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Pop up a great Fourth of July – Baked Caramel Corn

Story and photo by Lisa Crockett

The dog days of summer are nearing, and if fire restrictions allow, fireworks shows will be prominently featured at neighborhood gatherings and sporting events for the next few weeks. Heat and explosions – reminiscent of the battle to win our independence as a nation – are part and parcel for July.

So, what could be a more fitting treat for watching the fireworks than something that’s a little explosive? Popcorn, like lots of other foods, has been largely relegated to the realm of the ready-made. But when you buy a jar of kernels and pop them yourself, not only do you save a bundle of money (popcorn popped at home costs just pennies a serving), you avoid a whole host of chemical flavorings and additives. As an added bonus, homemade popcorn treats taste great and they can often be made with ingredients that are already in your pantry.

To pop popcorn at home, the easiest method is to use a popcorn popper. Hot air popping can sometimes yield popcorn that tastes a little like styrofoam packing material. I struggle with stovetop popping simply because I seem to have trouble finding and keeping my pan at the right temperature. Too hot and the popcorn burns, too cool and several kernels don’t pop at all. My favorite popping technique uses the microwave. I simply place a third of a cup of kernels in a glass mixing bowl mixed with about a teaspoon of olive oil.

I cover the bowl with a microwave-safe dinner plate, which keeps the corn from exploding all over the microwave but allows some of the steam to escape – corn that gets too steamy can come out of the oven tough. I cook the mixture on my microwave’s highest setting for six minutes and get a bowl full of popcorn ready for whatever topping awaits. (Your microwave will differ from mine, so experiment a little at first, turning the oven off as soon as popping slows down with a second or two between pops.) Using oven mitts, remove the bowl from the microwave and immediately remove the dinner plate to allow more steam to escape.

For a classic preparation, of course, simply drizzle the corn with butter and sprinkle it with salt. But popcorn has a mild enough flavor to allow it to showcase all sorts of tasty topping combinations. Try a drizzle of butter followed by a sprinkling of sugar and a dash of cinnamon. Or drizzle a tiny bit of olive oil over freshly popped corn followed by parmesan cheese and a bit of oregano. For a spicy twist, melt a quarter of a cup of butter and stir in 5 teaspoons of sugar, a half teaspoon of curry powder and a half teaspoon of salt and stir it into freshly popped corn.

If you’re hosting guests at a fireworks viewing, popcorn is the perfect base ingredient to a snack mix “bar” which could include pretzels, M&Ms, raisins, nuts and dried fruit. Provide each guest with a small paper sack to create their own mixtures for a neat, portable snack.

The baked caramel corn I’ve included here is sweet and has a nice crispy texture. It’s a great treat for a hot night because it won’t melt in the heat and has an old-fashioned taste just right for an old-fashioned holiday like the Fourth. Scoop up a handful and sit back, relax and enjoy the show.

Baked Caramel Corn

1 cup (two sticks) butter
2 cups brown sugar, packed
½ cup light corn syrup
1 teaspoon salt
6 quarts popped popcorn
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ teaspoon baking soda

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees.

In a deep, heavy-bottomed sauce pan, melt together butter, sugar, corn syrup and salt, stirring constantly. As soon as the mixture comes to a boil, stop stirring and allow to boil for five minutes without stirring. After five minutes, remove the mixture from the heat and stir in the baking soda and vanilla. Pour the mixture over the popcorn and stir to distribute and cover the popcorn evenly.

Spread the popcorn evenly over two greased, rimmed baking sheets. Place in the oven and bake for an hour, stirring the mixture every 15 minutes. (Note: you can cook the popcorn on two racks in one oven)

Allow popcorn to cool completely, then break into small pieces and serve or store in an airtight container for up to two days before serving.

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