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Caramel corn

Time 1 hour 40 minutes
Yields Makes a generous 12 cups
Caramel corn
(Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times)
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With the strike over, the Academy Awards on and a brighter late-night TV future ahead, we can reclaim a spot on the couch, armed with popcorn, the snack nominated as America’s perennial audience favorite. But first, it’s time for an equipment check. Will your popcorn popper make the cut?

“We’re sold out,” was the refrain I heard at every department store and cookware store when I recently went in search of a new popcorn popper. There’s no question -- Americans love making popcorn at home. And fed up with air-popped, prepackaged microwaved or burnt-in-the-pan versions, we’re hitting the stores for poppers that deliver the goods: fresh, light puffs with a hint of kernel crunch.

I tested five poppers -- two stove-top, two electric and one that goes in the microwave -- using an inexpensive mainstream brand of popcorn, and got good results with all of them. But there’s a pretty broad range in technique to consider. Choosing the right popcorn machine depends on how interactive you want your popping experience to be. A fun popper to use, the Whirley-Pop is the sentimental favorite of many popcorn fans -- if only for its vintage mechanical rightness. A stove-top aluminum pan with a patented “crank and stir” mechanism, it was created 30 years ago on Wabash Valley Farms in Indiana, and it is still made there today. After putting oil and kernels in the pan, you place the Whirley-Pop on the burner over medium heat and slowly turn the wooden crank with one hand, holding the handle on the lid with the other hand. The crank rotates a stirring wand inside the pan, which tumbles the kernels on the hot surface. Keep turning for about three minutes, and voila -- more than 10 cups of perfectly popped kernels.

The Whirley-Pop’s stirring mechanism has been borrowed and updated in the designs of several recently introduced poppers.

The newest, Cuisinart’s electric EasyPop Popcorn Maker, puts a nifty twist on an old idea. This sleek machine, which appeared last fall, has a motorized stirring rod that keeps kernels hopping and skipping for about five minutes. Steam escapes through vents in the clear plastic lid, which cleverly converts into an attractive serving bowl.

From there, the field splits into high-tech, low-tech and alternative options. On the low-tech end, Nordic Ware’s long-handled popcorn pan is made for shaking over a grill as well as on a burner. Not a cord or an on/off switch in sight. Or, for those worried about health risks associated with packaged microwave popcorn but unwilling or unable to stop nuking, Presto PowerPop zaps plain ol’ kernels.

So, decide whether you want to simply push a button and get back to the broadcast or enjoy a hands-on approach to making a batch of popcorn. As different as they are, the poppers tested all hit their marks -- like the great supporting players they are.

1

Heat the oven to 200 degrees. In a large heat-proof bowl, combine the popcorn, peanuts, almonds and pecans. Place the bowl in the oven to warm while making the caramel. Lightly butter 2 baking sheets.

2

In a large heavy-bottomed saucepan, combine the butter, brown sugar, corn syrup and salt. Heat the pan over high heat, stirring to combine the contents, until the mixture comes to a boil. Reduce the heat to a strong simmer and continue cooking, stirring frequently, until a candy thermometer inserted reads 255 degrees. Stir in the baking soda and remove from heat.

3

Pour the caramel quickly over the popcorn and toss to coat evenly. Divide the caramel corn between the two baking sheets and place them in the oven. Bake, stirring occasionally, until the caramel dries and hardens, about 1 hour. Remove the trays from the oven and allow the caramel corn to cool on the pans. Break the cooled caramel corn into small clusters and store in airtight containers. The caramel corn will keep for 2 days, stored at room temperature.

Variations:
Spicy variation: For caramel corn with pine nuts and piment d’espelette (ground Basque chile, available at gourmet stores), follow the basic recipe at left, combining the brown sugar, corn syrup, salt, baking soda and 1 1/2 teaspoons piment d’espelette in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. When tossing the caramel with the popped corn, substitute 2 cups toasted pine nuts for the peanuts, almonds and pecans before placing in the oven. Serve each portion of caramel corn with a lemon wedge, and squeeze a few drops of lemon on the caramel corn just before eating.
From test kitchen director Donna Deane.