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Spicy Caramel Popcorn

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This was in the Washington Post. I cut the lengthy blah, blah, blah preceding the article.

Spicy Caramel Popcorn
SERVINGS:   3 - 6   6 - 12   12 - 24   18 - 36   

Tested size: 6-12 servings; makes about 12 cups

  • 6 slices (3 ounces/85 grams) thick-cut smoked bacon
  • 1/3 cup (about 2 2/3 ounces/78 milliliters) vegetable, canola or another neutral oil
  • 1 cup (8 ounces/226 grams) popcorn kernels
  • 2 cups (8 ounces/226 grams) roasted, salted peanuts
  • 12 tablespoons (6 ounces/170 grams) unsalted butter
  • 1 cup (7 ounces/200 grams) lightly packed light brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 tablespoons (1 ounce/30 milliliters) bourbon (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon gochujang paste or gochugaru chile powder (or piment d'Espelette, Aleppo pepper or cayenne pepper)


Have your largest bowl (at least 8 quarts) available. Position a rack in the middle of the oven if two large, rimmed baking sheets can fit side by side. If not, place the racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat to 400 degrees.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and spread out the bacon in a single layer. Cook the bacon 10 to 12 minutes, or until crisp. Transfer the baking sheet to a wire rack and reduce the oven temperature to 250 degrees. Once the bacon is cool, chop into small pieces and set aside; reserve the rendered bacon fat on the baking sheet.

In a 5-quart pot over medium-high heat, add the oil and 3 popcorn kernels. Cover the pan and when the kernels pop, add the remaining popcorn. Remove the pan from the heat, cover and wait exactly 30 seconds.

Place the pot back on the heat, cover, and agitate the pan, shaking and shaking until the corn stops popping. Pour the popcorn into the bowl, then add the peanuts, bacon and about 1 tablespoon reserved bacon fat. Stir to combine.

Line two large, rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone baking mats.

In a 3-quart saucepan with tall sides over medium heat, cook the butter, sugar and salt until boiling, increasing the heat slowly to medium-high or high, stirring continually and adjusting the heat so the caramel does not burn. It should take 10 to 12 minutes for the caramel to become dark amber. If you have a candy thermometer, the caramel should reach 265 degrees. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the baking soda. The caramel will bubble up; stir it down, add the bourbon, if using, and chile paste, and stir until smooth.

Place a slightly damp folded towel under the bowl to keep it from wiggling around. Holding the pan a little above the bowl of popcorn, peanuts and bacon, very slowly pour the caramel over the popcorn, pausing to stir as you pour. Use two long-handled wooden or silicone spoons to coat everything in caramel.

Divide the popcorn between the lined baking sheets and spread out the mixture without crowding. Do not use on a single pan. Transfer the sheets to the oven and bake for about 1 hour, until the caramel is no longer sticky. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool completely, then break up any especially large chunks before serving.

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