If you grew up (or have since spent a considerable amount of time in — Bob, I’m looking at you) Chicago, you likely won’t need an extended primer on why I’d marry the three ingredients listed in this recipe title. After all, it’s the trademark blend of popcorns — caramel and cheddar cheese — that stirs fans of the famous Garrett’s Popcorn in the Loop into a craving crazy.
But for those outside the Windy City:
It’s salty. It’s sweet. It’s salty. It’s sweet. And you can’t stop eating it.
To me, that’s enough for a dessert. But at a recent dinner party I wanted to push the combination further, into the world of dreamy ice cream sundaes.
I don’t say this lightly — it might be the best darn dessert I’ve ever made. And I have no qualms sharing such a recipe — after all, I can’t take credit for the flavor combination, and can barely take credit for the ice cream custard base (it’s inspired by an old Fredy Girardet recipe, with my addition of honey as an invert sugar and a bit of salt for added flavor).
Putting it all together is, as they say in the dessert world, a piece of cake:
For the popcorn ice cream:
2 cups of heavy cream
1 3/4 cups of milk
7/8 cup of sugar
2/3 cup of honey
pinch or two of salt
3 bags of microwave butter popcorn (buy one that looks normal — go for the big-name brand, as you want that industrial movie theater popcorn taste, but don’t go for the outlandish “butter butter butter” or “crazy pepper pizza” flavorings)
For the caramel sauce:
1 1/2 cups of brown sugar
2 tablespoons of maple syrup
1/2 stick of butter
pinch or two of salt
For the dehydrated cheddar cheese powder:
You thought you were going to make this on your own? Psh. Visit your local spice store. The high-end ones in Chicago and Washington D.C. both carry 100 percent pure cheddar powder, which is amazing stuff. Like if Kraft macaroni and cheese was actually real food.
Pop two of the three popcorn bags in the microwave, being careful not to burn their contents. It’s more important not to scorch the bags than it is to have all the kernels pop.
Combine the milk, sugar, honey and salt in a pan and bring to a high simmer. When the ingredients have combined, take the pan off the stove and dump in the popcorn. Mash it down with a spoon and let the popcorn cream steep at room temperature for four hours.
Strain the popcorn mixture through a chinois or fine sieve into a clean pot. Push down hard on the popcorn to extract all the cream and flavor. Bring the cream back to a high simmer.
Temper the egg yolks. Pour a small bit of the hot cream into the egg yolks, whisking constantly. Pour a bit more. Repeat the process until all the cream is incorporated. This is your custard base. Chill overnight.
The next day, make the caramel sauce. Add the sugar, syrup and a bit of water to a pan and bring to a boil. When the sugar starts to really bubble and froth, remove from the heat and add a touch or two more of hot water. Whisk and add the butter in small cubes, making sure to incorporate it gently and slowly. Pour into a heat-proof glass. As the brown sugar caramel cools, a layer of dirty looking, firmer molasses and other brown sugar additives will form on the surface. When it’s cool enough to touch, remove this layer with a spoon, being careful not to mix it back into the sauce.
Finish your ice cream. Pour the base into a pre-chilled ice cream machine bowl and churn according to manufacturer’s instructions. Wrap tightly with plastic wrap until service.
Plate. Pour a circle of caramel sauce, top with a scoop of popcorn ice cream and dust with cheddar cheese powder. Delicious!