Christmas traditions are an important part of making the holiday season special and memorable. Making this recipe for vanilla caramel corn will become one of your family’s new Christmas traditions!
When I was growing up, we didn’t have a lot of sweets in the house. I remember begging my mom to buy Twinkies and Ho-Ho’s like all of my friend’s parents did, but to no avail. My mother insisted that sugar-laden cakes weren’t healthy, so they had no place in my lunchbox. Poor me. 😉
Years later, I discovered that the absence of sweets in our home was less about nutrition, and more due to my mom’s lack of willpower around sugary treats.
By the way, I totally blame my sweet tooth on my mother.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that it wasn’t all denial and deprivation on the dessert front. Several things made a regular appearance in our kitchen: chocolate chip cookies, oodles of pies, chocolate cake…
And one of our Christmas traditions: vanilla caramel corn – every batch made from scratch.
I have to say that the caramel corn was always a Big Deal, since we only made it at Christmastime. Given that a batch miraculously disappeared in a few short days, I think making it once a year was definitely For the Best. We snacked a little before getting it out of the house by giving it to our friends and family for Christmas.
Who wouldn’t love caramel corn as a gift? Rich, sweet popped corn with that classic buttery finish–it’s darn near perfect. I tweaked my childhood recipe only slightly by adding vanilla bean paste, and amping up the saltiness factor, so now this vanilla caramel corn is perfect!
Now that I’m *ahem* older, Vanilla Caramel Corn is a Christmas tradition in our family, too.
After all the presents have been opened and sufficiently played with, one of our most favorite Christmas Traditions is to go outside and play in the snow. We build snow forts, wage epic snowball battles, and invariably end up sledding for hours on end. Once we can no longer feel our appendages, we come indoors so the boys can sip hot cocoa while I get to work on making warm, buttery caramel corn. Later, we snuggle up in front of the fire, watch a movie, and munch caramel corn–it’s the perfect end to the day.
Homemade caramel corn is a snap to make with popping corn, butter, kosher salt, vanilla bean paste (or extract), brown sugar, and light corn syrup.
First, line two rimmed half-sheet pans with silicone mats or parchment, then spray the heck out of any exposed part of the pans. Caramel is sticky! Second, preheat the oven to 200°F.
Grab your corn-popping-instrument-of-choice to pop the corn. I have a borderline-unhealthy affinity for the air popper that I’ve owned since
the dawn of time college.
Pop the light and fluffy popcorn into a very large bowl. I use the lid of my Tupperware cake taker for just this purpose.
Twenty four cups is a whole lot of popcorn!
Now, go on and grab a monster saucepan–at least 4 quarts in size, because the hot caramel will bubble and expand as it cooks. Believe me when I tell you that having hot caramel bubble over your pan and all over the place will ruin your day.
Place the butter, brown sugar, corn syrup, and salt into the saucepan. Set the pan over medium heat, and stir, stir stir!
Continue to whisk the caramel mixture until it comes to a rolling boil. Once it boils, turn off the heat and stir in the vanilla bean paste. It’s the vanilla bean paste that makes this caramel corn extra wonderful! But, hey…if you don’t happen to have any on hand, you can substitute with vanilla extract, just double the amount called for in the recipe.
Whisk in just a touch of baking soda to the hot caramel–the baking soda is exactly why you need such a large saucepan, because…
the baking soda will react as all good leaveners do, which is to aerated the caramel and make it fluffy. The fluff-factor will enable the caramel to coat the popped corn more evenly.
Immediately pour the hot caramel over the popped corn.
Fold and stir the popped corn to evenly coat it with the caramel. Work as quickly as possible to achieve maximum coverage before the caramel cools to much. The whole process should take less than 5 minutes.
Divide the caramel corn evenly between the prepared baking sheets, breaking up any large clumps. Pop the baking sheets in the oven.
Stir/flip the caramel corn every 15 minutes for an hour, breaking up any clumps as you go along.
Baking the caramel onto the popcorn ensures proper adhesion, ‘drying’ the caramel. This prevents the kernels from becoming one giant popcorn ball.
That wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, but it would make the caramel corn harder to eat politely.
Remove the caramel corn from the oven, and give it another good stir to break up the larger clumps. Once the caramel corn has cooled, it’s ready to eat.
Before you let your family know that the caramel corn is ready, find the especially caramel-laden pieces and eat them.
You made it, after all. It should become one of the Christmas traditions.
Store leftover caramel corn in an airtight container at room temperature for up to one week.