Right along with everyone else, we are feeling a budget crunch this year. We won't overspend on Christmas, because we set aside money each month all year, and when it's gone, it's gone. I bargain-shop like crazy, and we will have a very nice celebration. But with higher prices and a somewhat reduced amount of money, I was briefly stuck about what to give people like the grandparents -- people who already have more than enough "stuff", but who rate a present. (Actually, they will also be getting copies of our latest family picture, which hasn't been taken yet. George, who is becoming an awesome photographer, will be taking it when he's home on leave next week.)
I was scuttling through T*rget on my way to get a roll of extra-wide wrapping paper (for which I comparison-shopped six stores) when I saw a big display of what I call "gifts for people you think you should give something to but don't know what to get." Among them were some undersized and overpriced jars of stale-looking caramel popcorn. My first response was "Ugh!", but my second responses was "I can do much better than that!" Because I have this recipe, which I got from my friend Betty many years ago, and which is always wonderful!
Preheat oven to 250°. Place in a large roasting pan 20-24 cups popped popcorn. (From my popper this is about 3/4 c. unpopped.) Combine and boil for five minutes: 2 c. brown sugar, 2 sticks (1 c.) margarine, 1/2 c.corn syrup, and 1/2 t. salt. (I do this in my microwave; it takes about 3 minutes to melt the margarine and heat it up. I stir it after three minutes, and then set the microwave for 6 minutes more, watching carefully. If you do use the microwave, make sure you use a large enough bowl -- my 8-cup Pyrex is barely big enough; 10 cups would be much better.)
Remove from heat (or microwave) and add: 1t. vanilla, 1/2 t. soda, pinch cream of tartar. (It will bubble like crazy when you put in the vanilla -- it's the alcohol boiling away.)
Pour immediately over the popcorn, stir, and place pan in oven (uncovered.) Bake 1 hour, stirring every 15 minutes. Cool (I do this on a couple of rimmed baking sheets) and store in air-tight containers. (Plastic bags are fine.) Makes about 5 quarts.
I tried a couple of variations this year, both of which worked well. To some batches (I made 6 total!) I added about 3 cups of raw nuts. I used a mixture of almonds and pecans, but anything you like would work, even peanuts. Just make sure the nuts are raw; already toasted nuts will taste burned by the time the popcorn is done.
The other thing I tried was doing the baking in my turkey roaster. It has a non-stick pan insert, which saved a lot of washing time between batches. It worked very well, but I found I had to stir the popcorn very thoroughly or it got over-brown on the bottom. I also found that turning the insert 180 degrees after half the time helped -- apparently my roaster is slightly hotter at one end. This was all completely worth it for me, though, because I set the roaster on the counter and didn't have to bend over to stir. (I'm old -- sigh!)
This recipe is actually very easy, because after the popcorn is baking you can do other things, just coming back to stir every quarter hour. Also, if it works better for you, the popcorn can be popped and set aside in advance. It doesn't matter if it's a little stale -- the time in the oven takes care of that.
So this is my solution to the don't-know-what-to-buy problem. (Of course I had to make some for us, too!) Let me know if you try it, and have a very merry and tasty Christmas!