Break Out the Holiday Tins: Caramel Popcorn with Peanuts and Chocolate

A few weeks ago, I got the idea to serve caramel popcorn at our upcoming holiday party; it seemed like it would be festive addition to the menu. I'm not sure when or why caramel popcorn became such a popular holiday gift, but when I was growing up, I used to love the ubiquitous holiday tins of popcorn -- usually divided into thirds, with buttered, cheese, and caramel popcorn -- that materialized at our house each Christmas. I've never made caramel popcorn before, so I bought a hot air popper and some popcorn, and lined up a few recipes to try.

I've tried five caramel corn recipes in the last week (and unfortunately I have the caramel burns to prove it). Three were relatively straightforward, and while they all produced tasty caramel corn, I wouldn't say that they were anything to write home about: this recipe from the 1991 Los Angeles Times (which the newspaper declared one of its top ten recipes for 1991); a Gourmet recipe for caramel corn clusters; and a Gourmet recipe for maple caramel corn (as this recipe requires 12 oz. of maple syrup for every eight cups of popcorn, making the quantities of popcorn I would require for our party would be insanely expensive). However, two other caramel corn recipes were particularly noteworthy, one of which was the recipe for "Caramel Popcorn with Peanuts and Chocolate" from Baked Explorations.

This recipe is scaled to produce a lot of popcorn -- 24 cups! -- but I happen to think that's fantastic. To make the caramel, you heat butter, dark brown sugar, corn syrup, and molasses on the stove until it reaches 240 degrees. Then you take it off the heat, stir in salt, baking soda, and vanilla, and pour the hot syrup over the popcorn in a large roasting pan (I've found my large nonstick turkey roasting pan to be hugely helpful in caramel popcorn production), add in some peanuts, and stir to coat the popcorn and peanuts with the caramel. You bake the popcorn at 250 degrees for 15 minutes, stir it to make sure it's evenly coated, bake it for another 20 minutes, and then take it out and spread the popcorn on lined sheet pans to cool for a bit. Then you drizzle over tempered chocolate (you are supposed to use both milk chocolate and dark chocolate, but I went for dark only), and once the chocolate sets, you can break up the popcorn into chunks.

This popcorn is beautiful and very tasty -- sweet, nutty, chocolately, crunchy -- and the chocolate makes it positively decadent. Also, I tasted the popcorn before I drizzled on the chocolate, and the caramel in this recipe is outstanding. It was deeply flavorful, and it definitely stood out from the caramel in the other popcorn recipes I mentioned above.

However, having to temper the chocolate is a huge, time-consuming pain. Plus, the chocolate melts onto your fingers while you eat it, making it a bit messy (I couldn't help having visions of little kids wiping their chocolate-stained fingers all over my living room furniture). So, while this popcorn would make a fantastic holiday gift and I would happily make it again, I don't think it's the right recipe for our holiday party. And as I alluded to above, I found another caramel corn recipe that is quite special... stay tuned, I hope to post about it next week!

Recipe: "Caramel Popcorn with Peanuts and Chocolate," from Baked Explorations: Classic American Desserts Reinvented, by Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito.