I grew up in Michigan, where the fall colors are vivid. Every year around autumn, my folks took a Sunday afternoon drive up to the High Rollaway to admire them. This picturesque area lifted high over the Manistee River near Newaygo, with a deck looking out over the orange, red and golden landscape. Steps led down to the river, but Little Brother and I were never allowed on them. (No doubt because we were pushing and shoving enough on the deck!)
One of the highlights of that yearly trip to admire the fall colors: caramel corn. Really.
A popcorn wagon parked in the lot, its smells wafting out past the fall colors. Normally we didn’t buy popcorn – that was for later, at home with a glass of milk. But this once, the folks threw caution to the winds. Not only did we get popcorn, we got the most expensive kind: crunchy, sticky ‘carmel corn. It was all I could do not to gobble the whole bag down before the ride home.
Dad is gone now, and Mom made the trip with Cousin Joy. To her surprise and delight, there was the popcorn wagon, back again! It hadn’t made an appearance in years. Turns out that the original donors of the High Rollaway land also owned the popcorn wagon – they’d made a deal with the state that whenever they wished, they could still operate their business in the parking lot. Now the grandchildren of the original owners were selling caramel corn.
In case you’re wondering…yes, Mom bought a bag.
Now I live in Colorado, where the fall colors have been astonishingly lush this autumn. What better way to celebrate than my own caramel corn! A buttery, crunchy handful is as near as your own microwave.
Caramel Corn, Michigan-Style
- large paper grocery sack
- 4-5 quarts of popped popcorn (take out any unpopped kernels, if you see them)
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 1/4 cup white or brown Karo syrup
- 1/2 cup butter (1 stick — margarine will do, but butter makes all the difference)
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda (hold this back for a bit)
Put all but the popcorn and baking soda in a 6-8 cup measure or bowl – microwave at high 3-4 min. until the butter is melted, and it’s boiling. Add baking soda; stir until light and foamy. Put the popcorn in the bag, and pour the liquid mixture on top – turn the edges over a few times, and gently shake the bag.
Put the bag in the microwave. (It will fit awkwardly, if it’s anything like mine.) Microwave 1 1/2 min. at high; shake the bag. Microwave again 1 1/2 min. Take the bag out, shake it one more time and then pour into a large bowl. Use a spatula to gently break apart the clumps; let cool slightly and munch away.
This oven version came from students at Cornell University, courtesy of Geri Harrington’s The College Cookbook
- 8 quarts popcorn, popped
- 2 cups light brown sugar, packed
- 1/2 cup light corn syrup
- 1/2 pound butter
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
Preheat your oven to 250 degrees. Combine sugar, corn syrup and butter in a saucepan and boil for 5 minutes, stirring as you go. (Stop and it may burn on the bottom.) Add the soda and vanilla, stir to blend, and then pour onto the popcorn, already in a 9 x 13 pan. Mix thoroughly. Bake until dry, about 75 minutes, stirring every 15 min. to keep the kernels from clumping.
Each of these versions serves enough for 6-8…or 2 teenagers. If you’re feeling luxurious, add a few cups of chopped nuts – almonds, walnuts, pecans, or a mixture. (Or make it peanuts, for Crackerjack fans.) One of my ‘piano moms’ (yes, I give lessons) gifted us with a huge bowl of this one Christmas. Bliss.
There’s always kettle corn, too. The flavors aren’t as complex, but it still packs a nice wallop of salty and sweet.