Bourbon Cacao Nib Caramel Corn

Heroine. Crack cocaine. Nicotine. Once you’ve had a taste, these drugs are hard habits to kick. But nothing compares to the highly addictive properties of…

caramel corn. Crunchy, salty-sweet, and kissed with bourbon, vanilla bean and cacao nibs, this is one dangerous substance.

My dependency on this crack-like snack all started with a bite of Prospect‘s infamous cacao nib caramel corn. My babely bandmate and fellow HoneyBelle Julie saved a bag from her company’s holiday dinner which she busted out at rehearsal one day, and I was instantly hooked.

Since I have Prospect tastes with an El Metate budget, I decided get my fix by making my own version of Prospect’s caramel crack corn. A Google search revealed that I’m not first to fall victim to Prospect’s drug of choice; even seasoned San Francisco food
critic Michael Bauer is not immune to its habit-forming deliciousness.

There seem to be two types of caramel corn recipes out there. The first starts with a bonafide caramel made by cooking a mess of white sugar until it turns golden, then adding butter, salt, and flavorings. The other, and the one that Prospect uses, is technically more like toffee, as it starts with brown sugar and corn syrup combined with butter. This mixture is brought to a boil for 5 minutes, which isn’t long enough to caramelize the sugars. The molasses in the brown sugar mimics the color and flavor of true caramel, without the fuss and scrutiny.

A stint in a low oven hardens the caramel and dries out the popcorn to a crackling crisp. I added some bourbon, whose tart spiciness helps to balance out the sweetness (just in case you need more addictive substances in addition to the caramel corn itself; although the alcohol does cook off). A sprinkling of chopped cacao nibs adds a smokey, bitter punch that keeps you coming back for more. I had some Lyle’s golden syrup on hand which I used in place of the corn syrup; it is made from sugar cane and adds a robust caramel flavor. Lacking golden syrup, this recipe can also be made with honey, which gives the corn a sweeter, lighter, more floral flavor. In fact, my other favorite iteration of this recipe uses honey, Calvados and rosemary; I’ve included this variation below. Other versions I’m dreaming of are:

-smoked salt and scotch
-masala chai (with the spice mixture from these Masala Chai Snickerdoodles)
-cashew coriander (from Fran Gage’s A Sweet Quartet)
Pumpkin
-Chocolate Stout
-maple bourbon brown butter pecan (to go with my favorite granola)

Not that I have a problem or anything…

This caramel corn gets even better after a few days, when the chocolate flavor from the nibs comes out and melds with the other flavorings. It makes a winning gift, and has already been a hit at several parties and rehearsals. I brought some to my modern dance group, and one dancer asked, “Is there booze in here?” which led to a discussion of bourbon balls (and consequently, Schweddy balls).

But I think Jay said it best: “This caramel corn is seriously like crack. You need to never do this again.” Crunchcrunchcrunch..

I can totally quit any time. Right after I make one more batch..

Nibby Nibbles:

Buckwheat Cacao Nib Snowballs
Cacao Nib Ice Cream
(Gluten-Free) Nibby Buckwheat Chocolate Banana Nut Muffins

One year ago:

Chocolate Bourbon Bread Pudding

Two years ago:

Bittersweet Whiskey Brownies
Green Garlic and Chive Potato Cakes

Three years ago:

Berry Fig Financiers
Almond Pulp Chocolate Chip Cookies

Bourbon Cacao Nib Caramel Popcorn

Popping corn in oil on the stove requires an oil with a very high smoke point, otherwise the oil will burn and give off an unpleasant and unhealthy rancid smell. Ghee (butter that has been completely clarified) is my favorite choice, with a warm flavor and a very high smoke point of 485ºF; and I’m extra happy to now be able to purchase locally made, organic ghee by Ancient Organics. Ghee can be found in the Indian section of well-stocked grocers, or you can make it yourself. If you can’t find ghee, refined coconut oil or high oleic Canola oil are decent back-up choices; see this table for a complete list of the smoke points of oils.

If you don’t have flaky salt, such as Maldon (my favorite), start with 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt or 1/4 teaspoon of fine sea salt. You can sprinkle more over the top of the caramel corn prior to baking if it needs more. The caramel corn will keep in an airtight container at room temperature for at least a week or two; if it gets soft or sticky, dry it out in a low oven. (Though good luck making it last that long…)

Makes about 12 cups

2 tablespoons ghee (see headnote)
1/2 cup popcorn kernels
2 tablespoons cacao nibs, chopped
1 teaspoon flaky salt (such as Maldon)
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 cup bourbon whiskey
3/4 cup dark brown (preferably organic) sugar
3 tablespoons Lyle’s golden syrup (or honey, maple, or corn syrup)
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 vanilla bean, split and scraped

Pop the corn:
In a wide, heavy-bottomed skillet with a tight fitting lid, melt the ghee over medium-high heat. Add the corn kernels, toss to coat, and cover with the lid, shaking the pan occasionally until the kernels begin to pop. Shake the pan almost constantly until the popping peters out. Carefully pour the popcorn into a really big bowl (or two kinda big bowls). (Be careful of steam!) Set the popped corn aside while you…

Make the caramel:
Position two racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat to 250º. Line two rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper.

Combine the chopped nibs, salt and baking soda in a small bowl and place it near the stove.

In a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan, pour in the bourbon to coat the bottom of the pan. Add the brown sugar to the center of the bourbon, so that sugar crystals don’t stick to the sides of the pan (which could cause the mixture to crystallize), then add the golden syrup, butter and vanilla bean seeds and pod. Heat the mixture over medium-high heat, without stirring, until it comes to a rolling boil. Boil for 6 minutes (set a timer and watch closely after 4 minutes; if the mixture begins to burn around the edges, immediately remove it from the heat and proceed to the next step). After six minutes, remove the pot from the heat and quickly stir in the chopped nibs, salt and baking soda. Pour the caramel over the popped corn and stir briskly until it is fairly evenly coated.

Bake the caramel corn:
Divide the popcorn among the baking sheets and spread it into a even layer. Place the caramel corn in the oven until dried out and the caramel is crisp when cool, 1 hour. If a lot of caramel is melting onto the pans, use a spatula to gently toss the corn together a bit.

Remove from the oven and cool a few minutes, then break the popcorn up into small clusters when it’s cool enough to touch briefly. Let cool completely, then store in an airtight container. The caramel corn should keep for a couple of weeks; if it becomes soft or sticky, spread it on a parchment-lined baking sheet and dry it out in a 200º oven until crisp.

Variation: Rosemary Calvados Caramel Corn
Use Calvados in place of the bourbon, honey in place of the Lyle’s syrup, light brown sugar in place of dark brown, and 2 teaspoons finely chopped rosemary in place of the cacao nibs.

12 thoughts on “Bourbon Cacao Nib Caramel Corn”

  1. The best thing about this (except that it looks like a killer recipe) is that when I saw the post in my feedly, a thumbnail of Alec Baldwin a.k.a. Pete Schwetty on the delicious dish was there! And cacao nibs: genius…

  2. Oh dear. Plain, barely salted popcorn is like crack to me, so this would definitely be above and beyond addictive! I adore Lyle's golden syrup. And cacao nibs. And bourbon. And that rosemary Calvados version sounds out of this world! I'm trying to frantically plan Easter dishes (because I totally didn't realize Easter was this weekend until two days ago…), and all I can think about is caramel corn. (: (Although I'm totally pulling some free-form tart inspiration from you in this Easter planning — I'm thinking an asparagus tart with greek yoghurt, ricotta, parmesan, and pickled mustard seeds.)

    Also, your band looks adorable and awesome! My cousin Emily lives out in the San Francisco area, and I'm going to send her a tip to check you guys and gals out!

    1. Asparagus tart?! I'm coming to your place for Easter! That sounds absolutely incredible. Thanks for referring your cousin – that's so sweet! Good luck avoiding the caramel corn vortex – it's a slippery slope. ;)

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