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Caramel Corn just right for snacking and snuggling

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Popcorn. It's the official winter snuggling snack in our family.

Whether it's a snowy Saturday afternoon or a way-below-zero evening in front of the fire, there is often a big bowl of buttered popcorn in our laps.

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During a recent stay at my son and daughter-in-law's house for our annual marathon Christmas cookie baking weekend, my son made popcorn one night after all three children were in bed. Bright and early the next morning, my 3½-year-old grandson was eating what was left in the bowl. Popcorn's not bad for breakfast, either. I mean it - we are a bunch of popcorn monsters.

The only thing better than buttered popcorn is freshly popped corn enrobed in sweet buttery caramel. Yup, caramel corn. It's frightfully addictive.

My recipe for Caramel Corn has a history. A couple of careers ago, when I was working with preschoolers, one of the children gave me a big tin of caramel corn for Christmas. She proudly announced that her mom made the caramel corn. That little girl's mom was willing to share her recipe.

I must admit that I breathed a sigh of relief when I discovered a candy thermometer was not required to prepare this Caramel Corn. At that time, I had little experience with candy making or anything requiring one of those thermometers that clipped onto the side of the pot. Now, though, I wouldn't be without my candy thermometer that does double duty checking the oil temperature for frying doughnuts and crullers. For this Caramel Corn recipe, though, the candy thermometer can stay in the drawer.

Begin to make the caramel mixture by melting butter with brown sugar, salt and dark corn syrup. Do not rush this step. Stir the mixture over medium heat until the butter is completely melted. When the mixture begins to boil, stop stirring and set the timer for five minutes. At the end of five minutes, you can remove the hot caramel from the heat and stir in the baking soda. The mixture will bubble and foam. It burns like crazy if you get a drop on your skin, so be very careful as you pour the hot caramel over the popped corn. After an hour in the oven at a very low temperature, the caramel corn is ready to eat. Well, almost. It needs to cool a bit, if you can wait.

This caramel corn is just right for taking to holiday parties. Crunch away while playing games. It's perfect for a day camping out on the couch watching football, parades or movies. And, if you still need a few last minute gifts from the kitchen, pick up some big jars or tins and fill them right up with sweet, crispy Caramel Corn.

This caramel corn is the ultimate. It just might be better than the caramel corn from Garrett's Popcorn Shop in Chicago where I've been known to wait impatiently in a long line outside the door along Michigan Avenue for a jumbo serving.

Don't reserve this heavenly Caramel Corn just for holiday time. It pairs well with snuggling anytime.

Caramel Corn

5 quarts popped corn, about 2/3 to 1 cup unpopped kernels

1 cup (2 sticks) butter

2 cups tightly packed brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup dark corn syrup

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

Preheat oven to 250 degrees.

Place popped corn in a large roasting pan or very large mixing bowl. Set aside.

Put butter, brown sugar, salt and dark corn syrup in a heavy 2 1/2-quart pot. Stir over medium heat until butter melts and ingredients are well blended. Bring mixture to a boil.

Boil for 5 minutes without stirring. Remove from heat and quickly stir in baking soda. The mixture will foam and sputter, so be very careful. Pour hot caramel over popped corn. Mix with wooden spoon until all popped corn is coated with caramel. Spread the coated popped corn on two large rimmed baking sheets. Bake in preheated 250-degree oven for 1 hour, stirring every 15 minutes. Each time you stir the caramel corn, switch the pans back and forth, alternating between top rack and lower rack.

Remove from oven and immediately transfer hot caramel corn from baking pans to containers it will be stored in. Cool thoroughly. Do not cover the caramel corn until it has cooled completely.

Tips from the cook

--You may be wondering about the possibility of using microwave popcorn in this recipe. Yes, microwave popcorn will work. Since I never use it (I want to avoid the chemicals used in the butter flavoring and the chemical PFOA, perfluorooctanoic acid, used in the lining of many microwave popcorn bags), I can't say how many bags it would take. You'll have to pop it and measure out 5 quarts, or 20 cups. I'm just hoping you'll pop corn the old fashioned way for this recipe. It is well worth the little extra time it takes.

--No need to grease the baking pans. After scraping the caramel corn into storage containers, the traces of caramel left sticking to the pans will easily wash off after a few minutes of soaking in soapy dish water.

--I use organic yellow kernels for Caramel Corn. They pop up big and fluffy. Using organic popcorn is the only way I can know for sure that the popped corn I'm munching has not been genetically modified.

--When the natural moisture inside a kernel of popcorn evaporates, the corn becomes tough or does not pop at all. To keep popcorn in its best popping condition, store the kernels in a container with a tight-fitting lid in a cupboard.

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