Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Christmas Traditions

One of my family’s favorite Christmas traditions is decorating the tree. After getting the conifer as vertical as possible in the tree stand, Dad hangs the lights. Then each ornament is unwrapped and held up as excited questions bounce back and forth. “Do you remember when…?” and “How old was I when I made this?” Memories of days gone by swirl around us as we carefully place each treasure in its place of honor amid sticky pine sap and needles as sharp as knives. The cats watch with interest — thinking (I am sure), “Yay, cat toy!

But the best part of decorating our Christmas tree is also the tastiest—Grammie Forbes’s caramel corn. My family enjoys this treat just one day each year. We plan this day carefully; making sure everyone will be home. As the children get older, finding a compatible schedule for everyone is becoming trickier but not impossible, as this is an event no one wants to miss.

Making homemade caramel corn is classic kitchen chemistry. After mixing the butter, sugar, and corn syrup you then bring it to a boil. Not the 212 degree F boil of water, no the 290 degree F boil of almost hard crack candy. My favorite part is the final step of mixing the vanilla and baking soda into the hot liquid, creating an almost volcanic eruption. Stir, stir, stir or it boils over the sides of the saucepan!

One year, we almost had a caramel corn calamity! While in the middle of mixing up a batch of my grandmother’s caramel corn, I had an uncontrollable urge to text my daughter to see if she was on her way. I interrupted my kitchen duties to tap out a message on my cellphone.

Meanwhile, back at the stove, a saucepan of sugar, corn syrup, butter, and vinegar boiled merrily as the needle on the candy thermometer inched toward the goal of 290 degrees F. Usually I tend this molten mixture closely, stirring frequently until it turns creamy amber. Too hot and it burns, too cool and it stays sticky, never reaching that crisp, crunchy, melt-in-your-mouth heaven that is Grammie Forbes’s Caramel Corn.

I snapped my phone shut and mixed in vanilla and baking soda. The foaming froth of scalding liquid threatened to bubble over the rim of the pan. I quickly stirred it over the waiting popcorn, coating every kernel. It wasn’t easy waiting for it to cool enough so a sample wouldn’t burn my tongue. I popped a morsel into my mouth and chomped down … only to discover that my teeth stuck together!

 With visions of pulled fillings, I kept my teeth clenched and waited for the sugary sealant to melt. Finally I was able to open my mouth. Argh! The batch hadn’t reached the proper temperature! It turned out to be a soggy ruined mess! Only one thing to do—throw it out to the squirrels. They wouldn’t notice or care.

Back to the drawing board, er saucepan, for me. I made another batch of caramel corn, this time focusing on the task at hand. The result? Perfect. Melt in your mouth. Sweet, buttery, crunchy. Alternating between hanging ornaments and munching on caramel corn, the family agreed that it was the best Christmas tree decorating session yet. Thanks, Grammie Forbes!

Do you have a favorite family tradition? Leave me a comment. I’d love to hear from you!

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