As the basil wilts in the garden and the cilantro goes wispy, I start reaching with increased regularity for the spice cupboard. Cardamom, ginger, clove, nutmeg, allspice and cinnamon – all fragrant and floral – evoke notions of comfort against the chill outside. One whiff and all feels well in the world.
What’s more, they spark interest in fall desserts. Ginger seems to coax out more sweetness from pears. An apple pie without cinnamon invariably disappoints. Plums are perfumed with cardamom in a stout and sturdy almond cake, with the delicate scent a hard-to-place muskiness that makes all the difference.
I have found another ideal canvas for these spices – caramel. Whether the chai-masala-infused caramel I pair with the pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving or the cinnamon and cider caramels I start in November, the burnt-sugar sweetness is the ideal foil to heady spices. They bloom and round out in the warm caramel, and temper its cloying effect.
Lately, I’m conjuring a sense of season through spiced caramel popcorn.
I’ve long had a love of candied corn. From standing outside the corner store at seven or eight years old, box in hand, simultaneously munching and searching for the prize amongst the kernels, all the way to adulthood when it was one of my pregnancy cravings. (My go-to at that time was the Double Butter flavour – a magical buttery toffee – from a mall kiosk.)
When my children were small, I started making caramel corn at home; it was a neat party trick for play dates or to pack up for class parties. It’s easy to pull together, and since freshly made there’s a crisp delicacy that is often missing from the uber-lacquered store-bought variety.
Here, the spices combine into a smoky, deep hum of fall; dark somehow so the candy has edge and presence instead of simple sweetness. Cumin establishes a savoury baseline. A pinch of chili powder bolsters the amber hue of the coating, one not unlike that of a maple leaf in late October, as well as subtle throat-heating buzz. Instead of granulated sugar, you can use yellow or brown for bolstered caramel notes, though I prefer the texture of coatings made with white alone.
This popcorn clumps into burnished clusters, but the coating is intentionally inconsistent. Instead of each puffed kernel fully shellacked with sugar, they are tortoiseshell-mottled, so the sweetness and heat capriciously build and ebb. The seeds stick in the crevices and freckle the kernels, while the nuts have snap and crunch.
One last thing: Even though I have chucked caution to the wind and made this popcorn on the rainiest of weekends, humidity is its enemy as it will soften the coating. After the popcorn cools completely, immediately transfer to an airtight container for storage. As we button up for these fall days, do the same for the popcorn.
Speedy spiced popcorn
Ingredients (Makes about 12 cups)
- 11 cups popped popcorn (plain, without seasoning)
- 3/4 cup raw, unsalted nuts (peanuts, almonds, cashews and/or pecans)
- Kosher salt, as needed
- 3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, paprika, or dried chili powder
- 1/8 teaspoon ground clove
- 3/4 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
- 1 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1/4 cup golden corn syrup
- 2 tablespoons water
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 cup mixed seeds (poppy, sesame, pepitas and hulled sunflower)
- Sea salt, flaky or fine, or other finishing salt
Pour the popped popcorn in a large, wide bowl.
Preheat an oven to 250 F. Line two heavy, rimmed baking sheets with Silpats or parchment paper. Spread the nuts across one of the pans and roast in the hot oven, stirring regularly, until aromatic and golden, about 10 minutes. Season with salt, scatter the nuts onto the popcorn and set both prepared baking pans aside.
In a small bowl, stir together 3/4 teaspoon salt, cinnamon, cumin, ginger, black pepper, and clove.
Scrape the butter into a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Tip in the sugar, corn syrup and water. Set over medium heat and cook, stirring regularly, until the butter is melted and the sugar has dissolved. Stop stirring and bring to a boil. If any sugar clings to the side of the pan, wash the crystals away with a pastry brush dipped into water. Continue to cook the sugar, until golden in colour, around 5 minutes. If you have a candy thermometer, the syrup should be about 250 F. While it is bubbling, carefully swirl the pan now and again to distribute any dark spots.
Pull saucepan from the heat and quickly stir in baking soda and half the spice mixture with a heatproof spatula or spoon (it will bubble up enthusiastically).
Carefully pour the caramel over the popcorn, turning the kernels with the heat-proof spoon or spatula to coat. Scatter the seeds on top. Divide the popcorn between the two prepared pans and spread into even layers.
Bake the popcorn in the hot oven for 30 minutes, turning occasionally. After the first flipping, sprinkle the remaining spice mix unevenly over all so there are dusty, rusty patches.
Once the full 30 minutes are up, season with salt, then bake for 5 minutes more. The kernels should be thinly coated and shining when ready.
Leave the popcorn to cool completely on the trays. Break up any large clumps then transfer to an airtight container for up to 1 week.
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