If you’ve ever been a tourist in Chicago, you’ve probably walked down State Street and noticed the smell of Garrett popcorn wafting through the air. (If you resisted stopping in to buy some, good for you, you’re a better person than most.) And while Garrett popcorn has been around for a long time, since 1949, caramel corn got its start in Chicago much earlier.
Frederick Rueckheim, originally from Germany, began making candy in Chicago shortly after the Great Chicago Fire. A few years later, his brother, Louis, joined him in Chicago. The two of them combined molasses-coated popcorn with peanuts to create a successor to the colonial treat of kettle corn, and the snack was officially presented to the public at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. (It should also be mentioned that the first popcorn machine, invented by Charles Cretors, was also debuted at the World’s Fair. His system unified the popping process, automating a job that was historically done by hand, and allowing popcorn sellers total mobility, which no doubt helped the Rueckheims.) Rueckheim trademarked the name Cracker Jack in 1896, and the same year an article about his new product appeared in the Chicago Tribune with the headline, “Do Not Taste It. If You Do You Will Part With Your Money Easy.” In the early 1900s, the lyrics of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” namechecked Cracker Jack, which had already become a staple at Major League Baseball games.
For this year’s National Caramel Popcorn Day, I decided to use a family recipe and make my mom’s caramel corn. (The alternative title for this post could be “Mom’s Super-Simple, Completely Addictive Caramel Corn.”) I remember, as a child, thinking that this recipe was the worst because after my mom poured caramel over the popcorn, I should have immediately been allowed to eat it. Instead, it had to bake for an hour. An hour! That’s like 4 days in Kid Time.
Brown Butter, Salted Caramel Corn
About 5 cups popped popcorn (About 3/4 or 1 cup, un-popped)
12 tbsp, unsalted butter
2/3 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup water
1/2 tsp salt, plus 1/2 tsp more sea salt for sprinkling
1/2 tsp baking soda
Pop your popcorn and add to a large bowl. If the popcorn fills your bowl completely, use two bowls. You will want enough room in the bowl to be able to stir in the caramel.
Preheat your oven to 200 degrees.
Add the butter to a saucepan and place on the stove over medium heat. Allow the butter to heat thoroughly. It will begin to sizzle and smoke a bit. It will turn a deep yellow color, before it turns into a light to medium brown. Turn off the heat.
Add the brown sugar, water, and 1/2 tsp salt to the saucepan and place over medium heat. At first, you will notice that the butter and water are separating. Stirring occasionally, bring the mixture to a slight boil. At this point you should see that the mixture is coming together. Stir for about 10 seconds while boiling, before turning off the stove.
Remove from heat and add in the baking soda and stir together. You will see the mixture foaming up and increasing in volume slightly.
Pour the mixture over your popcorn in the bowl. (If using two bowls, divide the mixture.) Stir together until the popcorn is covered by the caramel.
Spread out on one large cookie sheet, or two smaller cookie sheets. The caramel corn doesn’t have to be single layer, but it shouldn’t be piled up too far past the sides of the cookie sheet.
Bake for 1 hour, stirring the popcorn every 15 minutes. After the popcorn has baked for an hour, and is still warm, sprinkle the remaining sea salt over the top evenly.
Salty and sweet, with a little crunch. You will probably be like me as a child and ask yourself, “Why do I need to bake this? The popcorn is now covered in caramel. It’s ready!” But, trust me. Baking it toasts everything together and gives the caramel a deeper flavor. Your patience will be rewarded. So easy. And a great snack. Word to the wise: Do not make this popcorn while you’re alone in the house. Rookie mistake. There you’ll be, standing at the oven, eating handfuls of warm caramel corn off the cookie sheet. This is only OK if you have somehow managed not to eat handfuls each time you stirred it during baking…if that’s possible to avoid. I did not test that part of these instructions.
It’s great to have a bowl of it around for a dinner party, or, if you can resist eating all of it yourself while it’s baking, it’s also a great little gift to give. Package it up pretty and make your friends think you worked all day on it. (If you have children, they will think this anyway.) Happy snacking!