Oregon, Nevada, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Mississippi, Arkansas, Kentucky, West Virginia, and my very own Commonwealth of Massachusetts, listen up! This one’s for you. I’ll explain, but first things first. The bottom line is this: I love this kettle corn.
I also love my mother-in-law, Sarah. She had a birthday at the end of August, and it was a big one, the kind that ends with a zero, and feels important. To celebrate, she and my father-in-law rented a house on the beach in Narragansett, Rhode Island, and invited their four kids (plus three spouses, an almost-spouse, and a 17-month old grandson) to join them for a long weekend. Sarah claimed it was a birthday gift to herself, on account of getting to spend a few days with all of us. That’s what she wanted most, she said. But I don’t know. With barbeques in the evenings, and early-morning sits on a seaside bench, and a knit hat that Sarah made and gifted to me, it kind of felt more like my birthday. Which, knowing Sarah, would no doubt make her very happy.
Eli and I arrived in Narragansett to a fully stocked kitchen. It was no surprise, given Sarah’s habit of traveling with enough food to feed a small army. There was meat in the fridge, fruit on the counter, potatoes blanching in a pot on the stove, and an enormous bag of kettle corn – something called Angie’s Kettle Corn – on the table. I eyed it warily. I think that I probably feel about large packages of food the way my cousin, Michelle, once felt about presents. Michelle’s in college now, but as a child, when it came time to open holiday gifts, she once burst into tears when confronted with a box half the size of her little body. I remember her wailing, “It’s too biiiiig!” She refused to open it. I didn’t get it. But now, I do. I get it, Michelle. There is something about industrial-sized packages of food – even very good food – that makes me feel the exact same way. It’s simply too much. It’s sensory overload, or the anticipation of sensory overload, or something. The summer before I went away to college, I worked as a waitress, and once a week it was my job to fill the ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise jars from the bulk containers in the walk-in fridge. It’s a task that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Have you ever stared into the gloppy depths of a 5-gallon tub of mayonnaise? I was mildly terrified, and it was thanks only to many slow, deep breaths that I made it through. I swore off condiments for a while after that.
A bloated bag of kettle corn’s got nothing on a giant vat of mayo, so when Sarah pulled open the package and pointed it in my general direction, I went for it. I am very brave. What I would discover over the next few days is that there is a reason for packaging this kettle corn in bags the size of overstuffed bed pillows. Unlike mayonnaise, kettle corn – this particular kettle corn, anyway – can and should be eaten by the handful. By the handsful, actually. Pack it up in bags any smaller, and you’d have little more than a single serving, barely enough to share. I would know, seeing as how I plowed through almost the entire bag all by myself during our stay. Eli and I visited his family again last weekend, and this time, Sarah had procured three bags (good lord!) for my – ahem, our – consumption. “I’ve never seen you snack like this,” my sister-in-law said. “It’s research,” I told her.
Research, indeed. The thing is, when you start in on this kettle corn, you don’t much feel like stopping. That’s all well and good if you happen to live in a place where Angie’s Kettle Corn is readily available. If only we all could be so lucky. Which brings us back to the residents of the nine states I called out at the beginning of this post, the states that, according to the company website, are bereft of Angie’s Kettle Corn. I could have moved – preferably to Minnesota to be close to company headquarters – but instead, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I did it for you. For us.
Kettle corn is, in theory, not all that exciting. It’s just sugared popcorn dusted with salt. Except there’s nothing “just” about it. The sugar melts in the hot oil and, as it cools, encases each popped kernel in a thin, glassy shell. Then comes the salt, and it’s so long! to whatever else you were planning on eating that day. I have skipped dinner exactly twice over the last month due to kettle corn overconsumption. I’m not proud; I just thought you should know. Consider it a warning. It’s the sweet and salty combination that does it. And the crunch doesn’t hurt. The effect is hypnotic. After a handful or two, I’m in a full-on kettle corn trance. Scoop. Eat. Repeat.
I hesitated to include that last photograph, given that it’s not a particularly flattering shot of my thighs. But the kettle corn looks damn good, and I know what really matters.
Inspired by Angie’s Kettle Corn
The only thing that could get in the way of a perfect batch of kettle corn is a layer of burnt kernels along the bottom of the pot. That’s true of all popcorn, to be sure, but the sugar in kettle corn heightens the risk. Here are two tips to keep your kettle corn from burning:
1. Remove the pot from the heat sooner than you normally would.
Over the years, I have refined my popcorn popping skills so that I end up with very few unpopped kernels at the bottom of the batch. Twice in my life I have actually popped every last one of those suckers, without scorching a single kernel. Those were big days for me, people. Big. But when it comes to kettle corn, I check my pride at the kitchen door, and I urge you to do the same. The sugar will burn before the popcorn, so if you wait until (what is typically) the very last moment to remove the pot from the heat, it will probably be too late. When the popping slows considerably – if you can count more than a second, two seconds, maximum, between pops – get that pot off of the flame! You’ll end up with more unpopped kernels at the bottom of the pot, but it’s a small price to pay for unscathed kettle corn.
2. Transfer the kettle corn immediately from the hot pot to a large bowl.
If you don’t, the sugar at the bottom of the pot will continue to cook, and might burn.
Most recipes for kettle corn – and popcorn, in general – call for some kind of vegetable oil, but I’ve been popping corn in olive oil for years. I like the stronger flavor, and I think it’s especially lovely in this sweet and salty recipe.
¾ c. corn kernels
1/3 c. olive oil (not extra-virgin), or enough to thickly coat the bottom of a large pot
¼ c. granulated sugar
Several generous pinches (about ½ tsp.) sea salt
Heat the oil and a couple of kernels in a large covered pot. Meanwhile, measure the corn kernels and sugar into a bowl so that you’re ready for a quick dump. When you hear the test kernels pop, remove the lid, and quickly pour the rest of the kernels and sugar into pot. Stir briefly to coat the kernels with oil and sugar, and replace the lid. With mitted hands, lift the pot by the handles (use your thumbs to keep the lid in place), and shake occasionally.
When the popping slows, remove the kettle corn from the heat, and immediately dump into a large bowl. Sprinkle with a few generous pinches of sea salt.