A few weeks back my friend Gemma came to stay. We perused the shops in the Corn Exchange, cooed over a baby Labrador we saw and generally had a good old natter. I don't get to see my friends from University very much, so when we get together, I like to do something a little bit special. Dinner and cocktails at Angelicas was the order of the day, so we put on our gladrags and headed into the skies of Leeds for a fancy night out.
Whilst the surroundings were Gossip Girl-esque, the cocktails divine and the service as pleasant as always, it was the starter which stood out in my mind as a true triumph. On a whim, we ordered a pot of chilli caramel popcorn to nibble whilst we decided on main courses, and it was a revelation in flavour. Salted caramel has long been the fashionable foodie choice, but this was on a whole other level. Combining the sweetness and the saltiness of your standard salted caramel offering with a kick of chilli - I've been dreaming about it ever since.
So I set to and made my own version, scouring the Internet to check chilli levels before I embarked upon this experiment and turning to the ever-wonderful Joy the Baker and her new cookbook for a caramel popcorn recipe that I could adapt without disappointment. The result? Sickly sweet and perfectly crunchy popcorn with a kick that you don't notice until a few seconds after you swallow. It was everything I dreamed of, and more. It was quickly gobbled up at Emma's birthday party (mostly by me!) and so I deemed it a culinary success.
There's a bit of time investment involved, but think nothing of it. Serve this up to your friends and they'll be singing your praises for months and begging you to bring another tray around. Making the popcorn itself is surprisingly easy, and satisfying. I don't think I'll ever get bored of that popping sound. The caramel sauce is a bit more involved but still something that beginner cooks could get their heads around with ease - just be careful of the melted sugar as it burns like hell if you get it on your skin.
For the popcorn, you'll need:
- 2 tbsps oil (I used vegetable but any low-flavoured oil will do)
- 1/2 cup of popcorn kernels (you'll be surprised how much this makes!)
- Your biggest saucepan, just to be on the safe side
- A sprinkling of salt
For the chilli caramel sauce you'll need:
- 400g brown sugar (I used demerara because I like the crunch that the granules give, but try golden caster if you'd prefer a smoother sauce)
- 225g unsalted butter
- 200g golden syrup
- 1 big pinch of good quality salt
- 1 tsp. bicarb of soda
- 1/2 tbsp. cayenne chilli pepper
1. First things first, warm some oil in a large saucepan over a medium heat. Pour in your popcorn kernels and cover with a lid (leave it very slightly ajar). Turn the heat down a smidge and wait for it to pop!
2. Once all - or most - of your popcorn has popped, pour out into a big roasting tray and sprinkle over some salt. Pour slowly so you can avoid any unpopped kernels right at the bottom of the saucepan.
3. Pop the sugar, butter (cut into chunks), golden syrup and salt into a saucepan over a low-to-medium heat. As the sugar starts to melt and the mixture starts to come together, whisk to keep it smooth.
4. Once everything has melted and you have a nice smooth sauce, take off the heat and add the bicarb of soda and the cayenne chilli. Whisk until everything is combined.
5. Pour the caramel sauce over the popcorn and gently stir with a wooden spoon until the sauce is evenly distributed and most of the kernels are covered.
6. Heat the oven to 90°C and pop the tray into the oven for 45 minutes. Take out every 15 minutes and give a quick toss/stir to make sure everything is cooked evenly.
7. Leave to cool for half an hour or so and then transfer into a big bowl, ready for munching! Be warned, it doesn't keep well (it'll go soft after a couple of hours) so eat quickly!