This year, I am going to make popcorn the old-fashioned way — on the stovetop — and flavour the hot kernels three different ways. Everyone loves popcorn and there is no other food that is so closely associated with movies. Even though I sometimes make microwave popcorn just like the rest of the world, when I make it from scratch, I can't believe the difference in taste. Microwave popcorn is a mere shadow of the original.
There are basically two ways to top popcorn — wet and dry.
Let's start with wet toppings, such as melted butter. Melted butter is always a crowd pleaser, but you have to make that version just before serving or else it gets soggy. Plus, buttered popcorn is always best hot. Other wet toppings, such as melted chocolate, should be applied to popcorn spread flat on a baking sheet, then allowed to cool. Otherwise it becomes soggy.
The advantage of dry flavour toppings is that you can make the popcorn a few hours in advance, then serve it room at temperature. Just make sure to add the spices while the popcorn is hot. My three favourites are truffle salt, Parmesan cheese and a sweet and spicy barbecue rub.
To cook the popcorn for use with a dry topping, I use a heavy enameled cast-iron Dutch oven set over medium heat. I heat the empty pot for about 2 minutes over low heat, then pour in the olive oil and the popcorn, increase the heat to medium and immediately place the lid on the pot. The heavy pot helps prevent the popcorn from burning and almost all of the kernels pop. I find that a good olive oil gives the popcorn a great flavour and that you won't even want to add melted butter.
As soon as the popcorn is popped, I pour it out of the pan into the biggest bowl I have. I toss the popcorn with the seasoning and continue to toss so that the steam doesn't make the popcorn soggy. When the steam dissipates, I toss it a few more times, taste to make sure that I have enough flavouring, then let it come to room temperature in the bowl. At this point you can place it in serving bowls or baskets or even individual paper bags to give your guests.
And don't forget to pair your gourmet popcorn with a flute of sparkling wine. The make the perfect high-low party combination!
STOVETOP POPCORN MANY WAYS
Start to finish: 10 minutes
Servings: 1/2 cup corn kernels will produce about 12 cups popcorn
2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil (depending on the size of the pot)
1/3 to 1/2 cup popcorn kernels (depending on the size of the pot)
Fine-grain sea salt or other seasoned toppings
Heat an empty cast-iron Dutch oven over low heat for 2 minutes.
Add enough olive oil to the pot to thinly coat the entire bottom. Add a single layer of popcorn kernels. You want them to be touching but not more than one layer thick. Increase the heat to medium and place the lid on the pot. Wait until popping begins, then turn the heat down slightly.
Shake the pot every 30 seconds or so. Start shaking a bit more when the popping starts to subside. When the kernels stop popping in unison and you only hear one pop every couple of seconds, it is done.
Pour the popcorn into a large bowl. Season generously with the toppings listed below, or another one of your favourites. Toss the popcorn in the bowl and sprinkle with additional seasoning several times to make sure you have an even coating. Serve immediately or let cool.
DRY POPCORN TOPPINGS
— Truffle salt
— 1 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
— Barbecue rub (use purchased or the recipe below)
SWEET AND SPICY BARBECUE RUB
Start to finish: 5 minutes
Makes about 1 cup
1/4 cup paprika
2 tablespoons superfine sugar
2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
2 tablespoons dried chipotle chili powder
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon ground black pepper
1 tablespoon cayenne
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon garlic powder
In a small bowl, combine all ingredients. Store in an airtight container for up to 6 months.
WET POPCORN TOPPINGS
Be certain to spread the popcorn flat on a baking sheet before adding wet toppings, then let it set before serving.
— Melted chocolate
— Melted chocolate and peanut butter
— Melted caramels and a pinch of salt
DRY POPCORN TOPPINGS
— Maple sugar and crispy bits of smoked bacon
— Mini marshmallows, chocolate chips and chopped salted peanuts
— Mini M&Ms, chopped roasted almonds and dried coconut
— Ragin' Cajun Spice mixture
— Lemon-pepper salt
— Italian spice blend and finely grated Parmesan cheese
EDITOR'S NOTE: Elizabeth Karmel is a grilling and Southern foods expert and executive chef at Hill Country Barbecue Market restaurants in New York and Washington, as well as Hill Country Chicken in New York. She is the author of three cookbooks, including "Soaked, Slathered and Seasoned."