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Caramel Popcorn, Liquefied

By June 14, 2009Cooking

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I don’t know about you, but the idea of liquefied popcorn struck me, upon skimming over this recipe, as about as appealing as liquefied bread. I had in my head this picture of soggy, tepid popcorn water. The photos didn’t really convey anything more from this dish, so I’m not sure exactly what grabbed me. Maybe it was the suspicion that despite the confidence I had that this would be more weird than good, I was likely wrong.

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The suspicion was slim though, and so before I started making this I’d already been thinking of ways to expand on it. Liquefied anything seems a little gross to me, so rather than thinking “What else can I liquefy?” I wondered instead what other forms popcorn might take. Popcorn powder paired with cheese powder? Popcorn film? I joked with my friend Kevin that I was even going to try to make Popcorn-Scented Air, which would be the ultimate blue-baller dish. “Oh dang someone’s making popcorn, I need to go make a new friend!” “Oh no sorry just kidding, the popcorn-air is all you get. Here’s the cork from a bottle of some wine from France that pairs nicely with it.”

One idea I had was to try pairing other things with popcorn. How many flavors, though, do you think of when you think of popcorn? Cheese. Caramel. Um….yeah. That’s about as far as I got with it too. Sarah and I have one container of one of the rarest ingredients in New Zealand: a box of Kraft Mac-N-Cheeze that her mom sent us a while back. Kevin told me he used to top popcorn with this, and indeed my dad used to serve me popcorn with “orange salt” on it (which was different from the mac-n-cheeze stuff, but still was nuclear orange and delicious). So I thought perhaps of trying to make Kraft Cheez Foam to top the liquefied popcorn. But that’s not really stretching enough to make me feel as though I’ve learned anything.

So yesterday I asked Sarah what she thought of when she thought of popcorn. Her first answer was “Moose Munch”, which involved something with popcorn and chocolate. Halfway through reflecting on that, the obvious hit me: Cracker Jacks.

A few posts back I bitched about the frustration of working with Pure-Cote and Pineapple Juice in the face of little instruction. Well friends, sometimes it pays to learn to do derivatives the long way. For my Cracker Jack, I decided I wanted to try to make Popcorn Glass.

For my first try at this, I chopped up some peanuts with the intent of making peanut powder and mixing it with the popcorn stock. This only kinda worked…peanuts are oily and finely-chopped peanuts aren’t dry. So I ended up with grainy peanut buttery stuff mixed in with my popcorn glass. It tasted nice, though overtly peanutty. I poured it out on my acetate and let it sit overnight. I woke up this morning to find this:

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The problem was that I poured it way, way too thick. As it dried, it pulled itself apart. I had a few patches of the mixture that were thin enough to have dried ok, so just to play I went ahead and dehydrated them. They indeed turned into the crispy texture I wanted, though Sarah pointed out they looked a little like, well, puke. They tasted very peanutty, so I decided the move of including the peanut in the film was a mistake. Also, it was only barely, BARELY popcorny. Popcorn is a delicate taste, I realized. Hmm. So how do I correct this?

The Pineapple glass was delicate as well, and the way Chef Achatz seems to have decided to deal with this is to wrap something in it. Multiple layers of popcorn film will boost the flavor (I think), so maybe I’ll try making it again with no peanuts, and instead I’ll try to wrap a peanut inside the film.

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Since I’m going for a Cracker-Jack flavor, I need a caramel component. Cracker Jack caramel, though, isn’t just sugar; there’s a heavy molasses component. So for my Cracker Jack, I decided to dip a half-peanut in molasses, then dip it in some caramel powder I made. I fold the caramel peanut into an envelope of the popcorn film, then dehydrate the assembly to make it crispy.

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Making glass takes a while, so today while my second round of glass was drying, I worked on the actual Alinea recipe for the Liquified Popcorn. It’s not terribly difficult; I got tripped up once when trying to make the Caramel Froth (the cookbook instructs me to froth the caramel in a tall, narrow container. This produced no foam at all. A couple trips to the health food store/grocery store and some experiments later taught me that in fact the exact opposite was more beneficial; a shallow pan allowed the liquid more room to bubble and froth, and I immediately had a heady layer of foam).

Assembling this was fun. The foam is extremely stable, and what the pictures in the book didn’t convey was that the entire thing is served warm, like fresh hot chocolate. This temperature is a key player in this dish. If the popcorn mixture is allowed to go lukewarm, you indeed get a mouthful of tepid, kinda unappetizing popcorn soup. But the warmth of the popcorn stock with the relative coolness of the caramel foam makes this dish incredible. It’s like Christmas and childhood and county fairs all in one. The popcorn broth is dense and buttery and silky smooth, and the sweetness of the caramel cuts through it here and there as it rolls around in your mouth. I think this dish my be my second-favorite so far, after the Pineapple Glass and Bacon Powder.

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As for my Cracker Jacks, they’ll take another few hours for the film to get that wonderful crispiness of the pineapple glass, but I cheated because I’m too anxious to see how this will work. Here’s how they look:

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Visually these are a little sloppy. The molasses melts and runs around the inside of the envelope because of the heat from the dehydrator. They DID crisp up (and will continue to do so overnight). But. The taste of them is…boring? Popping one in my mouth, I close my eyes and try to see if I could tell what these flavors were had I not known ahead of time. The popcorn flavor is just too delicate; I understand why Chef Achatz’s version is so much stronger. This processing I’ve done diminishes the popcorny flavor notably. The peanut comes through, as does the caramel, though both interfere with each other and strangely seem to cancel each other out. As I mentioned in my last post, it’s not lost on me that an excellent dish is one that unfolds like a story. This does not.  Part of me doesn’t think I’m tasting anything here that leads me to believe that further tweaking might change the result. The other part of me thinks hey, they did it with Jelly Bellies right? Surely nothing is impossible.