Saturday, September 24, 2005

Rosemary Caramel Popcorn

The season is turning, and I love it. Our shelling nuts are out in a bowl with the nutcrackers, beckoning to Birdy like a siren song of fillingness ("Ooof, I ate too many pecans," she says, surrounded by shells like a zoo animal.). The woodstove crackles and steams and blasts out its fragrant heat. The cardinals dart and blush at the feeder. And light is pouring in from the sky around the leafless braches, from our twinkling Christmas tree, from the hush of our menorah. Oh, and the music! We listened to the Pandora Swingin' Christmas station all weekend, and were in corny-favorites heaven. They must have played a hundred versions of "Baby It's Cold Outside," and the line "maybe just a cigarette more," sends the kids into fits of appalled hilarity.

Plus, there's the lovely cold, which only seems to exaggerate our extreme coziness. (New reality show? Extreme Coziness! How many throw blankets will it take to cover them all? How much decaffeinated Early Grey could they possibly drink?) "The stream at school was totally isolated!" Birdy announced on Friday, and we were briefly confused. "Like, they roped off to keep you from going near it?" I tried, and her brow furrowed. "What? No. They didn't care. It was just a little ice anyways." "Aha!" I said. "Icelated, like, covered in ice?" And she said, "Of course--what did you think I meant?"

In a related conversation, she mused aloud about how there should be a kind of rain stick--one of those instrument tubes with the musically clattering beans--only it should be a snow stick that makes the sound of falling snow. Zen, right? I might try marketing it. The silent snow stick. They'd be easy enough to make.

And then there's this popcorn, which reminded Birdy about a project they'd done at school using oils from "Rosemary, peppermint, thyme, and… I want to say… Ontario?" Yes, that's right. Canadian provinces make the most fragrant essences. Our rosemary plant is still staggering along, despite our not bringing it into the warm inside, like it would prefer. It all but presses its piney face longingly against the glass. But I sent Birdy out to pick some, because in this month's Martha Stewart magazine she had a rosemary-scented caramel-corn recipe that looked like the love child of my rosemary pecans and my salted caramel popcorn. I swapped in maple syrup for the brown sugar and corn syrup, added pecans and cayenne (that bit of spicy warmth totally makes it, if you ask me), and chopped the rosemary to distribute it more evenly. And it is about as perfect a snack food as you could ask for: sweet, salty, herbal, spicy, and addictive. We ate all of it while we were trimming our tree. And I hope we got it out of our system, the gorging on the rosemary caramel popcorn, since I'm planning to make more of it for holiday giving, and I'll be so frustrated if we eat it all by mistake. I'm either going to package it in the kind of silvery paint bucket I show here (with cellophane tied around it) or I'm going to package it in new 1-gallon paint lidded paint cans. You can get both at Home Depot, and I love the way they look. Plus, you can seal the lidded paint can, label it, and put it right in the mail, without a box. How cool is that?

Rosemary Caramel Popcorn
Makes 12 or so cups
Active time: 10 minutes; total time: 1 hour

Of course you could omit the rosemary and the cayenne and it would still be divine. But try it this way. The worst that happens is your kids don't like it. And there are worse things than that, if you know what I'm saying. Sadly, my kids loved it.

2 tablespoons oil
1/2 cup popcorn kernels
1 cup pecan pieces, toasted at 350 for 7 minutes
1 stick butter
2/3 cup maple syrup
1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon kosher salt (or half as much table salt)
1/2 teaspoon baking soda

Heat the oven to 250.

Pop the popcorn. As I like to mention at every possible moment, whether or not it's relevant, we are totally in love with our Whirly Pop. We use it nearly every day. Seriously. You should end up with something like 10 cups of popcorn, but you don't need to measure it or anything. Combine the popcorn and pecan pieces in the world's most ginormous bowl, a very large roasting pan (as shown here), or your kitchen sink, that you've scrubbed and dried very well. As we are now the proud owners of an actual roasting pan (thanks again, Mom and Dad!), this is the first time I've not made it in the sink.

Now combine the butter and maple syrup in a medium-sized pot and bring it to a boil over medium heat. Boil it for 5 minutes, or until a candy thermometer shows something approaching 250. (I boiled mine for five minutes, at which point the thermometer was at 240. Fine.) Turn off the heat, and stir in the rosemary, cayenne, salt, and baking soda. It will get delightfully foamy and fluffy and creamy (from the baking soda), at which point you should pour it over the popcorn and pecans. Use a wooden spoon or two to toss it and stir it gently, trying to coat the popcorn as evenly as possible. Pour it onto a large, rimmed baking sheet and bake for 45 minutes (stir it once, gently so it doesn't all flip onto the floor), until it is dry. But it's tricky to tell, because it will feel sticky and oily still while it's hot, so you need to pull a piece out and let it cool for a minute, and then see if it's dry to the touch. If it's still sticky, give it another few minutes.

Cool, then break into pieces and serve or package for giving away. Sigh.

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