December 28, 2011

Bacon-Cashew Caramel Corn

I feel like I should apologize for yet another post that has nothing to do with the Chico farmers market or local food, but I won't, because this caramel corn is freaking delicious.  When you try it, I'm sure you'll be glad I included it here.


For Christmas gifts this year we gave edible gifts: homemade marshmallows and hot cocoa syrup, delicious homemade caramels (flavored with local mandarin peel instead of vanilla bean, or with whiskey), little honey bears and mint-chocolate covered almonds from Borden-Huitt Ranch and homemade caramel corn.  Hopefully everyone liked what they received.  Truly, I enjoyed each treat very much.

A month or so ago a friend posted on Facebook that he'd made Bacon Caramel Corn.  That little tidbit stuck in the back of my mind, and when I needed one more treat for our treat bags, I decided that it must be Bacon Caramel Corn.  I looked online and there were quite a few recipes.  I had decided to use one from Epicurious, one that called for oolong tea to flavor the caramel, but then I realized that the recipe didn't call for butter, and, I don't know about you, but I think caramel corn should have butter in it.  I mean, c'mon, what's popcorn without butter?

So I asked my friend if he had any tips.  He said that he used Paula Dean's regular Caramel Corn recipe, altering it by popping the popcorn in bacon fat, and tossing cooked bacon pieces in with the caramel and popcorn.  I have never been a Paula Dean fan, but he said that it "turned out pretty awesome," and he's one of those people who I trust about culinary issues, so I had to try it.

Yep, it was pretty awesome.  Even without the salty smokiness of the bacon and unique almost-soft nuttiness of the cashews, Paula Dean's standard caramel corn recipe would be wonderful: perfectly buttery, with the caramel integrated into the popcorn enough that you shouldn't get any break-your-teeth-hard gobs of caramel.  Not only that, but it's easy to make.  Unlike the caramel corn recipe I've used in the past, this one does not require a candy thermometer.  You just boil together the sugar, corn syrup and butter, then pour it over the popped popcorn, stirring it to coat everything.  Then you cook it in a low oven for an hour, stirring every fifteen minutes to get that fairly even coat of caramel.  I also appreciate that this makes a huge batch.  It makes all the dirty pots and pans worth it.  Eight quarts of popcorn will fill a lot of treat bags, or make quite a few party guests very happy.  And if you have leftovers, it keeps for at least a week in an airtight container.  (If you include the bacon, some recipes recommend keeping it refrigerated for food safety reasons, but at least as many people insist that it should be fine kept in a cool place.) 

Bacon-Cashew Caramel Corn
adapted from Paula Dean's Grandma Paul's Caramel Corn Recipe with help from Craig Truesdell

1 lb sliced bacon, cut into 1/2" pieces
1 3/4 cups popcorn kernels, enough to yield 8 quarts popped corn
2 cups raw cashews
1 cup butter
2 cups packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup light corn syrup (light in color, not light as in sweetened with artificial sweetener)
1 teaspoon baking soda

Prepare bacon:  In large frying pan over medium heat, cook bacon pieces, stirring occasionally until most pieces are just getting crisp.  Set bacon aside.  Reserve bacon fat. 

Prepare popcorn:  Pour about 3 tablespoons of the bacon fat into a large pot that has a lid.  Turn the heat under the pot to medium-high, put three popcorn kernels in the fat.  Put the lid on and wait until you hear the popcorn popping.  When the three kernels pop, pour in almost one cup of popcorn (or as much as will comfortably pop in your pot).  Replace lid.  Shake pan while the popcorn pops to avoid burnt popcorn and allow steam to escape.  Remove pot from heat as soon as popping slows.  Pour popcorn into a large mixing bowl.  Repeat with more bacon fat and the remaining popcorn.

Measure eight quarts (24 cups) of popped corn into your largest mixing bowl (or directly into your roasting pan, or use two large mixing bowls if necessary), being careful to remove any unpopped kernels.  Add bacon pieces and cashews. Preheat oven to 200ยบ.

Prepare caramel: In medium saucepan, combine butter, brown sugar, salt and corn syrup over medium heat.  Boil for five minutes, stirring occasionally.  Remove from heat and use a heat-proof spatula to thoroughly stir in baking soda.  Carefully pour caramel over popcorn mixture and stir well to coat.  Transfer caramel corn to a large roasting pan and bake uncovered for one hour, stirring with a spatula every 15 minutes.  Spread on wax paper and allow to cool completely before packaging.

Store in an airtight container in a cool, dry place up to one week.

12/30/2011 Update:  I said in this post that I thought Paula Dean's original Caramel Corn recipe (linked above) would be wonderful, so I thought I'd better try it.  It is wonderful.  Crispy, sweet, just a little sticky.  Vaguely reminiscent of Corn Pops cereal.  The addition of nuts, with their protein and fat, makes it less of a total-sugar-overload, and the bacon really does add a special smokiness to the flavor.  I say, if you're not a vegetarian, the bacon is worth the extra 20 minutes and the pan it takes to fry it.

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