Last updated on November 17th, 2016
With a book deadline looming (the manuscript now submitted, thankyouverymuch, PIEROGIES coming August 2015!), no lull in regular writing work (not that I’m complaining), and 11 guests coming for Thanksgiving dinner, something had to give. So for the first time since I commandeered the feast seven years ago, I conceded that yes, it might be better to have—gasp!—other people bring and make dishes to serve the meal potluck-style.
But I’m me. A control freak. An OCD party host who can’t completely let go of the reins, even if she does ease her white-knuckle grip just a teensy bit. And even though I had three fellow food writers (who are also three dear friends, duh) reassuringly contributing to the Thanksgiving meal, I still panicked that there wouldn’t be enough food on the table.
Which is why I ended up making two turkey pot pies, two spinach, Gruyere, and caramelized onion tarts with shredded Brussels sprouts for good measure, a boatload of tangy lentil and roasted sunchoke salad, and five pounds of mashed potatoes.
And then I started worrying about the desserts, stifling my urge to make a few more sweet pies and tarts. Dessert panic became an excuse to buy a bunch of small-batch ice creams for a sundae bar that would, with any luck, entice my guests into using up all the jars of caramel floating around my fridge—#foodwriterproblems, I tell ya.
As the gilded lily to each sundae, and because I didn’t have enough going on, I speedily whipped up a variation on homemade caramel corn, one of the most popular recipes from Classic Snacks Made from Scratch. Readers have always loved this one because it’s one of those high-maintenance/low-maintenance things—it’s way easy to pull off, with no need for a candy thermometer, and nets you a bunch of accolades for your almost-nonexistent troubles.
This time around, I threw some Chinese five spice powder into the caramel with a pinch of cayenne for a touch of tingly warmth. Chinese five spice powder—a blend of ground fennel, star anise, cinnamon, cloves, and Szechuan peppercorns—is my secret weapon when baked goods call for cinnamon but I want to subtly tweak the flavor. The spice combination is familiar enough that you’ll recognize it as “sweet” or “holiday,” but with a titch of savory spice that keeps people guessing.
I teased the caramel corn on Instagram as my “new Thanksgiving tradition.” I verbally slapped family and friends’ wrists when they started digging into the bag the night before Thanksgiving. (Sorry, Dan and Kerry!) But to make a long story short (too late!), after all that prep, I forgot to serve the caramel corn with the rest of the desserts anyway. We, of course, had more than enough food to go around. And in the hubbub of serving chocolate-Nutella babka, cranberry apple crumble pie, and chocolate chip cookie pie… I’m not proud of it, but it happened.
If you ever wonder how I relax when I’m not under crazy amounts of deadline pressure, apparently now I sit around by myself watching The Good Wife and eating Coolhaus balsamic fig and mascarpone ice cream topped with Chinese five spice and cayenne caramel corn. I’m like Kevin McAllister in Home Alone, only with no wet bandits at my door. “Keep the caramel corn, ya filthy animal.”
Chinese Five Spice and Cayenne Caramel Corn
adapted from Classic Snacks Made from Scratch: 70 Homemade Versions of Your Favorite Brand-Name Treats
Prep time: 10 minutes
Total time: 45 minutes
Makes about 12 cups
- 1 tablespoon organic canola oil or other neutral oil
- 1/3 cup popcorn kernels
- 8 tablespoons (1 stick; 4 ounces) unsalted butter
- 1/4 cup (2 3/4 ounces) light corn syrup or Lyle’s golden syrup
- 1 cup (7 1/2 ounces) packed dark brown sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon Chinese five spice powder
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
I’ll level with you: I’m still obsessed with my Whirley-Pop and it’s the only way I make popcorn at home. But it’s oh so easy to make bowls of popcorn that would do Olivia Pope proud with nothing more than a big, heavy-bottomed pot. Here’s how to make popcorn on the stovetop.
Once your popcorn is popped, set it aside while you make the caramel:
Preheat the oven to 200˚F and line a large rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper or a Silpat liner.
Melt the butter over medium heat in a stockpot or Dutch oven large enough to hold the caramel and all the popcorn—I usually go with my big old Le Creuset, but anything 4 quarts or larger will do.
Stir in the corn syrup, then stir in the sugar, five spice powder, cayenne, and salt.
Cook, stirring frequently, until the sugar is completely dissolved and the caramel starts to bubble around the edges of the pot.
Stir in the baking soda and cream of tartar. The caramel will get puffy, bubbly, and lighter in color. Continue to cook, stirring frequently, for 3-4 more minutes. You’ll see the caramel deepen to a rich golden amber hue and it’s gonna smell incredible. If it looks broken or curdled when you stir, don’t worry about it—that’s completely normal.
Take the pot off the heat and stir in the popped corn a cup or two at a time until each kernel is completely coated. Don’t rush or you’ll have popcorn spilling all over the place; just shake it in and stir, stir, stir.
Scrape the caramel corn onto the baking sheet and spread out in a single layer. Bake in the preheated oven for 15 minutes to harden the caramel.
Cool the popcorn to room temperature before breaking apart into bite-size pieces. (It’s hard to resist, I know!)
Store the popcorn in an airtight container at room temperature; it’ll stay fresh for about a week, but it never lasts that long.