The following article first appeared in the Daily News Record on October 24, 2012.
Now that autumn is here, I find myself craving all sorts of cold-weather foods: apple cider, thick hard pretzels, hearty soups, and caramel popcorn. We eat the caramel popcorn any time of year, actually, but thanks to my grandmother, in my mind the treat will always and forevermore belong to October.
Every Halloween, my grandmother, a covering-wearing plain Mennonite, handed out little baggies of her caramel popcorn to neighbor kids brave enough to walk the driveway that curved through the spooky woods to her house.
My brothers and I weren’t allowed to go trick-or-treating, but one year, out of the blue, Mom suggested we dress up and surprise our grandparents. We were ecstatic.
I vaguely remember standing on the concrete stoop outside their front door, with a brown paper bag with cut-out holes for eyes jammed down over my head. We rang the bell. Grandpa threw open the door, and Grandma, peering over his shoulder, laughed heartily and declared, “Well, well! What have we here!”
“Trick-or-treat!” we hollered, reaching for our bags of golden popcorn. We pressed into the foyer, shucking our paper bag heads. So happy to see us, Grandma offered us her task. We spent the rest of the evening handing out her popcorn to the witches and princesses that showed up.
The recipe I’ve copied down is smudged and faded. I make the popcorn for church events and parties, and my older son likes to give the popcorn as a birthday gift to his friends. A few months back, he misread the recipe and used two tablespoons of butter instead of the called-for twelve. The next time I made the popcorn, I also misread things, except I added too much butter instead of too little. It turned out to be a fabulous mistake. Now I routinely add an extra pat of butter to the caramel sauce.
I am somewhat careful about how often I make this popcorn, mostly because I am completely helpless in its crunchy, buttery-sweet clutches. I do silly things, such as store the jar on the uppermost pantry shelf, like in the Frog and Toad story “Cookies,” in hopes that I might forget about the lurking temptation. I never do.
Grandma Baer’s Caramel Popcorn
12-14 tablespoons butter
2 cups brown sugar
½ cup light corn syrup
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
5 quarts popped popcorn, not salted
Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan, add the sugar, corn syrup, and baking soda and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium high and boil gently for five minutes, stirring steadily. Remove from heat and stir in the salt and vanilla. Immediately pour the sauce over the popped corn, tossing to coat evenly.
Divide the popcorn between two greased 9x13 pans. Bake at 250 degrees for 1 hour, stirring every 20 minutes. Cool to room temperature. Store in airtight containers.