I love this recipe! I’m a big fan of caramel popcorn to begin with, and I found this very cool variation on a blog called Smitten Kitchen. The combination of hot and spicy with sweet is one that I find both fascinating and intimidating, ever since I learned about the Mayans mixing their hot chocolate with chili peppers. At university, I also discovered an addictive dark chocolate bar with hot pepper flakes from Cocoa Camino that tasted spectacular with coffee during class! That managed to convince me that the combination really does work, and actually produces some very unusual and delicious food.
In this recipe, the salt, cayenne pepper, and caramel all manage to hold their own, with no ingredient overpowering the other but each making its presence equally known. I used unsalted peanuts, rather than salted as the recipe called for, but compensated by adding an extra teaspoon of kosher salt.
Ingredients: Vegetable oil, ½ cup popcorn kernels, 2 cups unsalted peanuts (optional), 1-1/2 tsp baking soda, ½ tsp cayenne pepper (use more or less, depending on how you like it), 3 cups white sugar, 3 tbsp unsalted butter, 4 tsp kosher salt
Lightly coat two large spatulas, a very large mixing bowl (size is important!), and two large baking sheets with vegetable oil.
In a large pot with a lid, heat 3 tbsp vegetable oil over medium-high heat. Add the popcorn kernels, cover, and keep shaking the pot until all the kernels have popped. Transfer to the greased bowl, removing any unpopped kernels. Toss with the peanuts, if using.
In a small bowl, whisk together the baking soda and cayenne pepper.
Have the two baking sheets ready. In a medium saucepan, combine the sugar, butter, salt, and ½ cup water. Cook over high heat, not stirring after all ingredients have melted and been combined, until the mixture becomes a light golden-yellow caramel, about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and whisk in the baking soda mixture.
Immediately pour the caramel mixture over the popcorn. Working quickly and carefully, use the prepared spatulas to toss the caramel and popcorn together, as if you were tossing a salad, until the popcorn is well coated.
Spread the popcorn onto the baking sheets and quickly separate them into small pieces while still warm. Cool to room temperature, about 15 minutes. Once cool, store in an airtight container for up to two weeks.