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Popcorn so elegant, not only can you eat it, but you can package it as a gift

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The celebrity chef Jack Bishop has a motto.

JACK BISHOP: My kitchen mantra is pretty simple. I serve whatever I cook, and I smile. No one will actually complain, even if the food isn't perfect.

INSKEEP: Go for it, in other words, and don't worry if things go wrong. Keep that thought in mind as we pass through the dramatic story that follows.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Jack Bishop hosts the PBS television show "America's Test Kitchen." He occasionally talks about cooking with us. And as the holidays arrive, he offered to show me a seemingly simple holiday recipe.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET IT SNOW! LET IT SNOW! LET IT SNOW!")

FRANK SINATRA: (Singing) It doesn't show signs of stopping, and I brought some corn for popping.

INSKEEP: Popcorn. What could be simpler than that? You just pop it. But Jack Bishop says you can dress up your popcorn to make it an elegant snack - so elegant that you could package it and give it as a gift.

BISHOP: So we're making spicy caramel popcorn. It's got just enough heat to compete with the saltiness and the sweet. And we're going to use smoked almonds, so you get another layer of flavor rather than just general nuts.

INSKEEP: So here's the setup. I'm in my kitchen, and Jack Bishop is watching from his kitchen over Zoom and cooking along with me. We're mixing together popcorn, nuts and spices. And the key is the caramel, the sauce that will harden and make it all stick together. I don't claim to be high class, so I started by using microwave popcorn, which Jack reluctantly allowed.

BISHOP: You can use bagged popcorn. You can use microwave popcorn. I popped my own popcorn because that's just the way I roll. But it really doesn't make much difference.

INSKEEP: How do you pop the popcorn? Do you do it over an open fire? What's your method?

BISHOP: The trick is to take three kernels, put them in three tablespoons of oil, put the lid on, and then as soon as they pop, you put the remaining kernels in and just do it in a covered saucepan.

INSKEEP: I'm trying to figure out why you do the three in advance. Is that to give the other popcorn confidence to pop? What are you doing there?

BISHOP: It's a signal that the oil's hot enough. It basically says when it pops, it's now ready to go.

(SOUNDBITE OF KLAUS WUNDERLICH'S "POPCORN")

BISHOP: The tricky part of this recipe is we are making homemade caramel, and caramel is basically burnt sugar.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

BISHOP: But you don't want it really burnt. You want it somewhat burnt.

INSKEEP: So you want to burn it without burning it. This is perfect for me.

BISHOP: So the trick to making caramel sauce is to have a heavy sauce pan with a shiny surface. Caramel is all about the changing of the color of the sugar. And if you do it in a dark pan, you have no idea what color the sugar actually is. So the most...

INSKEEP: Ah, I see. So that's why it needs to be shiny.

BISHOP: It needs to be shiny. It's really just about visibility.

INSKEEP: It's all about visibility - true of so many things in society. Anyway, I put some water in the pan and then dumped a little mountain of sugar in there. You don't stir it. You just pile it in so the pile pokes above the water, and then we turned up the heat.

BISHOP: So are you getting any simmering?

INSKEEP: Yes, I'm getting a little bit on the edges. Yes.

BISHOP: And has your sugar dissolved or are you still in the process of dissolving the sugar?

INSKEEP: It looks like it's dissolving, but there's still a small little island in the middle that is just now going underwater.

BISHOP: So this stage - we're going to wait until it's basically straw-colored. That's the point where we're going to turn the heat way down to slow down the process even further so that we have a bigger window of getting the caramel just right.

INSKEEP: Oh, its darkening. I looked away for a second, and it got - it's a darker brown now, I would say.

BISHOP: Yeah, I want - I'm going to turn the heat down on mine to medium-low.

INSKEEP: I'm also just going to turn on the fan. I think our producer, Barry Gordemer, would be very amused if I set off the smoke alarm, but I'm going to try not to do that. I'm getting a very dark brown now.

BISHOP: Yeah, I'm a little worried that you got smoke.

INSKEEP: A little worried? Well, here's a good moment to recall Jack's mantra.

BISHOP: I serve whatever I cook, and I smile. No one will actually complain, even if the food isn't perfect.

INSKEEP: But we were not going to serve this. As soon as we took it off the heat, the overdone caramel hardened like brown concrete.

BISHOP: That looks pretty dark to me. Does it smell pretty burnt?

INSKEEP: I would say not massively burnt. I mean, it's - I would say it smells burn-ish (ph).

BISHOP: Steve, look.

INSKEEP: Yes.

BISHOP: I just burnt my caramel because I wasn't paying attention (laughter).

INSKEEP: Oh, I'm so sorry. My - wow. And I'm not secretly happy that I wasn't the only one, not at all.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CARAMEL")

SUZANNE VEGA: (Singing) It won't do to dream of caramel, to fan a hidden fire that can never burn true.

INSKEEP: As Robert F. Kennedy once said, only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.

When you have to burn it without burning it, the margin between success and failure is just a few degrees on your thermometer. So we burned off the caramel concrete and tried all over again.

BISHOP: So tell me what's going on inside your pot.

INSKEEP: We got some boiling, but you know what? Why don't I show it to you?

BISHOP: That looks good. As soon as you get close to dark amber, I want you to take the pan off the heat and then add the butter, which - it'll immediately cool it down.

INSKEEP: OK. Here it goes off the heat. Now do I dump in the salt and the cayenne?

BISHOP: Yep. The butter, the salt and the cayenne - they can all go in. Swirl it so the butter is cooling the entire pot down.

INSKEEP: Got you.

BISHOP: All right. Now remember, it's going to foam up quite a lot, but swirl it.

INSKEEP: Yeah, it's starting to foam. Wow. It's starting to look like caramel, is what I'm telling you.

BISHOP: Stir it with a spatula, dump it on the popcorn, dump in the nuts, and then just with a rubber spatula, toss it all together.

INSKEEP: Oh, it smells amazing. You can smell the smoke of the almonds because the heat of the caramel brings that forth.

BISHOP: Oh, that looks so great, Steve.

INSKEEP: Should I just try, like, one kernel? Is that OK to do?

BISHOP: No, you can break off - just from the corner, break off a little piece.

INSKEEP: Oh. Yeah, you can taste the caramel. You can taste the nut. You do get a tiny bit of spiciness to it, but I would not say it's strongly spiced. But it's got a little aftertaste to it.

BISHOP: I think I put more cayenne in mine because I like mine spicier, and I love the smokiness of the smoked almonds.

INSKEEP: I think the smoked almonds are the key. I had thought that if I didn't find smoked almonds, I would just use regular almonds. And I feel lucky that I found the smoked almonds.

BISHOP: And now we just need to wait. And when it's cool, package it up, if it lasts that long.

INSKEEP: I was going to say - might not.

BISHOP: And share it with somebody who you wanted to make something special for.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BURNING LOVE")

ELVIS PRESLEY: (Singing) I'm just a hunk, a hunk of burning love. Just a hunk, a hunk of burning love.

INSKEEP: Jack Bishop hosts the PBS television show "America's Test Kitchen."

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Our theme music was inspired by BJ Leiderman. Wishing you a burn-free Christmas. I'm Steve Inskeep.

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

I'm Sarah McCammon

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

And I'm A Martinez.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BURNING LOVE")

PRESLEY: (Singing) Just a hunk, a hunk of burning love. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.