When I was a child, I was perfectly happy with a box of Cracker Jack. Now that I've tasted some of the finer things in life, I have higher standards. But I still get a kick out of caramel corn.
Prepared with freshly popped corn and homemade caramel, this version will give you a whole new perspective on caramel corn. It's crunchy, sweet, a little bit salty, and downright fun to eat. It's also inexpensive to make and a great gift. I've been taking it to parties and even skeptics are soon happily munching away.
Preheat the oven to 250 degrees.
Butter a large roasting pan or a couple of rimmed baking sheets. Combine the popped corn with the nuts in the roasting pan and place in the oven while it heats up and you prepare the caramel.
In a 3-quart or larger heavy saucepan, combine the butter, corn syrup, sugar, and salt. Measure the baking soda and vanilla extract into separate small bowls. Bring the syrup mixture to a boil over medium heat, stirring with a wooden spoon or heatproof spatula just until the mixture starts to boil.
Boil without stirring until the syrup begins to turn a light golden brown, about 8-10 minutes from the time you begin to heat the mixture. Watch carefully. Once the syrup begins to take on color, it can get too dark in the blink of an eye.
The syrup should register 230-250 degrees on a candy thermometer when ready. Remove the syrup from the heat and stir in the baking soda and vanilla extract. The mixture will bubble up and expand. Immediately pour the syrup evenly over the popcorn and nuts in the roasting pan and stir to coat evenly. (It helps to use 2 spoons or spatulas at this point.)
Return the caramel-coated corn and nuts to the oven and bake for 1 hour, stirring every 10-15 minutes. Remove from the oven, let cool and break into clumps.
When the caramel corn is completely cool, melt the chocolate in a double-boiler or a heatproof bowl placed over a saucepan of simmering water. (Do not let the water touch the bottom of the bowl.) Stir occasionally, until the chocolate is evenly melted.
Using 2 tablespoons, dip small clusters of candied popcorn and nuts into the warm chocolate, one at a time, turning to coat evenly and then allowing the excess to drip back into the bowl. Line a baking sheet with parchment or waxed paper and place the chocolate-coated clusters on the baking sheet.
When the chocolate is firm to the touch, toss the clusters with the remaining caramel corn. (Alternatively, you can drizzle the chocolate over the caramel corn but the presentation is not as attractive.) Store in an airtight container for up to 1 week.