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Do-it-yourself gourmet popcorn pairs well with Oscar bash

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Associated Press
Tuesday, February 19, 2013 - 12:01 am

Of all of the awards shows I love to watch (and I love to watch them all), the Oscars is my favorite. And it's a great excuse to throw a party. Many of my friends do the “red carpet” thing for their own parties and ask guests to dress in their black-tie best. But I prefer watching in comfy clothes and snacking on simple but satisfying nibbles. After all, it's a very long show!

This year, I'm going to make popcorn the old-fashioned way — on stovetop — and flavor hot kernels three different ways. Everyone loves popcorn and there is no other food that is so closely associated with movies. Even though I sometimes make microwave popcorn just like the rest of the world, when I make it from scratch, I can't believe the difference in taste. Microwave popcorn is a mere shadow of the original.

There are basically two ways to top popcorn — wet and dry.

Let's start with wet toppings, such as melted butter. Melted butter is always a crowd pleaser, but you have to make that version just before serving or else it gets soggy. Plus, buttered popcorn is always best hot. Other wet toppings, such as melted chocolate, should be applied to popcorn spread flat on a baking sheet, then allowed to cool. Otherwise it becomes soggy.

The advantage of dry flavor toppings is that you can make popcorn a few hours in advance, then serve it room at temp. Make sure to add spices while popcorn is hot. My three favorites are truffle salt, Parmesan cheese and a sweet and spicy barbecue rub.

To cook the popcorn for use with a dry topping, I use a heavy enameled cast-iron Dutch oven set over medium heat. I heat empty pot for about 2 minutes over low heat, then pour in olive oil and popcorn, increase heat to medium and immediately place lid on pot. The heavy pot helps prevent popcorn from burning and almost all of the kernels pop. I find that a good olive oil gives the popcorn a great flavor and that you won't even want to add melted butter.

As soon as popcorn is popped, I pour it out of pan into the biggest bowl I have. I toss popcorn with seasoning and continue to toss so that steam doesn't make popcorn soggy. When steam dissipates, I toss it a few more times, taste to make sure that I have enough flavoring, then let it come to room temperature in bowl. At this point you can place it in serving bowls or baskets or even individual paper bags to give your guests.

Don't forget to pair your gourmet popcorn with a flute of sparkling wine for a perfect high-low party combo!

Stovetop popcorn many ways

Start to finish: 10 minutes

Servings: 1/2 cup corn kernels will produce about 12 cups popcorn

2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil (depending on the size of the pot)

1/3 to 1/2 cup popcorn kernels (depending on the size of the pot)

Fine-grain sea salt or other seasoned toppings

Heat empty cast-iron Dutch oven over low heat for 2 minutes.

Add enough olive oil to pot to thinly coat entire bottom. Add single layer of popcorn kernels. You want them to be touching but not more than one layer thick. Increase heat to medium and place lid on pot. Wait until popping begins, then turn the heat down slightly.

Shake pot every 30 seconds or so. Start shaking a bit more when popping starts to subside. When kernels stop popping in unison and you only hear one pop every couple of seconds, it's done.

Pour popcorn into large bowl. Season generously with toppings listed below, or another one of your favorites. Toss popcorn in bowl and sprinkle with additional seasoning several times to make sure you have an even coating. Serve immediately or let cool.

Dry popcorn toppings

•Truffle salt

•1 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese

•Barbecue rub (use purchased or in the recipe below)

Sweet, spicy barbecue rub

Start to finish: 5 minutes

Makes about 1 cup

1/4 cup paprika

2 tablespoons superfine sugar

2 tablespoons dark brown sugar

2 tablespoons dried chipotle chili powder

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 tablespoon ground black pepper

1 tablespoon cayenne

1 tablespoon onion powder

1 tablespoon garlic powder

In a small bowl, combine ingredients. Store in airtight container for up to 6 months.

Wet popcorn toppings

Be certain to spread popcorn flat on a baking sheet before adding wet toppings, then let it set before serving.

•Melted chocolate

•Melted chocolate and peanut butter

•Melted caramels and a pinch of salt

Dry popcorn toppings

•Maple sugar and crispy bits of smoked bacon

•Mini marshmallows, chocolate chips and chopped salted peanuts

•Mini M&Ms, chopped roasted almonds and dried coconut

•Ragin' Cajun Spice mix

•Lemon-pepper salt

•Italian spice blend and finely grated Parmesan cheese