This past weekend, it was in the triple digits here in Tucson. By triple digits, we mean something near 111°F — no zeros allowed. With that heat, we need a way to cool off, and everyone know the best thing to beat the heat is ice cream. After a bit of thought, we decided on Caramel Corn Ice Cream, but not ice cream with caramel corn mixed in, just the flavor of caramel corn in a smooth, luscious, creamy frozen custard. If that sounds good, keep on reading.
We really made up this recipe based roughly on Triple Vanilla Ice Cream combined with the Salted Caramel Ice Cream, and some techniques we picked up in a cookbook or two (we’ve no idea which ones at this remove). Well, let’s get scratchin’ so we don’t wilt in the heat.
When we can, we try to go with organic cream and half-and-half because they doesn’t have any added ingredients such as polysorbate 80 — what happened to the first 79 polysorbates? We don’t always succeed, especially when heavy cream in on sale for under $5 a quart. Yes, we buy the stuff by the quart. Eggs we get from happy pastured hens; if you want, you can read more about how the hens and other animals are raised at Chiricahua Pasture Raised Meats. We’ve visited the ranch, and we like that our dollars go to supporting places like this.
Procedure in detail:
It looks like a lot of steps, but it’s relatively straightforward, and — we’ve already tasted it — it makes a great ice cream. So, take your time and enjoy the process. That’s why you’re scratchin’.
Pop popcorn. Maybe you have another way of popping popcorn, but we find it easiest to just place the kernels in a brown paper bag, fold down the top, and microwave — just like the pre-filled bags you can buy for a whole lot more. If you want to try it, place the kernels in a plain brown bag, fold the top over three times, and microwave on high for about 3-4 minutes (in our microwave, it takes 3 minutes 15 seconds to pop). Listen, and, after a minute, the kernels will start to pop. Let the microwave go until popping slows to one kernel every 4-5 seconds. Remove the popcorn and set aside.
Caramelize sugar. Place 100 g (1/2 cup) of sugar in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium heat. After a minute or two, the sugar will start to melt; use a heatproof spatula and very gently stir the sugar, trying to get it all to melt. If some remains unmelted, don’t sweat it; it’ll be fine. After a few minutes, the sugar will turn golden brown, then it’ll start to smoke — not a lot of smoke, a few wisps — once that happens, count to 10 and remove from heat.
Add butter and salt. Drop in the butter (careful, it’ll spatter and sizzle) and stir or swirl around the pan until it all melts. Some of the butter will mix in, some not, but, again, don’t worry, it’ll be fine. Add the salt and stir that around. It probably won’t mix in, as the caramel is starting to harden. Again, it’s not a problem.
Add half-and-half. Pour in the half-and-half. The caramel is now completely hardened to the bottom of the pan, right? No worries. Place the pan over medium-low heat, and, using the spatula, stir continuously across the bottom of the pan until all the caramel dissolves — it will — and the half-and-half is steaming, about 10 minutes. If you want to use a thermometer, the mixture should be around 170°F.
Add popcorn. Remove the pan from heat and add the popped popcorn. It’ll seem to melt into the mixture, and, with a stir, it’ll all look like some lumpy brown liquid. It’s fine, just not pretty, yet.
Steep. Let the mixture cool for about an hour, then place it in the refrigerator to steep for about 24 hours. During this time, the popcorn flavor will be soaking into the half-and-half, which is what you want for ice cream that tastes like popcorn.
Strain. The next day, strain out the popcorn. You can pass it through a colander lined with butter muslin, or, through a mesh strainer, or, if you have one, a funnel, fitted with a strainer. Whatever you use, press the kernels to release as much liquid as you can. And, if a few popcorn bits get through, no problem, since we’ll be straining it again later.
Reheat half-and-half. From here on out, we’re making custard just as usual, so place the infused half-and-half in a clean saucepan over medium heat. Stir continuously until the mixture steams — if using a thermometer, the temperature will be around 170°F. Remove from heat.
Whisk egg yolks and sugar. In a medium bowl, whisk together egg yolks, molasses, and the remaining sugar, until smooth, about 1 minute.
Temper egg yolks. The moment of truth: you need to pour the hot liquid into the egg yolks without cooking them. The way to do that is to whisk the yolks rapidly as you slowly pour in the liquid. Start with a few drops to about a tablespoon of liquid, whisk it in, then add more. As you continue, you can increase the speed at which you add the hot liquid. Once added, pour it all back into the saucepan.
Cook custard. Place the saucepan of custard over medium-low heat, and, stirring continuously, cook until it thickens slightly. If you’re using a thermometer (we do for this step), the temperature should be between 165-170°F. Any hotter, and the yolks will cook and curdle out of the mixture.
Strain. Pour the custard through a fine mesh strainer into a bowl. This straining will remove any cooked bits of yolks and any small bits of remaining popcorn, ensuring a smooth ice cream.
Add cream and vanilla. Once strained, pour in the cold heavy cream and add the vanilla. Stir thoroughly to combine. If you want, give it a taste and think how much better it’ll be churned into ice cream.
Chill. Cover and refrigerate at least 8 hours, preferably overnight. The more thoroughly the custard chills, the faster and easier it’ll be to churn.
Churn. Set up an ice cream maker and churn the custard according to the manufacturers’ directions. We use a KitchenAid ice cream attachment which works great and is easy to clean. We love it, but we’re sure there are other ice cream churns that work just as well.
Pack. Once churned, pack into an airtight container and place in the freezer until completely frozen.
Yes, it does taste just like caramel popcorn. How cool is that? It took a few extra steps, making the caramel and infusing the popcorn, but we think it was really worth it to make a great-tasting, original, flavor. So, five stars.