Inside or Outside? It is the dilemma of all summer entertaining in England.
It's not enough to listen to the weather report, or even to scan the early morning sky, for the weather is nothing if not changeable.
Barbeques and picnics can be glorious, but only if weather conditions are just right. In my mind -- and frankly, that's the only place this idyllic scene has taken place -- children play croquet under a crisp, cloudless sky while parents sip champagne and eat strawberries under a bower of roses. In reality, I've planned many a picnic which ended up with too many people huddled around my kitchen table. We've also toughed out many an evening barbeque -- with all of the guests begging for jackets and jumpers.
Last Friday, my youngest daughter had six friends over for a sleepover party. Unlike me, who cares only for the food when it comes to party planning, she fretted over the food and the entertainment. After considerable cogitation, she drew up two plans: one for inside, and one for outside. If the weather was warm and dry, we would have a barbeque. If the weather was cold and wet, we would make homemade pizza.
Only one detail remained consistent: no matter what the weather, we would have homemade caramel corn.
When I got married, my mother made me a cookbook of family recipes. Under the Miscellaneous section, there are kid-pleasing recipes for pancakes, hot fudge sauce, coffee can ice cream, Chex party mix and pull later taffy. There is also a recipe for microwave caramel corn: a bit of late 1970s history, from the days when microwaves were a great novelty. I only remember to make it every few years, but when I do, I'm always delighted because it is DELICIOUS and easy and fun to make with children.
As summer winds down, and everyone gears up for the rush rush rush of the school year routine, it is a worthy afternoon project . . . and will, at least, lend some novelty to another afternoon spent watching DVDs. If you do let children have a go, make sure that you reserve a bag of this good stuff for yourself. It makes a lot, but a small gathering of children can snarf it down before the hapless adult has managed to clean up the kitchen.
Special Equipment: You will need a large paper bag and a microwave for this recipe.
Two batches of popcorn
8 ounces packed light brown sugar
4 ounces butter
2 ounces honey or white Karo syrup or Lyle’s Golden Syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
First, a few words about popcorn: don’t even think of using microwave popcorn. It is nasty and full of chemicals. You need to make popcorn the old-fashioned way, which is really very easy. You will need a large pot with a lid and handles on the side (so you can hold it to shake it). I use my spaghetti/soup pot, but when I was a child we had a special seasoned pot just for popcorn. On medium to medium-high heat, heat 2-3 tablespoons of a light vegetable oil (like sunflower, canola, etc). Then add your popcorn – I think that 2/3s of a cup is about right. Make sure to shake your pan back and forth, so you don’t burn the popcorn, and take it off the heat when it has almost stopped popping. Don’t forget to have a large bowl at the ready!
After you have made two batches of popcorn, using this method and quantity, pour all of your popcorn in a paper bag.
Next, you will make the caramel.
Place the brown sugar, butter and syrup in a large glass measuring cup or bowl. (Check picture for size. A 16 oz measuring cup is not big enough.) Microwave this mixture for approximately 1 ½ minutes – or until butter has completely melted. Then, stir until smooth, with all of the ingredients fully incorporated.
Here is the fun science experiment part: Add the vanilla, baking soda and salt and microwave on high for 2 more minutes. The baking soda will activate and the mixture will foam up.
Pour the syrup over the popcorn, and stir well with a long wooden spoon. Then, fold the bag down tightly. The last step is to heat the popcorn in the microwave for 2 to 3 minutes. (The recipe says 3, but I thought that 2 was plenty! You don’t want to burn it.)
Remove to a large bowl. The popcorn will be hot and sticky at first, but when it cools it will become crisp. If the weather is humid, store the popcorn in Ziploc bags as soon as it cools.
This is delicious, addictive stuff! Make sure to have some when it is warm – although don’t be too hasty and burn your tongue.
As for the party, we decided to play it conservatively and go with the "Inside" plan: pizza, dancing and movies. (As luck would have it, the day ended up being warm and dry.) The girls ended up playing in the creek, which hadn't been part of any plan . . . but that's just how parties go.
It's just as well that I had a lot of "tester" bites when I was making the caramel corn, because there weren't any leftovers . . . not even for the vacuum cleaner.
So now, it's almost Friday again and I'm planning for six more friends who are coming to visit. And I'm wondering: Will we be eating inside or outside? (And should I make more caramel corn? Because it's a really good snack for people who spend a lot of their time at computers.)