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The whole summer revolves around fresh corn. First we anticipate, then we worship, and finally, we cook.
But even though we've covered the range of corn recipes -- from quesadillas to salad to ice cream -- there's been a serious oversight. The sweetest corn of all can't be found at any farmers market. And that's because the sweetest corn of all is caramel corn.
Caramel corn is too sweet, too crunchy, and too simple to belong to just one season. Instead, it's claimed by all. In the summer, it's eaten out of paper cones at state fairs. In the winter, it's scooped into plastic bags that are tied with ribbons for holiday gifts. All year long, it arrives in large tins alongside the understandably less popular buttered popcorn and cheddar corn. Caramel corn is always the first to go.
Thankfully, you don't have to make a trip to the state fair or wait for the holiday season to eat corn in its best possible form. Caramel corn isn't any more complicated than its name suggests.
Pop corn, make caramel, combine the two, and give it a brief time-out in the oven. There you have it.
1. Pop your corn in whatever way is easiest for you. It's important that your popcorn be fresh and sturdy, which is why we recommend popping your own. Start with 1/2 cup of kernels to make 10 to 12 cups of popcorn. (We like to pop it in a little bit of neutral oil in a big, lidded Dutch oven on the stovetop, shaking the pot here and there.)
Dump the popcorn into a large bowl and, if you want to get creative, add nuts or dried fruit, too.
2. Start making the caramel. Melt 1 1/2 sticks of butter, then add a cup of brown sugar and a tablespoon or two of molasses. After the sugar's melted, crank up the heat and boil for 3 to 4 minutes. Stir constantly so that the caramel doesn't stick and burn.
(If you like a bit of bite to your caramel corn, it's helpful to know that the longer the caramel is on the stove, the crunchier your corn will be. Just don't leave the caramel on the stove so long that it starts to smoke.)
3. Add a teaspoon of vanilla, a 1/2 teaspoon of salt (1 teaspoon if you want a salted caramel corn), and the magic ingredient: 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda. Baking soda makes the caramel airy and foamy, giving it a softer texture and allowing it to better coat the corn. The air bubbles that form when baking soda is added will make the caramel lighter in color and texture.
Now's your chance to add other spices or flavorings to the caramel: cayenne, hot sauce, or curry powder for a savory, spicy popcorn; cinnamon, cloves, and other spices for a holiday-themed variety; or maybe some maple syrup if you're Canadian.
4. Working quickly, pour the caramel into the bowl of popcorn and stir until all of the corn glistens with the golden sauce.
5. Into the oven it goes! Spread your caramel corn into an even layer on a lined baking sheet and bake at 250° F for 30 minutes to an hour, depending on how dry you like the corn. Stir every 15 minutes, breaking up any clumps (or leaving them intact, if you're a fan).
If you have self-control, let it cool completely. Otherwise, pop each piece into your mouth straight from the baking sheet. Corn really is wonderful, isn't it?
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Photos by James Ransom
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