The thing is… I don’t even like caramel.
But this caramel popcorn is just really, really good.
There are some things where the storebought version just doesn’t compare, and caramel popcorn is one of them. In every kind of storebought caramel popcorn I’ve had, the glaze is thin, sugary, and flavorless. In a word, it’s weak. Even when the popcorn is fully coated in glaze, the flavor is still lacking. It’s a bland coating of chemicals and no wants that.
And then, one summer day in 2008 while visiting Kate in Maryland, I had caramel popcorn from Dolle’s in Ocean City. The flavor was intensely delicious–buttery and brown sugary, smothering each piece in caramel goodness. That led to an obsession, with Dolle’s caramel popcorn specifically. For years that was the gold standard, the one caramel popcorn that wasn’t disappointing. And then it occurred to me to make some myself.
Let’s do this.
Over the course of three years, I have tried several different butterbeer recipes in an attempt to taste something somewhat close to the official, Rowling-approved version sold at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I didn’t visit the park until October 2014, when I volunteered myself for a work conference upon discovering it would be held near the park in Orlando. So in those three years of darkness, I couldn’t really say whether the recipes I tried were close to the real thing.
But I’d read enough descriptions to know what it should be–like cream soda but with a butterscotch-like flavor. And the versions I tried didn’t quite match up. I’ve tried or read about a few different methods to get that mysterious butterbeer flavor. Methods started with the cream soda base but differed in what they added from there. From a specific flavoring called vanilla butter emulsion to butterscotch syrup to butterscotch schnapps to actual butter heated with brown sugar, none of them seemed ideal. (Especially the last one. I’d rather not drink melted butter in my soda.)
When I finally tried the Rowling-approved butterbeer at the Wizarding World park, I found it tasted almost exactly as the internet had described. I had the frozen version, which was almost slushy-like in consistency. During that day at the park, I ended up buying two mugs of that frozen butterbeer and finishing them both (I shared them with my friend, of course, but I think the split was closer to 90/10 than 50/50. Sorry, Halley. It was totally for science).
Bread pudding is one of those things you don’t have to be exact with. As long as you throw together some reasonable amounts of milk, sugar, eggs, bread, and whatever flavorings suit you, chances are you have yourself a decent bread pudding. And this drives me up the wall.
Loosey-goosey ratios mean that there’s a huge variance from recipe to recipe–such a large variance that someone like me, who likes to review several different recipes to find a pattern or middle ground, is left at a loss because ratios in the recipes are so drastically different from one another and I don’t know who to trust. I want that perfect texture–something soft and silky on the bottom layer, with a slight bite to the top layer. And I can’t trust that any recipe I choose will guarantee that–I’ve seen the homogenous, soggy sponges of bread puddings made with too much liquid and I don’t want any part of it.
Today, we do science.
That’s my catch-all term for recipes I can’t quite explain. This one involves no baking, and just has one ingredient: maple syrup. A pinch of salt is optional, as is a quarter-teaspoon of vegetable oil, but only maple syrup is necessary to make this science happen. By boiling the syrup on the stove until it reaches a very exact temperature (235 degrees Fahrenheit), setting it in an ice bath until it reaches another exact temperature (100 degrees Fahrenheit), and stirring it for twenty minutes or until it reaches an approximate consistency (peanut buttery?), we create maple butter. This is not to be confused with the other maple butter, which is maple syrup whipped into butter. There is no science in that.