At Halloween, I always fumed when I reached the bottom of my bag and found Smarties. Ugh. Little discs of sugar in a twist-on cellophane wrapper. At least SweeTarts had a bit of tartness, but they didn’t have much pucker. Nothing but sugar. Does it make any sense to me, therefore, that I loved Pixy Stix? Paper straws filled with soft sugar in different colors and artificial flavors. Remember how the pile of falling sugar burned a hole in your tongue eventually? And the annoyance of not being able to retrieve even more because your mouth had wetted the opening of the straw, making it so damp that the sugar clumped just beyond your reach?
Maybe that’s why I liked Pixy Stix. They were playing hard to get.
I never understood the point of wax lips or the little coke bottles filled with viscous liquid. They both tasted like brittle Silly Putty, with a smudge of sweetness along the edges. Eating wax lips was like collecting the drips of a pillar candle at the end of one of my parents’ parties and holding it over a flame to melt them into a ball, and then dipping it in sugar. No thanks.
But Pop Rocks? Oh yeah. Like a science experiment in my mouth.
Dots stuck to my teeth, with a far more muted taste than Jujyfruits. Red Hots made me open my mouth to air it out like a dog eating peanut butter. Boston Baked Beans were entirely useless, as far as I could see. And Sugar Daddies just frustrated the hell out of me, either because they shattered under my teeth, if they had been stored in a cool place, or they stretched out as long as my arm and still wouldn’t let me take a bite.
Willy Wonka Bottle Caps? I could eat those little coca-cola discs all day.
I never once was able to eat a Candy Button without a thin tail of the paper stuck to it. Mike and Ike’s tasted like Hi-C, to me, which was a good thing, believe it or not. My mother used to buy packages of Whoppers the size of milk cartons. I loved turning them over and rattling them out, listening to the sound to gauge how many were left.
Fireballs were horrible. Astro Pops helped me through many a long car trip. Necco Wafers tasted like dust compressed and sweated with chalk.
The Chef loved Kit-Kats and Twix, both of which he ate by nibbling along the top layers of chocolate and caramel like he was playing the harmonica, leaving the cookie part, which he crunched up at the end. He often chose Whatchamacallits. And he loved Bubble Yum gum.
(So did I. From the age of 7 until I was about 15, I always had a giant pliable mass of Bubble Yum, sometimes Watermelon, sometimes plain, going in my mouth. I like to think of the two of us blowing bubbles simultaneously, two years apart and several states away from each other.)
Milk Duds made movie popcorn more exciting. Reese’s peanut butter cups were the king of candy, the triumphant grab of Halloween night. And no matter how many times I ate them, I never, ever grew tired of Abba Zabba bars.
Until I was an adult, and my parents sent a box of them to me and Sharon for one of our fall weekend trips to Vermont, as a gift. We eagerly wrapped the black and yellow ziz-zag packages and bit in. The nougat was too sweet, the peanut butter paste was stuck in clumps to our tongue, and we wanted to gag after three bites. We didn’t have the heart to tell my parents that we threw them all away on the second day.
I couldn’t eat most of these candies now, even if some of them are gluten-free. Some of them don’t exist anymore. The others I wouldn’t touch. (Okay, I’d still eat a Reese’s peanut butter cup, but that’s about it.) My tastes have changed so much since I was a kid.
I wonder what Little Bean will eat with delight that later she will find horrifying?
Caramel Corn Baked in the Oven, adapted from 1,000 Gluten-Free Recipes
There is one treat I will always eat this time of the year, when the sun stretches out longer into the evening, and the grass is starting to be splendidly green, and the first pitchers and catchers have stepped onto the field.
However, it’s even more fun to make your own caramel corn, sweet and crunchy at the same time, and far easier than you think. (And this has no trans fats or weird preservatives.) I like dark corn syrup here, rather than the light corn syrup the original recipe called for, because I like a more nuanced sweetness. And I start the caramel corn at a low heat, to bake it slowly, and then raise the heat to give the treat more crunch.
All I need is a baseball game (the Kid is back in Seattle!) and a long afternoon with the Chef and the Bean to make another tray of this. Or maybe just tomorrow.
5 cups popped corn
6 tablespoons butter or non-dairy substitute
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup dark corn syrup
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
Preparing to bake. Preheat the oven to 200°. Place all the popcorn in a bowl big enough that you can stir and shake and still not have it spill over the sides. Put a silpat down on a sheet tray.
Heating the ingredients. Put the butter, brown sugar, corn syrup, and salt in a medium saucepan. Set it on medium heat. Bring to a boil and reduce the heat to low. Cook the mixture, stirring occasionally, about 3 minutes, or until the caramel sauce has reduced and thickened a bit. Remove the pan from heat and pour in the vanilla, cinnamon, and baking soda. The caramel sauce will foam, so don’t let it foam over the sides of the saucepan.
Baking the popcorn. Pour the caramel sauce over the popcorn and stir it immediately, and evenly. When all the kernels are darkened and sticky, spread the popcorn out on the prepared sheet tray. Bake for 15 minutes, and then stir the popcorn. Repeat this twice more, for a total of 45 minutes of baking.
At this point, there will probably be so much liquid that you won’t believe I have written this recipe correctly. Ah, but here is where you turn up the heat. Change the temperature to 375°. Watch the popcorn carefully, to make sure it does not burn. Stir it occasionally. After about 15 minutes, the liquid should have tightened into the kernels of the popcorn, which will be crunchier than before. Bake until the popcorn has reached the texture you desire.
Remove the sheet tray from the oven. Spread the caramel corn over a piece of parchment paper and allow it to cool. Try not to eat it all the first day.
Makes 5 cups of caramel corn.