By and large, I have never been drawn to popcorn. It is a snack that I rarely think about and only eat a bit reluctantly, if someone offers me his or her bucket at the movies. It was not until Renato introduced me to the voodoo-like nature of homemade caramel popcorn that I understood the allure. The otherwise average kernels turn into something else entirely. The salty peanuts, crunchy popcorn, and dark chocolate form an otherworldly snack that has the overall effect of encouraging epic consumption and borderline hysteria. Finally, since the yield on this recipe is rather large, we encourage you to get out cellophane bags and decorative bows and use a portion of your caramel popcorn for gifts. It makes a great present and will save you a few otherwise unavoidable calories.
If you are starting with kernels, pop them using any method you prefer and let them cool. (We like a hot-air popper.)
In a medium saucepan over low heat, start to melt the butter. Add the brown sugar, corn syrup, and molasses, and stir gently with a heatproof spatula. Continue to cook over medium heat, stirring only occasionally, until the mixture starts to boil. Clip a candy thermometer to the side of the pan and bring the syrup to the soft-ball stage, approximately 240 degrees F. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the salt, the baking soda, and vanilla. Pour the caramel over the popcorn in large streams, then sprinkle with the peanuts. Use your spatula to fold the popcorn until it is completely coated with caramel.
Place the roasting pan in the oven and
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