|Salty, spicy sweet caramel corn with cayenne and cashews.|
I watched a kid eating some of this caramel corn last night. An adult nearby was also having some. She warned the boy that it was a little spicy. After taking a couple mouthfuls, he told her no it wasn't. (At first, it is rich, buttery-caramely sweet.) She said that it was spicy you just had to give it a second. He had some more and adamantly told her no, no, it really wasn't spicy at all.
About 30 seconds into the conversation, he yelled, "Whoa! It got spicy!" And then he stopped eating the caramel corn. The adult just raised her eyebrows and continued to munch away. It was pretty funny.
I've made this recipe twice. Last night and last December. Somehow the batch from last December was better. I think it had to do with how long I let the caramel cook and the quality of my cayenne. For last night's batch, I was kind of in a hurry and I don't think I let the caramel caramelize long enough. The batch was still quite good, but it was not as memorable as I thought it should be.
The interesting thing about this recipe is, of course, the cayenne. There is something genius about taking regular, cloyingly sweet caramel corn and making it a little spicy. It is addicting. The spice level of your caramel corn will depend on your cayenne. Cayenne's spice level varies depending on how fresh it is. If you are anything like me, you don't know how old your cayenne is--it just seems like it's always been there on the spice shelf. I added 1/2 teaspoon of cayenne to this most recent batch and it was just on this side of underwhelming. Adjust your cayenne level depending on how spicy you like your snacks and how fresh your cayenne is.
Like many of my favorite recipes, I owe this one to Smitten Kitchen. Why does she always have the best recipes? I don't know how she does it.
Spicy Caramel Corn
- Nonstick cooking spray
- 3 tablespoons olive oil or vegetable oil (feel free to use less!)
- 1/2 cup popcorn kernels
- 2 cups salted cashews or peanuts (optional)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
- 1/4 to 3/4 teaspoons cayenne
- 3 cups sugar
- 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt (depending on how salty you like it)
- Lightly coat 2 large heatproof spatulas, a very large mixing bowl (or 2 medium large bowls) and 2 baking sheets with nonstick spray. (I used parchment in addition to the spray on my baking sheets.)
- Heat oil over medium high heat in a large pot with a lid. Add the popcorn kernels, cover, and shake the pot until kernels are coated in oil. As the popcorn pops, shake the pot to keep from burning. Transfer all fully popped popcorn to prepared bowl, leaving any un-popped kernels in the pot. Toss popcorn with nuts (optional).
- In a very small bowl, stir baking soda and cayenne together.
- In a large saucepan, combine the sugar, butter, salt and 1/2 cup water. Cook over high heat, without stirring, for 10-14 minutes until the mixture is a golden yellow caramel.
- With baking sheets at the ready, remove the caramel from the heat. Whisk in the baking soda and cayenne. The mixture will bubble up some!
- Quickly pour the caramel over the popcorn and use the prepared spatulas to mix the caramel and popcorn/nuts until well coated.
- Quickly spread the popcorn on your baking sheets, separating any big clumps. Cool to room temperature to serve.