Caramel Popcorn, liquefied
Y'all.... I could not be more proud.
To say I was nervous about The Washington Freakin' Post (that's their official name, in case you didn't know) coming to my house (well, not the actual PAPER, obviously, but one of my favorite food writers, Jane Black) is to say... well....I am at a loss for words. Shocker, I know. Anyone who does media relations for a living will tell you that when The Washington Post comes a-calling, it's either gonna be really good, or really bad.
And in this case, wooooo-hoooooooo!!!!!!!
Jane and I hadn't met before, and I'm so very glad we finally had the chance not only to talk, but also cook together. So, thanks, Jane (and her awesome editors) for including me in the story, and for not mentioning the fact that I kept dropping things because I was nervous, and that my kitchen floors look like they belong in a 1983 issue of House notreallyallthatBeautiful.
Now, let's get to the dish.
OH, WAIT -- before we do, there's one more thing I need to tell you about.
When I wrote French Laundry at Home, I did a fund-raising drive for Share Our Strength. Now, a year later, the childhood hunger landscape has changed, and not for the better. I know times are financially tough for all of us and we're all watching our wallets a little more closely this holiday season, but I bet when you go to bed tonight, you'll be able to wake up tomorrow morning and have a cup of coffee and a bagel or some eggs or a bowl of cereal, and not think twice about it. That's not the case for 1 in 6 kids in America. And that breaks my heart.
I work with Share Our Strength all year long, but I wanted to do a special campaign on this blog this holiday season and I've sweetened the pot, so to speak. We've created a dedicated Alinea at Home Share Our Strength campaign, and if you click on that page and make a donation, you'll be entered to win some really cool prizes -- the wonderful team at Alinea is donating five Alinea cookbooks, and my friends at Workman/Artisan have donated two copies of Thomas Keller's new sous vide book, Under Pressure.
You could donate $5. You could donate $500. Doesn't matter. Every little bit helps. And, every donation gets an equal chance when we randomly select the winners.
Share Our Strength is out there every single day working with other nonprofits to not only make sure that community food banks and soup kitchens have the tools they need on the local level, they also work on the national and state level to address the systemic infrastructure and policy issues that need to change to be able to have an impact on childhood hunger. I know the folks at Share Our Strength well, and I know they do great work because I've seen it first-hand. So, I hope you'll do what you can to help them ensure that every single day, no child in America goes without food.
I'll mention this again in future posts, but more details can be found at Strength.org/carolblymire. Pass it on.
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Now, on to the Caramel Popcorn, liquefied...
I don't know anyone who doesn't love caramel popcorn. Do you? If you do, will you please smack them for me, because HOW CAN YOU NOT LOVE THE STUFF?!?! It's unAmerican. I love the combination of salt and sweet in most any dish, but there's something special about caramel popcorn. It always reminds me of the Ocean City, New Jersey boardwalk and Johnson's popcorn -- warm and fresh, and devoured after a night of playing miniature golf or riding the rides at Gillian's Fun Deck and Wonderland when I was a little girl. My cousins and I would get a big bucket of it, and we'd eat it as we walked down the boardwalk past the video arcade, so we could check out the cute boys working at Mack and Manco's Pizza. There was always something special about that caramel popcorn. Yes, it would get stuck in your molars and you'd be picking it out of your teeth by the end of the walk home, but the taste of it combined with the sounds of the summer boardwalk and the waves crashing just under your feet... I'd take any amount of molar picking to have one of those carefree nights again, wouldn't you?
Now, the advantage of eating Caramel Popcorn à la Achatz is that there is no molar picking whatsoever. Instead, you get a concentrated bolt of flavor all in one little shot, and during the cooking process, you get to see something that quite resembles what I yacked up on the basement floor of the Delta Tau Delta house in 1987. So, it's a win-win all around!
Here's my mise en place for the Popcorn part of the dish:
I heated the canola oil in a large pot, just until it started smoking. Then, I added the popcorn and put the lid on the pot. The book said to shake the pan constantly, which I tried to do, but my burners don't really allow for that without my going deaf from all the racket, so I did the best I could, and shook every 5-7 seconds. Within about 15 seconds of putting the kernels in the pot, they started popping. And popping. And popping some more. By the time the popping stopped, the popcorn had reached the lid.
Do you know how LONG it's been since I made real popcorn? Like in a pot with oil? Growing up, we had the Joe Namath popcorn popper, but before that, I vaguely remember an afternoon experimenting with Jiffy Pop that did not go well, and one or two times making popcorn in a pot with oil that also didn't go all that well and required the pots to be replaced. So, maybe 1975? 1976? Wow. And now, 32 years later, I'm back in the fold and making popcorn the old-fashioned way, forever and ever, amen, because dude, EVERY kernel popped, and not one single kernel or piece burned or stuck to the pan. Wow. Sometimes, things from the olden days really do work better. Now GET OFF MY LAWN, you meddling kids.
As many of you know, the meausrements for the recipes in the Alinea cookbook are done by weight. And, I was incredibly precise about measuring the amount of kernels just as the book indicated -- 100 grams of kernels to be popped.
After popping the corn, the instructions require you to measure 125 grams of the popped popcorn to start the next step... so wouldn't you naturally assume that once the 100 grams of kernels were popped, you were going to have at least 125 grams of popcorn?
My popped popcorn? All of it? 107 grams.
Actually, I think what I really said out loud when the scale tipped 107 was something unprintable in an American daily newspaper or any media outlet governed by FCC regulations. And then, I said, "Grant Achatz, why hast thou forsaken me?"
To which Jane replied, "Should we pop more popcorn?" to which I replied, "Um, maybe?" And after a bit of back and forth, we decided just to move forward without popping more because in all honesty, I didn't think 21 grams of popcorn would make that much of a difference in the final product.
I put the popcorn into a clean pot, along with the butter, sugar, salt, and water and brought it to a simmer, stirring to incorporate all the ingredients.
I let it simmer for about five minutes over medium heat, stirring every now and then, after which point, it looked like this:
My first reaction was that it looked like the aftermath of the Delts' 1987 Heaven and Hell party, but after straining it, it looked more like corn pudding, which was much more appetizing for all of us.
Let me take a minute to talk about the smell. It's sooooo much better than the farty movie theatre popcorn smell (which smells great for the first 30 seconds, and then just ends up smelling, well, farty). This popcorn pudding purée (because it went into the blender and was strained again before serving, but that's one of the steps I don't have a photo of) was sweet and salty and smelled like my favorite corn pudding dish, only better, and more like fall, if that makes sense. We tasted it at this point, and the only way I can think of to describe how it tasted is to say that it tasted like chewed-up popcorn... but not in a gross-out kind of way. In a really awesome kind of way.
We set the popcorn liquid aside in a bowl and began working on the Caramel Froth part of the dish.
To start, I made some simple syrup, by heating one cup of water and one cup of sugar, stirring over low heat until the sugar dissolved, and letting it cool to room temperature. To do this dish, you probably only need half that amount, but I like to have extra simple syrup around to add to my coffee in the morning, or to mix in with some cranberry seltzer.
Next, I heated some sugar and water in a small saucepan, until it reached 340 degrees F.
Then, I removed it from the heat, and added the remaining water and simple syrup the recipe called for and whisked it for a few seconds to ensure everything was incorporated (the book says "dissolved" but I'm not sure why, since everything was in liquid form already). Knowing it was going to splatter all over the damn place, I shielded myself using a silicone oven mitt. So, if you're making this at home, PLEASE BE CAREFUL during this step because this stuff will fly all over the place, so stand back, and use some heat-safe precautions. You don't need a hazmat suit, so don't get all dramatic, but get your kids and pets out of the kitchen, and use something to shield yourself from the splatter, fer cryin' out loud.
Here's what it looked like when it was done:
I let it cool for a few minutes, then poured it into a Rubbermaid container to let it cool to room temperature.
Next, I added the soy lecithin, and tasked Jane with using the immersion blender to froth it.
After 5-7 minutes of blending and frothing, it hadn't really done what we'd hoped in the froth department, so we just said, "Hey, there are three of us here, and it looks like there's enough froth for three servings, so let's stop sucking the power off the grid and just do these three servings for now."
(anyone who has any advice/insight on why this didn't froth up like we thought it would, please chime in on the comments; love you, mean it)
To plate, or, um, to "glass," I poured a little bit of the Popcorn liquid into the glass, then topped it with the Caramel Froth.
Vanity shot alert!!!!!
So, how did it taste? Because both popcorn and caramel are so fragrant on their own, let alone together, at first, it was powerful to the point of being borederline overwhelming... until it settled on my tongue and then, wwwoooooowwwwww... it was good. Really, really good. Like m-f-ing good. Salt, sweet, butter, creaminess, popcorn-y, smooth, rich, amazing.
In retrospect, I would have made the Caramel Froth part of the dish first, to better plan the cool-to-room-temperature part of the process. I feel like I didn't plan my time as wisely or efficiently as I usually do. But in the end, it all worked out. I'm just sayin'.... next time, I'd do the reverse.
And, I need to figure out the whole frothing thing. I've used soy lecithin before, and I've frothed and foamed other dishes, and they've worked within seconds. Something about this one just didn't work the way I thought it would. But I attribute it to user error, so don't cross this one off your list.
Would I make it again? Absolutely. It'd be a fun thing to serve at an Oscar party or movie night, or maybe to commemorate a first snowfall. And, I'm pretty sure you could make both these elements ahead of time and reheat the Popcorn liquid, and froth the caramel just before serving. So, yeah, I'd do this again, for sure.
Thanks again, Jane, for a great piece.
And don't forget the Share Our Strength campaign. This issue is so important to me.... I hope it'll be important to you, too. Especially with, like, prizes and stuff.
Up Next: Yolk Drops, asparagus, Meyer lemon, black pepper
Resources: Popcorn from Glenville Hollow Farms at the Takoma Farmers Market, Domino sugar, 365 organic butter, 365 canola oil, David's kosher salt, soy lecithin from Will Goldfarb.
Music to Cook By: Sadly, we didn't listen to any tunes while we cooked because we were too busy talking and (not)frothing. However, if you really need a musical suggestion, particularly one you can use to song-poison someone, let me suggest this lovely, lovely, not-at-all annoying song. Gggrrrrrrrr. My friend, Brad, happened to use the phrase "knee-deep in the hoopla" this week, and now I can't stop singing, "Marconi plays the mamba," so I hope by passing it along to you, perhaps I might be able to avoid going completely clinically insane by Friday.
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