Caramel Popcorn

Caramel Popcorn
Wotchers!

Today, my lovelies, after exhaustive testing, resulting in several sacks of delicious popcorn, I have for you the ultimate guide to making your own caramel popcorn.

Back in my day, of course, we called it toffee popcorn, bought it in a shop/cinema and it was made by ButterkistButterkist(rah-rah-rah!).

Well Butterkist are still going strong, and you can still buy their popcorn, but it is more delicious, customisable and cheaper to make it yourself.

This post is, in fact, the first in a two-part popcorn posting, where I plan on covering the basic method and the range of different-yet-equally-delicious tastes you can achieve just with sugar, butter and syrup, to be followed by Part II in which we look at how to customise your popcorn batches even further, with an eye on the upcoming C-word gifting season.

This popcorn is fantastically crunchy, yet dry to the touch, without a hint of stickiness. It is amazing when freshly made, and lasts up to three weeks if kept in an airtight container. It is an easy treat to make at home, yet different enough to give as gifts, especially if you can tailor the flavours to the giftee’s preferences.

So let’s talk ingredients!

Popcorn

Very straightforward to make, just put a little oil into a lidded pan, add in your popping corn kernels, cover and shake gently over medium heat until the sounds of popping stops.

Oil isn’t compulsory. You can absolutely make popcorn by applying heat alone, either in a pan or in the microwave (in a plain paper bag, twisted over at the top) HOWEVER, the oil helps any flavourings, such as salt, stick. Without oil, the salt (or other flavourings) just freefall through the popcorn and gather in the bottom of the bowl. If you want to reduce the fact content of your caramel popcorn, omitting the oil when popping your corn might be an option you choose.

How much to pop?
The recipe I am giving below is quite generous, and could easily be halved, but for the difficulties that would present in accurately measuring the temperature when boiling the sugar mixture. So rather than making life more complicated that way, it is much easier to adjust the quantity of corn you pop, to give a lighter or more dense covering: popping more corn will make for a lighter covering, popping less will lead to a more comprehensive, thicker coating.

The recipe below strikes a balance by calling for 100g of kernels to be popped. Vary this by choosing a quantity between the extremes given below:

  • Reduce to 75g for complete coverage.
  • Increase to up to 200g for progressively lighter coverage, although anything above 150g gets tricky to coat evenly.

Caramel

After trialling numerous combinations, I have settled on the following recipe as the ultimate caramel recipe, not particularly because it is the best (although it is!), but because of how easily it is adapted and customised. For a start, the caramel is a butterscotch, made by mixing sugar and butter and heating it to the ‘hard crack’ temperature of 150°C. Due to the trickiness of working with boiling sugar, adding some of the sugar in liquid form helps keep it from graining and crystallisation.

Butter: Use it. Unless you’re vegan, in which case, coconut oil can be substituted, with the resulting flavour being thusly affected.

Sugar: Here is where the fun begins, because of all the different types and combinations that can be used. The ones I have tried with this recipe include

  • white granulated
  • white caster
  • Demerara
  • Light brown soft/light muscovado
  • Dark brown soft/dark muscovado

The white sugars are fine for a perfectly acceptable, if slightly one-note caramel, but it is in the rich, dark notes of the brown sugars that your caramel can find real depth of flavour. In the picture at the top of this post, the popcorn on the left was made using demerara sugar, the one on the right a 50:50 mixture of dark and light muscovado sugar.

Other options you may like to try, but which I have not (yet!):

  • Coconut sugar
  • jaggery
  • maple sugar
Treacle Popcorn

Treacle popcorn showing light coverage using the base recipe over 150g popcorn kernels

Syrup

Here again is the opportunity to add flavour to your caramel. The syrups I have tried include:

  • golden syrup
  • Dutch schenkstroop
  • treacle
  • maple syrup

If you want the flavours of the sugars to shine, you could go with bland glucose syrup, which would add sweetness and help prevent crystallisation, and no additional flavours. Golden syrup has a rich but mild flavour, very complementary to the brown sugars. The Dutch schenkstroop adds deeper caramel notes, without the bitterness of treacle, and treacle is the ultimate dark, rich-tasting syrup.

Alternatives you might want to experiment with:

  • glucose
  • agave nectar
  • rice syrup
  • date syrup
  • molasses
  • pomegranate molasses

WARNING: I have not tried these other syrups, but if my experiences with maple syrup are anything to go by, some of them might well act differently to regular sugar syrups. I went through countless (ooh, that’s a lie, because I counted every one and it was seven. SEVEN FAILED BATCHES PEOPLE! *cries for the lost maple syrup*) batches before I got it right. See notes on using maple syrup below.

Salt

Even though salted caramel is very much ‘a thing’, even the most buttery butterscotch benefits from adding a little salt, which gives relief from an unremitting sweetness onslaught.

Caramel Popcorn

There are three stages to caramel popcorn: making the popcorn, coating the popcorn and baking the popcorn. This last ensures the caramel sets to a crisp, crackling coating.

The popcorn

100g popcorn kernels
2-3tbs vegetable oil

  • Pour the oil into a large, lidded saucepan and set it on medium high heat.
  • When the oil is shimmering, add the popcorn kernels and cover with a lid.
  • Shake gently back and forth to keep the kernels moving about, and remove from the heat when the sounds of popping ceases.
  • Tip the popped corn into a large bowl and set aside.

The coating

100g unsalted butter
200g/1 cup sugar – all one type or a mixture
125ml/½ cup golden syrup/schenkstroop/treacle – see below for maple syrup
½ tsp salt

½tsp bicarbonate of soda

1tsp vanilla extract, or other flavouring (optional)

  • Preheat the oven to 110°C, 90°C Fan.
  • Line a large baking sheet with parchment or preferably a silpat mat.
  • Have your bicarbonate of soda and flavourings measured out and have a large spatula and a large balloon whisk close to hand.
  • Put the first four ingredients in a large pan. I use my preserving pan.
  • Heat on medium heat, stirring, until the butter and sugars have melted together.
  • Stop stirring and allow the mixture to reach Hard Crack on a sugar thermometer, roughly 150°C.
  • The next stage needs to be done quickly.
  • Remove from the heat and add the flavourings and the bicarbonate of soda.
  • Stir briskly with the balloon whisk until the mixture begins to froth, then tip in the popped corn.
  • Using the spatula, turn the popcorn in the hot caramel until evenly coated, by scooping the caramel from underneath and turning it over the top of the corn. The fizzing bicarbonate of soda will make this easier, but the effect won’t last forever, so work briskly, but be careful as boiling sugar is LAVA!
  • Tip the coated popcorn onto the baking sheet and spread out in an even layer. Don’t worry if the popcorn is looking a bit patchy, the baking stage will help even this out.

The Baking

  • Bake the sheet of popcorn for 45 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes. The caramel will remain quite liquid for the first 20 minutes, so keep stirring to even out the coverage.
  • Remove from the oven and, while still warm, break up any large pieces.
  • Allow to cool on the baking sheet, then pack into an airtight container when cold – a large ziplock bag is ideal. Be sure to exclude as much air as possible before sealing.

Maple Syrup Caramel Popcorn

Maple Syrup Caramel Popcorn

Whilst the ingredients for Maple Syrup Caramel Popcorn are the same as the recipe above (using 125ml/½ a cup of pure maple syrup as the liquid sugar), the method isn’t suitable. The temperature of 150°C is much too high for the delicately flavoured syrup, and results in a grained and crystallised caramel. Using half maple syrup and half golden syrup was kinda OK< but really quite a thick, heavy coating. My daughter still loved the ‘failed’ batches (just as well, considering how many there were), but I was determined to get a glossy and crisp caramel and as the picture above shows, success! (Eventually).

This method is actually easier than the above, with all it’s faffing around with thermometers and the like. It’s also much quicker. Initially, proceed as for the above recipe:

  • Preheat the oven to 110°C, 90°C Fan. Or not. See below.
  • Line a large baking sheet with parchment or preferably a silpat mat.
  • Have your bicarbonate of soda measured out and have a large spatula and a large balloon whisk close to hand.
  • Put the butter, sugar (I recommend light muscovado), maple syrup and salt in a large pan. I use my preserving pan.
  • Heat on medium heat, stirring, until the butter and sugars have melted together.
  • Then:
  • Stop stirring and when the mixture begins to boil, allow it to boil for just three minutes.
  • Now:
  • Proceed as above, i.e.
  • Remove from the heat and add the bicarbonate of soda.
  • Stir briskly with the balloon whisk until the mixture begins to froth, then tip in the popped corn.
  • Using the spatula, turn the popcorn in the hot caramel until evenly coated, by scooping the caramel from underneath and turning it over the top of the corn. The fizzing bicarbonate of soda will make this easier, but the effect won’t last forever, so work briskly, but be careful as boiling sugar is LAVA!
  • Tip the coated popcorn onto the baking sheet and spread out in an even layer.
  • Bake the sheet of popcorn for no longer than 20 minutes, stirring after 10 minutes.
  • Remove from the oven and, while still warm, break up any large pieces.
  • Allow to cool on the baking sheet, then pack into an airtight container when cold – a large ziplock bag is ideal. Be sure to exclude as much air as possible before sealing.
  • Enjoy.

Tune in next time for Part II, where we get all fancy-schmantzy with our popcorn flavours!


Banoffi Pie cupcakes

Wotchers!

Here’s a different take on a classic recipe – Banoffi Pie Cupcakes!

Banoffi Pie itself evolved as a variation of the American dessert pie known as Blum’s Coffee Toffee Pie. At The Hungry Monk Restaurant in Sussex, the original notoriously problematic caramel filling was easily created by boiling unopened tins of sweetened condensed milk, which unfailingly produces a deep, flavoursome caramel every time. Adding a layer of bananas created the classic dessert we know today.

Banoffi Pie was on the menu of the first bistro I worked in (as a waitress), and it was also the first ‘professional’ dessert I managed to recreate myself. Once you know the secret of making the filling, it’s an absolute breeze to whip up – I always have 1 or 2 tins of caramel in my cupboard in case a dessert is needed at short notice.

The original recipe called for unopened tins of condensed milk to be simmered for 4 hours – which was this dessert’s only drawback. A beady eye had to be kept on the saucepan, to ensure that it didn’t boil dry, because that way lay exploding tins and rains of boiling caramel. There are many alternative methods for making the caramel out there on the internet, and you can even buy tins of caramel ready made (in the UK its made by Carnation) – but they are twice the price of condensed milk and are a poor relation in terms of both flavour and consistency to the caramel you can make yourself. By far the safest, easiest and most foolproof method of making your own caramel filling is in the slow cooker (see below).

I’ve been messing about with the idea of making this classic dessert into a cupcake for quite some time, and there have been several versions along the way. This version is the one I’m most happy with: it’s faithful to the original, yet serves up all the flavours in cupcake size.  A light and fluffy banana cake mixture is baked in a shortcrust pastry case, filled with caramel and topped with an unsweetened coffee-flavoured cream – the pastry and the coffee cream help offset the sweetness of the cake and the caramel. Delish!

Banoffi Pie Cupcakes – Makes 12-ish

Foolproof Caramel Filling

  • Take as many tins of sweetened, condensed milk as you wish to turn into caramel and place them in your slow cooker.
  • Fill the slow cooker with water until it covers the tins by about 3cm
  • Put on the lid and switch on the cooker to Low. Leave overnight (8-12 hours, depending on how dark you like your caramel).
  • In the morning,  switch off the cooker. Using tongs, remove the tins and set aside to cool.
  • DO NOT OPEN until the tins have cooled completely. The contents will be boiling hot and under pressure, and burns WILL result. Be sure to label these tins as caramel, as they will be virtually indistinguishable from uncooked tins.
  • You will need 1 tin for 12 Banoffi Pie cupcakes.

Shortcrust Pastry
125g butter – very cold
250g plain flour
50g icing sugar
ice water

  • Put the butter, flour and sugar into a food processor and blitz until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
  • Put the ice water in a jug/bowl on the work surface. With the food processor running, add 1 tablespoon of ice water at a time until the mix comes together. NB Do not pour ice water straight into the mix, as it is easy to add too much. The time it takes to add the next spoonful of water after the first means that the machine can mix the water in properly. Continue to add water one spoonful at a time. When sufficient liquid has been added, the mixture will come together in a ball. Tip out the pastry and knead lightly until smooth – about 1 minute. Wrap in plastic film and chill for 30 minutes.
  • Once chilled, roll pastry out thinly and cut out rounds using a pastry cutter. Use the circles of pastry to line a well-greased 12 cup muffin tin. NB Because I wanted the pastry to be smooth all the way round, I actually made a template based on the size of my muffin cups.  To make your own template, take a piece of kitchen foil and press it firmly into one of the holes in your muffin tray until it fits snugly against the sides and bottom. Remove the foil and use a pair of scissors to cut down the side of the foil and around the base to make a curved ‘wall’ template and a circular ‘base’ template.
  • Put the lined muffin tray in the fridge to chill whilst you mix the banana cake.

Banana Cake
125g cake margarine (Stork)
200g caster sugar
3 ripe bananas – mashed
60ml plain yoghurt
2 large eggs
1.5tsp bicarbonate of soda
1tsp baking powder
300g plain flour

  • Preheat the oven to 180°C, 160°C Fan.
  • Cream the margarine and the sugar until fluffy.
  • Add the eggs one at a time, mixing the first in well before adding the second.
  • Add the mashed bananas and the yoghurt and mix thoroughly.
  • Mix the flour, bicarbonate and baking powder and add to the wet ingredients a spoonful at a time. Stop mixing when fully combined.
  • Spoon into the prepared muffin tin, filling each pastry case 3/4 full. NB A quarter-cup measure can be useful if, like me, you have a rather deep muffin tin. Depending on the size and juiciness of your bananas, this might make more batter than is required. Have some paper cases set out in a second pan ready to take any leftover cake batter – they can all bake at the same time.
  • Bake for 10 minutes, then tun the pan 180 degrees, to ensure even browning. Cook for a further 7-10 minutes until a toothpick inserted into the cakes comes out clean.
  •  Remove the cakes from the tin and leave to cool on a wire rack.

Coffee Cream
600ml double cream
1-2 tbs espresso coffee powder

  • Add coffee powder to cream and whip until stiff.

Decoration
Caramel (there will be some left over from the filling)
Milk
Biscuit crumbs – 1 crunchy biscuit (crushed) will be plenty
Banana chips

To assemble the cupcakes

  • Using a sharp knife, cut out a cone of cake from each cupcake and discard.
  • Fill the hole with caramel – 1 teaspoon should be sufficient.
  • Fill a piping bag fitted with a star tip with the coffee cream and pipe swirls on top of each cupcake. Make sure to cover the caramel filling completely.
  • Using the leftover caramel, mix with a little milk until of a pouring consistency.
  • Drizzle caramel over the piped cream.
  • Sprinkle with biscuit crumbs and top with a banana chip.

Cost: £4.78 (August 2011)

Cross-section of a Banoffi Pie cupcake


Millionaire’s Shortbread Cups

Millionaire's Shortbread Cups
Wotchers!

Many moons ago, I lived in Edinburgh for a time, very close to a great little deli. It was there that I first discovered Millionaire’s Shortbread – traditionally sold as a wonderfully decadent slab of shortbread, covered by a thick layer of caramel and finished off with a chocolate-based topping. Since then, I have sampled it all over, with varying degrees of enjoyment. If one layer isn’t quite right, it can spoil the whole indulgent experience. The shortbread might be too dry, or too cakey or too crumbly. The caramel might be too sweet, too solid, or too runny and if the topping is made from something merely ‘chocolate flavoured’ – then there’s definite disappointment ahead, not to mention all the ‘snack malfunctions’ that might occur, leaving you with a devastation of crumbs and caramel tumbling down your front.

The solution would seem to be to make it yourself – however that too is fraught with difficulties. Quite apart from all the possible pitfalls mentioned above – using pure chocolate for the topping isn’t the solution either, as I learned when I made some for visitors a while back. After lovingly making the caramel from scratch and then spreading the top with a thick layer of the finest chocolate, I decided to cut it at the table for maximum effect (Attention-seeking? Moi?). Well it certainly made an impact, but not in the way I had hoped, because as I plunged the knife into the (thick and now quite solid) chocolate layer, the knife stuck firmly and took the whole slab of chocolate with it, thereby forcing the entire caramel layer to squidge out the sides and drip onto the table.  Awkward.

Anyhoo – enough of the preamble. Here’s my solution to all of the above problems. Mini shortbread cups you can eat in just 2 bites, filled with caramel and just drizzled with melted chocolate. Great for the school fete bake stall too!

Millionaire’s Shortbread Cups
250g butter
75g icing sugar
1tsp vanilla extract
230g plain flour
35g cornflour

1 x 397g tin of Nestle Carnation Caramel
100g plain chocolate – 70% cocoa for preference

Equipment
Food processor
Mini-muffin tray
Pestle or some other round-ended item
Piping bag

  • Blitz shortbread ingredients in food processor until they come together in a ball. The dough will be very soft.
  • Divide into balls weighing 15g. This is not as fiddly as it sounds, as long as you have a digital scales – you soon ‘get your eye in’ on the size required, and then it’s only a matter of trimming excess dough if necessary.
  • Put one dough ball into each of the well-greased mini-muffin cups and press it to the sides. Handy Tip: I use the rounded end of my pestle to just press down onto the ball – and it’s so soft it moulds to the muffin cup with one simple movement. Prick the bases with a fork to keep them from rising during cooking.
  • Put muffin tray into the freezer for 15 minutes, to firm up the dough. This will help it hold its shape when put into the hot oven.
  • Heat oven to 160C Fan.
  • Bake on bottom shelf of oven for 10 minutes. Turn pan, then cook for another 10 minutes or until shortbread is browned. NB Don’t take the pan out too early, or the bases will not be cooked.
  • If the shortbread has risen too much, while its still hot, use your pestle to press down firmly to re-form the cup shape.
  • Cool the shortbread for 5 minutes, then ease the cups out of the pan and set to cool on a rack.
  • When the shortbread has cooled completely, tip the caramel into a bowl and beat briskly with a fork until smooth.
  • Put a teaspoon of caramel into each cup. Be careful not to overfill the cups – you want the caramel level with the top of the biscuit – it really is a very scant teaspoon.
  • Break the chocolate into pieces and put into a ceramic or glass bowl.
  • Heat in the microwave in bursts of 30 seconds, stirring after each turn.
  • Spoon the melted chocolate into the piping bag, snip the end (if using a disposable bag) and drizzle zigzags of chocolate  over the cups.

Makes about 40 mini-cups

Cost: £4.05 (July 2011) – 10p a cup!