When I started thinking about today’s Vietnamese Coffee Caramel Corn I had no idea it would be so easy to make. Too easy! This corn is so simple, it’s dangerous. Today’s recipe is one of those recipes I wish I could unlearn because I have zero self-control in the face of this corn. I’ve always been a bit of a popcorn fiend but this corn really kicked it up a notch. Oh, and the recipe makes a ton, so you can happily eat your way through a ginormous bag of it until your dentist disowns you…Or you can give it away as gifts. Actually, I’m going to say you *should* give some of it away as gifts. You will immediately regret it but you will be doing yourself a kindness.
Okay, so maybe that opening paragraph isn’t the best sales pitch for this Vietnamese Coffee Caramel Corn. The corn does truly deserve better because it is a freakin’ delight. Sometimes my humor runs away with me and I say things I don’t genuinely believe. But I do believe this: you definitely have more self-control than I do. So, it stands to reason that you’re just the person to be the keeper of this corn. You will treat it with the respect it deserves and when you taste it, you’ll see it requires a lot. It has so many good points: it is, as I said, very easy to make, it feeds a crowd and the flavors simply sing. You’ve never had a caramel corn this complex before…Or maybe you have, I don’t know your life.
A few nights ago I had some friends over. After a round of mushroom lasagna and marinated white bean salad, I offered up a big ‘ol bowl of this Vietnamese Coffee Caramel Corn. We also had some pots de creme that I’m currently test-driving but they were definitely secondary. And the corn did an odd thing. It kept us at the table chatting. The clock crept closer to midnight and still, we sat there munching away. Yes, the wine and company was a definite pull, but I think the corn had something to do with it.
Now, I didn’t tell you this story to brag about my hosting prowess. I mean, it’s a given but not the focus of the story. No, I told you about my party because it was there that it dawned on me – communal snack food is the ultimate bonding food. Think about it. If the snack food is good, it can be happily munched about for hours while you and your friends discuss the real sh*t and/or the silly sh*t. Snack food doesn’t require the attention a main dish demands nor the applause reserved for a meticulously crafted dessert. Snack food is casual, it relaxes you and puts you at ease. And, through the magic of snacks, you and your dinner guests might as well be preteens swapping rumors at a sleepover. Kind of neat, right?
But enough about caloric togetherness, let’s talk about this Vietnamese Coffee Caramel Corn. But before we get the to caramel or the corn, I think we should discuss the beloved Vietnamese coffee. Have you ever had one? If you haven’t, run don’t walk. This is the closest a coffee gets to being a milkshake without actually being a milkshake. It’s a two for one kind of deal: you get a pick-me-up but you also get a dessert. So, what is it? Well, a Vietnamese coffee is 2-3 tablespoons of sweetened condensed milk followed by a double shot of Vietnamese-grown dark roast coffee. The coffee is added to the cup via a drip filter before being stirred into the condensed milk by the drinker. There are numerous variations on this classic throughout Vietnam but in North America, Vietnamese Coffee is pretty much limited to this incarnation.
Now, you may have noticed in the images for today’s Vietnamese Coffee Caramel Corn, I did everything ass-backward. I started with the coffee and added the sweetened condensed milk. That is what you might call a brain fart. You may have also noticed that I added a heck of a lot of sweetened condensed milk, way more than any sensible human being would add to an actual Vietnamese Coffee. This was not an accident. I wanted the sweetened condensed milk to caramelize and add a dulce de leche note to the final caramel that would coat the corn. If you want to have a good Vietnamese Coffee experience, do not add this much sweetened condensed milk. In fact, let’s just say never drink this much sweetened condensed milk by itself. Blech!
From here the recipe couldn’t be simpler. Take some butter, brown sugar and the condensed-milk-heavy Vietnamese coffee and put them in a saucepan. Heat and stir until the sugar dissolves and stir in some baking soda and ooh and ahh at the resulting foaminess. Once you’ve collected yourself, pour that caramel goodness over a batch of popcorn and toss to coat. Now, it’s just an hour-long trip in a low oven and another hour of cooling. Okay, so it might not be the speediest recipe, but did any of that sound hard?
As we all know, any caramel corn worth its salt has a nut component. Traditionally its always been the peanut, but since this is no ordinary corn, I opted instead for the cashew. I just love cashews. They are always the first nut to go missing from the mixed nut jars I insist on buying. I’m not sure why I don’t just buy cashews, but I am a mystery even to myself. Anyway, trust me when I say you’re not going to miss the peanuts in this here caramel corn.
So, that about does it for this Vietnamese Coffee Caramel Corn. Its got serious crunch, serious complexity and it’s seriously addictive. You have been warned.
Vietnamese Coffee Caramel Corn
- 1 cup uncooked popcorn kernels
- 2 shots espresso
- 150 mL 5 fl oz sweetened condensed milk
- 3/4 cup brown sugar
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter
- 1/4 cup corn syrup
- 2 cinnamon sticks
- 2 star anise pods
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 200 g 7 oz roasted unsalted cashews
- 2 teaspoons black sesame seeds
- Preheat the oven to 225°F and line a baking sheet with a silicon baking mat.
- Pop the popcorn using your method of choice - I used the old school stove top method but use an air popper if you have one. Once the corn is popped, spread it out in an even layer on the lined baking sheet. Set aside.
- Using an espresso machine run off two shots of espresso. Pour the coffee into a glass and add the sweetened condensed milk. Whisk to combine.
- Pour the coffee mixture into a small saucepan. Add the brown sugar, butter, corn syrup, cinnamon sticks and star anise. Place the saucepan over medium heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until the butter melts and bubbles break the surface. About 5-7 minutes.
- Remove the saucepan from the heat and strain the caramel sauce into a medium-sized bowl. Discard the solids. Whisk in the vanilla, salt and baking soda. The baking soda will cause the caramel to foam but don't panic.
- Pour the caramel over the popcorn and, using a rubber spatula, toss the popcorn to coat. Sprinkle the cashews and black sesame seeds over top and toss to distribute.
- Place the dressed popcorn in the oven and bake for 1 hour. Toss the popcorn every 15-20 minutes to prevent clumping. Remove the popcorn from the oven and let cool for at least an hour.
- The popcorn will keep in a resealable bag for up to 1 week but it will never last that long.