This is one of my favorite types of recipes, where I provide a really useful recipe for something simple and delicious that few people try to make, and where I examine retail costs for a product to show how silly it is to buy it, and where I provide cooking tips and techniques to help make you look like (and become) an expert. It is all good. Well, at least I think so. ☺
Who wants to pay the very high price for products like Poppycock® when you can make them quickly and cheaply and of very high quality at home? Early in 2018 I checked the prices for this product as found on Amazon® and, depending on the type of Poppycock® as well as the seller, the price per ounce varied from around 90 cents to $1.90! Think about it. If you pay $1.90 per ounce (for the cashew lovers variety) you are paying 16 times that much per pound, or, $30.40 per pound. Does that seem a bit odd to you, as it does to me, when you can buy filet mignon at $13 per pound? I like popped corn and butter and sugar and nuts, but I am not willing to pay an absurd price of $30.40 per pound to anyone for that simple and easy to make and cheap to make (and ship) product.
I found a nice Internet recipe for crunchy caramel nut popcorn, tried it and modified it to create a crunchy caramel nut popcorn similar to the Poppycock® product. Okay, that is a little white lie, for I use a bit more salt to get some salted caramel taste. You can choose to vary the salt amount to suit yourself. But the big secret is to make the caramel part crunchy, and that is done via the combination of raising the right kind of caramel sauce to the right temperature, and by later baking the caramel nut popcorn at a low baking temperature for over an hour to create the perfect crunch.
You will love this stuff. Make it. I bet it won't be around for long.
If you can't find bags of raw white popcorn kernels you can use the yellow kernel variety, or better, you can buy the white variety cheaply online at places like Brandmeyer® in Iowa. That is what I do in 20 lb. quantities (10, 2 lb. bags) with free shipping, rather than pay the ridiculous price for the Orville Redenbacher's® brand of white popcorn kernels in the supermarket. I remember when supermarkets sold the white variety, cheaply, under their own brand names. They still sell the less desireable yellow kernels. I wonder what happened (not really)? You might ask ConAgra® if you don't figure it out.
Once you make this recipe you can decide if you want to make variations in the amounts of the different sugar types or by adding additional ingredients, like spices (cayenne pepper or curry, etc.), to change the overall taste. You might also decide to decrease the amount of corn popped but keep the caramel amount the same to get more candy crunch. That is one of the tricks that make the commercial Poppycock® so darned yummy. But try this recipe first, for it is really good. Variations can follow, after you become an "expert."
1/2 cup (or more) of raw white popcorn kernels (about 12 cups popped)
2 tablespoons of corn or other vegetable oil
1 1/2, quarter pound sticks of butter
2 cups of chopped pecans or cashews or chopped lightly roasted blanched almonds or simply roasted peanuts ... or a mixture of nuts
1 cup of white sugar
1/4 cup of packed brown sugar
1/2 cup of light corn syrup
1 tbsp. of pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon of fine crystal sea salt
1/2 teaspoon of baking soda
Arrange two oven racks in the top and bottom third of the oven and preheat the oven to 250°F. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper. I use ones with low sides all around to keep stuff from falling off. Set them aside.
Make the popcorn. I figure you know how to combine the oil and the raw popcorn kernels in a covered pan using high heat to make the popped corn. If you can't make all that you need for this recipe in one batch then do it in two batches. Empty the popped corn into a very large heat-proof (like a wide stainless steel) bowl. Add the nuts and mix gently. Note: Sometimes it is easier to use two large bowls and two sets of long handle wooden spoons, and thus two people, to make the later mixing in of the caramel sauce easier.
Make the caramel sauce. Melt the butter in a 2 or 3 quart heavy bottom saucepan over medium heat. Never use thin bottom saucepans when making sauces or candies that might burn or overheat and darken on the inside of the saucepan while cooking. Thick bottom saucepans, ideally of multiple clad metals, distribute the heat evenly and thus avoid localized hot spots on the bottom of the saucepan directly above the flame or (yuck!) electric heating elements.
Add the corn syrup and stir. Mix in the sugars until they are completely moistened. Increase the heat to medium high and bring the mixture to a boil. You may then want to reduce the heat to medium to best control the rate of boiling/formation of bubbling sauce.
Use a candy thermometer for accurate measurement of temperature and increase the temperature via boiling, gradually, to 290°F. Note that you will reduce the heat to low as the temperature climbs above 250°F because you want to approach the final temperature slowly and not exceed it. Be patient.
Check the temperature often, like every minute, or better yet hover over the saucepan/thermometer, as the temperature increases above 270°F. Why? Well, the elimination of most of the residual water happens quickly at higher temperatures, and that in turn accelerates the rate of temperature increase. The last five degrees of temperature increase will happen within one or two minutes. Now you understand. Remove the saucepan from the heat when the caramel sauce temperature reaches 290°F.
Add the vanilla, salt and baking soda, and mix thoroughly and quickly with a long handle wooden spoon for about half a minute to at most a minute to form a thick, glossy sauce. I like to have the vanilla pre-measured and waiting for immediate use in a small cup. Similarly, I pre-measure and mix the baking soda and the salt and put that mixture in a small saucer or cup. As you can easily guess, it takes less than ten seconds to add all of these ingredients to the hot caramel sauce. That is good because it is very fast, ergo little loss of temperature of the caramel sauce, keeping it easy to pour after mixing.
Combine the caramel sauce with the popcorn and nuts. Gradually pour the caramel sauce over the popcorn and nuts (or roughly half of it in each of two bowls of popcorn and nuts) while mixing with two long handle wooden spoons (it helps if you have a partner for this step — one person pouring while the other mixes). Continue mixing the sauce with the popcorn and nuts until all of it is coated evenly. Most important, don't do the pouring part of this step too slowly or the caramel sauce will start to set in the saucepan as it cools, making it very difficult to use. Aim for no more than half a minute of pouring time (per bowl if you use two bowls), accompanied by fairly quick mixing, to keep the caramel sauce from forming a clump in the bowl instead of readily coating the popcorn evenly.
Divide the coated popcorn/nuts between the two baking sheets, spreading the popcorn out into a basically even layer on each sheet. Bake for one hour and fifteen minutes at 250°F. Then turn off the oven and partially or completely open the oven door.
Let the caramel nut popcorn cool completely. Break it up as necessary and store it in air tight containers. I find one gallon Ziploc® freezer bags to be perfect for that purpose.