday treats. Though not as popular as they once were, popcorn balls are still a tasty treat and have a sort of retro cache about them that keeps bringing people back for more.
I think that popcorn balls are an easy way to eat popcorn. They’re not as fussy as many caramel corn recipes are, but they have a similar flavor. They also look very beautiful and will keep in an airtight container for at least a week or two. All you have to do is cook the syrup with a candy thermometer and stir it into the popped corn.
From start to finish, these take about 15 minutes. The maple syrup gives these a wonderful flavor, though you should be able to use molasses or treacle if it isn’t available to you. By cooking the syrup only to 250F (121C), which is hard ball stage, the sugar is still pliable enough to work with easily and the balls will not be too hard, which would make them very difficult to eat. I personally think that the dried fruit and nuts are a nice touch, but feel free to be a purist and leave them out.
I am not going to go on about how great a theme caramel is for this month’s Sugar High Friday, hosted by Debbie at Words to Eat By. Instead, I will just cut to the chase: I made vanilla caramel popcorn.
The inspiration for this recipe was twofold. First, I felt like having some popcorn. Second, I’ve had caramel on the brain while thinking of all the possibilities for SHF and shopping for Easter goodies. Caramel corn was the logical union of the two. I also wanted something I could ship off to relatives as an Easter goodie, but that was more of an afterthought than inspiration.
I found this to be a bit tricky, given that I have no previous experience with candy making. Fortunately for you, this means that I think I can forwarn you of any problems so that they can be avoided easily.
I used a bag of microwave light butter (94% light, I believe) popcorn. Popped it and poured it out of the bag to cool. I munched on some and measured out between 8 and 10 cups, enough to fill the bottom of a 15×10 baking pan, which I lined with a Silpat. You’ll want to use two pans if you don’t have one this big. I transferred the popcorn to a large glass bowl, thinking that it would be easy to stir in the caramel this way and went to work on the caramel itself.
I combined the sugar, corn syrup and butter in a medium saucepan and tossed in a bit of molasses for extra flavor. Honey would be equally good. I boiled it to hardball (250F) without incident. I premeasured the salt and baking soda into a little dish, but didn’t bother to measure out the vanilla, figuring that I would just pour in a teaspoon with the salt and soda. I didn’t realise that the caramel would foam like crazy when I stirred in the baking soda, and I was so startled that I added way more vanilla than I meant to (hence the tablespoon, rather than a teaspoon in the recipe). No biggie, I figured and poured the caramel into the popcorn bowl where it almost immediately hardened. I should have warmed the bowl in the oven first! I managed to extract most of the popcorn onto my baking sheet and popped it in the oven for an hour. The caramel softened nicely and I was able to spread it out again.
After an hour, I took the corn out, let it cool and broke it into pieces.
Tasters said that it was better and crispier than anything they’ve bought in a store. They also reported that it was very light; no pieces were too hard and there wasn’t too much caramel. The entire batch was virtually inhaled, in large part by me.
In two words?