Pumpkin Spice Caramel Popcorn and Pepitas

The nights are getting cooler and the store aisles are filling up with holiday merchandise. While some head straight for the ornaments and decorations, I cannot resist the shelves of holiday treats: chocolate-covered almonds, gingerbread, peppermint bark, and caramel popcorn. Nowadays, caramel popcorn comes in a wide variety of flavors unlike the Cracker Jack of my youth. Also, unlike Cracker Jack, gourmet caramel popcorn is a pricey treat when bought at department stores!

Well worth the price to avoid the messy, finger-scorching caramel and the sticky, cemented aftermath? Not anymore apparently. A little internet searching turned up several recipes that recommended making the caramel in the microwave and using the same to finish the popcorn in a paper bag. Seriously? The microwave?

Yes, I was skeptical, but the urge to try some was too strong to repel. So, instead of tediously hovering over the saucepan to make sure the caramel reaches the perfect candy consistency, so it doesn't crystallize after coating the popcorn, I made some popcorn, loaded my caramel ingredients into a large mixing bowl, and found a big paper bag. The entire time I muttered to myself, “There’s no way this is going to work,” “I’m gonna end up with a bag of popped goo,” and “What was I thinking?” Trying to convince myself with, “If you think about it, shaking the caramel corn in a bag should provide outstanding uniformity, rather than pouring the caramel over the popcorn in a roasting pan, and then trying to mix the gloppy mass with a wooden spoon.”

After removing the paper bag filled with caramel corn from the microwave and dumping it out on parchment paper, it was torture to wait for the corn to cool enough to taste. The result? “Ah -{crunch, crunch, crunch}-mazing!!” I couldn't believe it! And I couldn't stop eating it… It is a good thing it is so easy to make because now I needed to make more for the guys!

  • 1 cup popping corn, popped
  • ¼ cup pepitas (pumpkin seeds), toasted
  • 1 stick butter
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • ½ teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
  • 1/4 cup corn syrup, light or dark
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda

Place the popped popcorn in a large brown paper grocery bag and set aside.

Combine the corn syrup, butter, spice, vanilla, and sugar in a large microwave-safe bowl and microwave on high for 2 minutes. Stir the caramel-to-be and microwave for another 2 minutes. You may see that the butter is not fully incorporated – don’t worry. Add in the baking soda to the caramel mixture and stir vigorously. The syrup will foam up quite a bit, so be careful!

Working quickly, pour the syrup over the popcorn in the paper bag and shake the bag enthusiastically. Roll down the top of the paper bag and place the popcorn - bag and all - in the microwave and microwave on high for 45 seconds. Remove the bag from the microwave and add the pepitas and again shake the bag enthusiastically.

Microwave the bag of popcorn for another 45 seconds and shake. Repeat this one last time (making three total 45-second bursts), and then pour the popcorn out onto cookie sheets to cool. Let the popcorn cool a bit before separating the clumps into smaller morsels. Please use caution; the molten caramel can cause serious burns.

The popcorn is best on the day it's made. Seal any leftovers (Ha ha ha! As if!!) in an airtight bag or container. Over time, the sugar will begin to soften, making the popcorn chewier than crispy (which makes it a perfect topping for ice cream, yogurt, cupcakes, or cookies.)

For those of you who are thinking that this but of caramel heaven needs even MORE deliciousness... You can elevate the recipe by drizzling chocolate over the caramel corn. Simply place a bag of chocolate chips (I prefer white chocolate for this treat) in a ziplock bag and seal I leave just a tiny bit open to allow air to escape) and microwave on high for 30 seconds. Squish the bag a bit and microwave on high for another 30 seconds and squish again (same deal as above with the popcorn). Continue this process until the chocolate is melted and smooth throughout. Then, snip the corner of the bag and drizzle chocolate over the popcorn while it is still on the cookie sheet cooling. Once the chocolate is cooled and gardened then break up the popcorn as above.