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 commercial 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! Well, I did find one online store, Blairs, that sells the original for 50 cents per ounce. But I don't remember what they may charge for shipping the product.
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, or maybe a big black one! The truth is the one I tried and modified just didn't make it. I then looked at lots of different recipes online claiming to make a product like Poppycock®. Having already experimented, and having very recently eaten the real Poppycock® product, I recognized what recipes to discard and picked the one that by my opinion had all the right stuff.
Even then the final directions for a baking step were flat out stupid, which I learned by trying the recipe verbatim. Specifically, the oven temperature and time listed to complete making the Poppycock® were ridiculous ... too high for too long, resulting in darkened crystallized sugar instead of pale crunchy caramel coating on the popcorn. Ultimately I now have the recipe I want and the right procedure, but I use some 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 keeping the caramel itself very light in color, 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 briefly to create the perfect crunch.
Making certain the heat from the bottom of the oven is forced to be indirect when it contacts the cookie sheet with the coated popcorn is essential to avoid having too much drying and subsequent sugar recrystallization, and this is accomplished by using an empty cookie tray on the lowest oven shelf, or by use of putting the cookie sheet with the product on a stone surface on a shelf well above the heat source. The idea is that thin cookie sheets too close to point sources of high heat will destroy the caramel sauce during the drying process. Similarly, an oven temperature even as high as that used to make the caramel sauce is too high to use during the drying process. Knowing the accurate temperature of your oven is thus essential. Use a good quality oven thermometer to measure and then to control this possible problem by modifying your set temperature for your oven as necessary.
Here is an important variation to using raw nuts ... either roast raw pecan halves at 300°F for five minutes on a cookie tray, stirring to heat evenly on all sides after three minutes, or, lightly fry raw pecan halves in butter in a small skillet, then drain them and wipe them on a paper towel to eliminate most of the butter and any unwanted overcooked small particles. Having used either roasting or frying, chop the nut halves in half and use them directly as the nuts in this recipe. That will provide crunchy nuts mixed and attached to the crunchy slightly salty delicious caramel and popcorn. Yes, these are very nice ideas if you are using pecans.
You will love this (improved) clone of Poppycock®. 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.
Okay, I may be harsh on commercial producers of many products, especially the greedy *&%$ who make potato chips, but I am also fair to the extent I will now provide your cost to make the Poppycock Clone at home with this recipe. I am using ingredient prices from various places, but overall this averages out. You, of course, are paying retail prices for all ingredients, at your local supermarket. Let's begin ...
The retail ingredient cost for this recipe is $8.50, of which $5.00 is for the pecans. The weight of the completed Poppycock® Clone is 29 ounces. That means my cost per ounce to make it is 850 cents/29 ounces which is a bit over 29 cents/ounce. I can't know for certain at this point what weight of pecans or cashews might be found in a container of commercial Poppycock® but I doubt they use as much nut product in the weight of the total product. In short, without nuts, my cost per ounce would be $3.50 for 23 ounces, for the 2 cups of pecans weighed 6 ounces. Thus, without nuts, my cost per ounce is 350 cents/23 ounces which is a bit over 15 cents per ounce. Finally, that means the true cost per ounce for you will vary from 15 cents to 29 cents, depending on how many nuts you use, and for that matter what kind of nut, and the cost for up to two cups of that type of nut. What I am saying is that pecans are most likely the most expensive of the nuts you might use, like almonds, cashews or peanuts.
I believe I have now established that making this product at home is most sensible. 29 cents per ounce is quite favorable compared to the commercial prices on Amazon® or Ebay® of 90 cents per ounce up to $1.90 per ounce. And that doesn't factor in whether or not you are using more nuts per ounce than the commercial product.
Once you make this recipe you can decide if you want to make variations in amounts of different sugar types (like maybe just a bit of brown sugar) or by adding additional ingredients, like maple syrup, or 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 sauce 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."
1/3 to 1/2 cup of raw white popcorn kernels (about 8 to 10 cups popped)
2 tablespoons of corn oil or other vegetable oil
1 quarter pound stick of butter
2 cups of chopped pecans (lightly roasted or fried in butter to make them crunchy) or cashews or chopped lightly roasted blanched almonds or simply roasted peanuts ... or a mixture of nuts
1 1/3 cups of white sugar
1/2 cup of light corn syrup
1/2 tsp. of cream of tartar
1/2 tsp. of pure vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon of fine crystal sea salt (optional)
1/2 teaspoon of baking soda
Arrange three oven racks in the top and middle and bottom thirds 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. Put a third baking sheet on the bottom shelf to disperse the heat from the oven heating element.
If you plan to roast or lightly fry pecans in butter then do that now. Roasting is very simple as described earlier. If you decided to fry the pecans then use a small thick bottom skillet and three tablespoons of butter and two cups of raw pecan halves. Heat the butter on medium heat to melt it, add the pecans and mix well to coat them with butter, then reduce the heat to low or very low. Let the pecans fry for about a minute or two until the butter is noticeably bubbling and then mix them gently so they fry evenly. Repeat that step up to two more times and then remove the skillet from the heat, but make sure the pecans are not getting dark in color while they are frying. Also make sure the butter is not turning dark. The idea is you do not want to burn the pecans, just fry them lightly ... so they are crunchy after being cooled. Drain the butter from the pecans. I suggest removing them from the skillet with a slotted spoon. Dump the pecans onto two paper towels, spread them out to a single thickness and roll them up in the towel to remove excess butter and small nut particles from the frying process. Whether you roasted or fried the pecans, put the halves onto a wooden cutting board. Use a large sharp knife and gently cut the pecan halves in half. Let the pieces cool to room temperature and lose residual moisture for about ten minutes. Put the pecan pieces into a bowl and mix them gently. Set the bowl 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 the cream of tartar and stir. Mix in the sugar until it is completely moistened. Increase the heat to medium high and bring the mixture to a boil. You then want to reduce the heat to medium or even low 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 260°F. Note that you will definitely reduce the heat to low as the temperature climbs above 240°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 250°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 about two to three minutes. And it is smart to move the thermometer to different locations in the boiling sauce as you may get different temperature readings. Now you understand. Remove the saucepan from the heat in the first instance where the caramel sauce temperature reaches 260°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 parchment lined baking sheets, spreading the popcorn out into a basically even layer on each sheet. Bake for 15 minutes at 250°F, turning the tray(s) around after ten minutes, and exchanging the trays on the two higher oven shelves if you made two trays of Poppycock® Clone. Then turn off the oven and partially or completely open the oven door. Note that you could decide to use a cooler temperature if you prefer, like 240°F, most likely for a longer time. Overall the idea of the baking step is to dry the product partially without recrystallizing the sugar into the consistency of that found in a sugar bowl, which will happen with either too high a temperature (along with darkening) or too long a baking time.
Let the Poppycock® Clone cool completely. If it is crunchy or chewy the way you prefer then it is time to package it. Realize that it will become more crunchy naturally as it cools and dries if you let it complete that process before packaging it. 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.