Sunday, February 6, 2011

Superlative snacking

I can hardly begin to quantify the number of things I learned about cultural diversity and human nature during my years of living overseas, but I must also confess that many of the most memorable lessons are less than profound. Prominent among these is my recollection of the first time I went to the movies (or should I say the cinema) in England. Having bought my ticket, I went to the concession stand and requested popcorn.

“Salt or sweet?” inquired the helpful person standing behind the counter.

Now, as my fellow Americans will recognize, this question was completely unexpected. At a US movie theater, your choices regarding popcorn are to get it with artificial butter-flavored topping, or without. That’s it. “Sweet” of any description is not an option for popcorn: you want sweet, you get a box of Milk Duds the size of your own head.

(NB: since I personally consider “sweet” popcorn—kettle, caramel, toffee, whatever—to be an abomination, I have never felt deprived by its unavailability anywhere.)

Having had this new cultural experience, it did not take me long to realize that “sweet” popcorn’s popularity was not limited to the cinema, and that in fact it was often more readily available than “salt”. Used as I was to a steady (not to say daily) diet of packaged popcorn from my working days in Boston, I was dismayed to find nothing on par with my favorite Boston Popcorn Company or Smartfood products as I familiarized myself with Oxford’s grocery offerings. Most of what was on offer was dry, tasteless, and slathered with some kind of sugary topping.

You know how this story ends; you’ve heard it before. Shipping in supplies from overseas was cumbersome, expensive, and couldn't keep up with demand. So yes, I had to re-acquaint myself with how to make popcorn at home. Not in a microwaveable bag (no microwave). Not in a Jiffy Pop pan (not available). Not in a hot air popper (too expensive). In a pan, on the stove. And as a result re-discovered that most kinds of prepackaged popcorn range from mediocre to flat-out awful compared to the real thing.

Real popcorn
I have over the years acquired not only one of those special popcorn pans with a crank in the handle to keep the kernels from sticking to the bottom, but also a special bowl for popping corn in the microwave, now that I have one of those. (I eat a lot of popcorn.) Either of these facilitates making popcorn, but neither is necessary. All you really need is a stove, a large, heavy-bottomed pan with a lid, and some oven mitts.

3 Tbsp/45 ml olive oil
½ cup popcorn kernels

Set your large pan on your largest burner and turn burner up as high as it will go. Pour the oil into the pan, followed by the popcorn. Clamp the pan lid on, put the oven mitts on your hands, and grab hold of the pan, making sure you are holding it closed.

Hold the pan on the burner and count to 10 slowly, using “one thousand”, “Mississippi”, “elephant”, or whatever word or phrase you prefer between numbers to make sure you are maintaining the proper pace. When you get to 10, pick up the pan and tilt it slowly side to side, and back and forth, keeping as close to the burner as you can, while slowly counting to 10 again. (This is to keep the kernels from sticking.) Repeat holding still for 10, rocking/shaking for 10.

You should start to hear popping within about two minutes, which will start off slowly and then increase to a frenzy of tiny explosions. Carry on with holding still/rocking until you can hear a second or two of silence between pops, then remove pan from the heat.

Remove the lid, being careful of the cloud of scalding steam that will escape. Season the popcorn with any or all of the following:

- kosher salt
- freshly ground black pepper
- melted butter
- finely grated hard cheese, such as pecorino romano
- whatever else your little heart desires

and put the lid back on to shake the popcorn and distribute the toppings. Repeat as necessary until seasoned to taste. Serve immediately, or let cool and decant into a large, sealable plastic bag for sneaking into a movie theater later.

Bonus points 1. Popcorn is a whole grain. 2. Homemade means you control the amount of fat and salt, and need not worry about weird extra ingredients (mmm, diacetyl, anyone?). 3. Shorties love it. 4. It's exponentially cheaper than popcorn procured any other way. 5. It’s a great thing to bring to munch on in front of other things besides movies—say, major sporting events on television that might be happening soon?

Makes 1 medium-sized bowl. Increasing the amount of kernels per batch is not recommended, as this can overcrowd the pan; instead, make multiple batches as required to satisfy demand.


celia said... Best Blogger Tips

I'm really not sure what people see in sweet popcorn! But you know, I think it is a US thing - I'm sure I read about Laura making sweet popcorn calls for Christmas in one of the Little House books.. :) (Maybe These Happy Golden Years?)

diana said... Best Blogger Tips

We must be on the same wavelength; I just bought a big bag of popcorn kernels at my local market. I eat an ungodly amount of the microwave stuff at work, but what I make at home is so much better. I like to add smoked paprika and chili powder for some kick (and if you are up for a mess, grated cheddar works well with this combo).

Trash said... Best Blogger Tips

destructoBoy and I did a highly non-scientific examination of methods of popcorn popping last Autumn. We found a method that works exemplararilylyly on both corn kernels and rice. Although there is way less shaking with the rice.

The key is steam. As you say heat up the pan and move it with regular rapidity but once they are popping regularly turn off the heat. Keep the pan moving and once the popping stips there should be nearly 100% popped kernels. This made a mahoosive bowl full that we then consumed while watching a dvd.

Roving Lemon said... Best Blogger Tips

Celia - it is fairly popular in the US in packaged form--Cracker Jack and Poppycock are two brands I know of--but I've never encountered freshly made sweet popcorn at any of the venues where you can buy popcorn here (movies, sporting events, circuses, etc.). And yes, I think you're right about Laura I.

Diana - I like the idea of making it spicy (when not feeding to Miss B). As for cheddar, am seriously considering ordering some cheddar cheese powder from King Arthur Flour for exactly this (mess-free) purpose.

Trash - thanks for stopping by! So you can make homemade rice krispies using the same method? Fascinating! I may have to try that....

KJ said... Best Blogger Tips

Just sent my craving for some salty, buttery, real popcorn into the stratosphere, N. Yum. I have no use for sweet popcorn either and the mere mention of Poppycock called forth a buried scent memory that I'm trying to bleach from my consciousness right now. I could go for some old school Jiffy Pop right about now...even just to watch that tinfoil balloon up. xo kj

Roving Lemon said... Best Blogger Tips

KJ - ah, Jiffy Pop. Do they even make that anymore? Or has it been rendered extinct by the microwaveable bag?

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