There are a few things I think of as secret weapons in the kitchen. You know, skills that are pretty simple once we get a few things right and inspire self-confidence in the kitchen. A rich, chewy Chocolate Chip Cookie is on this list of kitchen secret weapons, as is a simple Roasted Chicken. Both inspire comfort and confidence. Also on our list of kitchen secret weapons is homemade caramel for its secret ease and definite versatility.
This caramel is made with mostly butter and brown sugar (honey, too!) which makes it really easy to simmer up and bind together. There’s also a lovely amount of spice – spice and salt enough to make this popcorn nearly impossible to set aside, making this (and every) caramel our secret weapon this summer.
Think: popcorn, ice cream, and whatever else you might think to swirl caramel into (yep, brownies).
Here’s what you’ll want to make this unstoppable popcorn:
• freshly popped popcorn – you’ll want to pop it yourself for the best tasting popcorn. Corn kernels, a hot pan, and a splash of oil will do the trick.
• unsalted butter, brown sugar, and honey as the base of our caramel.
• cinnamon, harissa spice, and sea salt for an intriguing balance of sweet and heat.
• baking soda to loosen the melted butter and sugar mixture to chewy. It’s a very scientific reaction that makes for a bubbling chewy caramel. It’s the secret weapon to our secret weapon.
We’ll start by melting together the butter, brown sugar, and honey. I find it useful to use a larger pot than you might think. The ingredients will at first be shallow in this medium-sized pan but once we add the baking soda, the mixture will foam and we’ll be thankful for the extra space.
Whisk over medium heat until the mixture comes together. The butter will melt. The sugar will melt. The honey is doing its thing, and my goodness it’s luscious.
Once the mixture is bubbling, smooth, and deepened to a mahogany color, remove it from the heat.
Here’s where the secret weapon science comes to play.
Mix in the baking soda while whisking vigorously. Whisk the mixture as vigorously and the caramel starts to bubble. You’ve got this.
Ah – you might also consider mixing together the spices, soda, and salt all at once to save yourself the effort. I mixed all of the spices, soda, and salt into the caramel separately. Both ways work!
The baking soda will create a fluffy (actually fluffy) and lightly colored caramel.
Stir in the harissa, cinnamon, and salt. Whisk to happily and evenly combined.
The heat of the caramel mixture will help the ground spices bloom and the salt dissolve.
The popcorn bowl is very lightly greased which will keep the precious caramel from sticking to the sides of the bowl. A heat-proof spatula is a preferred when it comes to such hot sugar and this mixture will surely melt a spatula that’s not prepared for it.
Pour the hot caramel over the popped corn – and here’s where we move quickly.
Toss to combine.
Toss and keep the caramel off your fingers (it’s hot!).
Toss to coat, but just as best as you can. It’s hard to coat every piece completely, but that’s part of the charm.
The good news is, the popcorn is ready to eat just as soon as it cools enough to handle.
Or! For a more crisp caramel corn, spread the coated popcorn across a parchment lined baking sheet and let it lightly bake in the oven for about an hour. Patience required but it’s worth it!
I’m a secret salt-feind so I love an extra dose of sea salt before I bake my caramel corn.
Just. Look. At. This. Glory!
The harissa adds a really lovely smokey spice to the caramel corn. Something you can’t quite put your finger on but something you truly can’t stop eating. The ground cinnamon adds a familiar balance and the salty sweet notes of brown sugar and sea salt makes this juuuust right.
Store in an airtight container (especially if it’s humid where ya live, hello New Orleans), and share with your friends when they stop in for a visit. It’s summer, secret weapon, county fair vibes.
Photos with my dear Jon Melendez.