Monday, February 1, 2010


Now that it's February, work has calmed down a lot. I have a whole luxurious day of research stretching ahead of me. Because I can make my own schedule on research days, I've already taken my car in to get the brakes replaced (which I'm sure will cost a pretty penny, but I have been plagued, for the past few weeks, by a sinking "what-if-they-don't-work-this-time" feeling every time I press the brake pedal; that, at least, will be vanquished, even if my pocketbook will suffer). I've eaten breakfast, and now I'm reflecting back on my busy January, a month that was packed with my least favorite part of residency: thirty-hour overnight calls in the hospital.

When you spend that long in the hospital at any one stretch, it's important to be prepared. I have a little case with toothpaste and a toothbrush that lives in my locker. I also bring lots of snacks, as the hospital becomes a ghost town at night, and, if you come without fortifications, midnight cravings can be sated only by a vending machine. Trader Joe (a.k.a. Jose or Giotto) provides many of the snacks that keep me and my team going through the night, but I also like to bring in homemade treats.

The goal is for home to seem like it's not far away while I eat these goodies, goodies that I would normally be eating at home with B and the cats. Sometimes, however, the strategy backfires. I sit at 2am in a sterile, windowless room, filled with basic office furniture and fluorescent lights, wondering why I'm awake typing orders into the computer and getting endlessly paged, when I would rather be asleep in my own bed. Home seems very far away at a time like that.

At least, on one recent overnight call, I had spiced caramel corn to see me through the night. Crunchy, sweet, and just a little bit spicy with cayenne, it's pretty addictive stuff.

Like popovers, I've been looking for a caramel corn recipe for a long time. Lucky, then, that I stumbled across two within the period of a month (here and here). I didn't really do a fair experiment on each (my mom always taught me to try a recipe to a T the first time around), but I'm pretty happy with the outcome regardless. I like to think I took the best parts from both of the recipes to make one that's better than each of them alone.

You start with one half cup of popcorn. It doesn't look like much, but popcorn is kind of amazing. Every time I make it, I am literally astonished. Popped in a big pot on the stove, you end up with cups and cups worth of deliciously light and airy popcorn from this little starting amount.

In addition to the impressive bowlful of fluffy white popcorn, you will also end up with a few unpopped kernels at the bottom of the pot. One of the keys to this recipe—and certainly the biggest pain about it—is separating the popped from the unpopped, or the wheat from the chaff, if you will. Learn from my mistake: I was not careful the first time I made the caramel corn, and had several unpleasant bites that ended with me almost cracking a tooth on an unpopped kernel that had glued itself invisibly to a lovely popped one. Avoid this situation. Leave the unpopped kernels behind. Your dentist will thank you.

Once you've made the popcorn, a simple caramel sauce is boiled on the stove, and then tossed with the popcorn. The second secret to this popcorn is the next step: baking the caramel-covered kernels on a parchment-lined sheet in the oven for an hour, mixing every 20 minutes or so. This method keeps the kernels nice and dry, as well as allowing them to be evenly coated them with caramel sauce.

Cayenne was the only spice I went for, but I think you could add a little bit of cumin or coriander if you have adventurous eaters around. The heat from the cayenne cuts the cloying sweetness of typical caramel corn, making a really special snack.

Here's what I envision: you'll make this spiced caramel corn, and, instead of being in the hospital on a long night, you'll be able to enjoy it at home, sitting on the couch with your loved ones and your newest Netflix disc. That's how I plan to make it next. B and the cats and I will snuggle together while we eat it. Enjoy!

Spiced Caramel Corn

Time: 1 1/2 hours total, 1/2 hour active
Makes: about 2 quarts

2 T. canola or other neutral oil
1/2 c. popcorn
1 t. salt, or more to taste
1 c. light brown sugar, packed
1/4 c. light corn syrup
6 T. unsalted butter (3/4 of a stick)
1 t. baking soda
1 t. vanilla extract
1 t. ground cayenne

First, preheat oven to 250 degrees. Line a rimmed cookie sheet with parchment.

Heat the oil in a large pot on the stove. When hot but not smoking, add the popcorn, and cover the pot. Lower the heat, and move the pot back and forth continuously for several minutes, until the popping decreases in frequency. Sprinkle salt to taste. Transfer popped kernels only to a large bowl.

In a medium-sized saucepan, add brown sugar, corn syrup, and butter. Stir continuously to form the caramel, stopping when mixture reaches 250 on a candy thermometer. Turn heat off. Quickly add baking soda, vanilla, and cayenne (mixture will rise up). Pour caramel mixture over popcorn, mixing evenly with a spatula.

Turn caramel corn mixture out onto parchment-lined sheet. Bake for 1 hour, stirring mixture twice during cooking. Cool completely. Caramel corn keeps, in a tightly-sealed container, for 2 weeks.


  1. My husband is always asking me to make snacks for him to take on overnight call, and I'm always a little stumped about what will survive the trip in his bag and be appetizing and easy to put aside at a minute's notice etc. This is a great idea! Thank you.

  2. Let me know how he likes it! Or maybe I'll just ask him myself :)