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Joanne Chang Applies Caramel and Math Skills to Popcorn

The Great Ones is a celebration of humans we admire — and an exploration of why they cook, not just how. Joanne Chang is the owner of Boston-based Flour Bakery and Myers + Chang, a James Beard Award winner, and the author of five cookbooks (most recently Pastry Love). At home in Boston, Chang — famous for her sticky buns — showed us how to make caramel corn in Big Deal.

I've been cooking my whole life. Both of my parents worked, so when I would come home from school, as soon as I was old enough, I would help my mom put dinner on the table. I started learning how to cook Chinese food when I was 9 — I would chop things and get the rice going and get everything ready for when she came home.

I didn't start baking until college. I started to make chocolate-chip cookies for fun — I was studying math and economics at Harvard, and I was definitely in over my head. I would bake cookies and hand them out to members of my study group, and they would help me with the problem sets. It was very win-win for everyone involved!

I would bake cookies and hand them out to members of my study group.

When I graduated, I got a job in management consulting, but I also spent time on the side running the tiniest of catering businesses called Joanne's Kitchen, where I just baked cookies and cakes and pies for people’s birthdays and anniversaries. But I was also cooking a lot and hosting dinner parties and basically reading every cookbook I could get my hands on. I think I literally got five catering orders over two years, but it was still something that I was really, really into.
By the end of my second year consulting, I had to make a decision: Do I stay in consulting, do I go to business school, or do I just try something entirely different? I decided to take a year off and try my hand at cooking. I applied to a bunch of restaurants in Boston, and I got an offer from Lydia Shire, who was operating one of the top restaurants in Boston, called Biba. She offered me to come and work for her as a bar-food cook. I was a very low person on the totem pole. I worked my way up to helping the pastry chef.

I was a very low person on the totem pole. 

Lydia pointed me in the direction of a bakery in Boston, and I knew then I wanted to focus on pastry. I worked in various bakeries and restaurants, went to New York and came back, and, 19 years ago, opened the first location of Flour. Now we have nine shops. 
One of my favorite things to do is go to the grocery store and just buy a lot of things and start playing around, making dinner for myself and my husband. My husband loves popcorn. It's his favorite snack. So I make popcorn a lot, and then every now and then I'll make it special by adding this caramel goo and some nuts to it. It's the best caramel corn ever. It's got a lot of butter and cream, and it's just really, really rich and delicious.

It's the best caramel corn ever.

Make popcorn, toss it with toasted pecans, and set it aside. Then make the goo. I start off by making a caramel with sugar and then adding butter and cinnamon. Then you add some baking soda —  that makes it aerate — and a little bit of vanilla and salt. That makes the caramel get foamy, which allows you then to coat the popcorn in it. Bake the whole mixture on a sheet pan for a little bit, just to make it extra, extra crispy.
Big Deal is great for mixing the caramel with the popcorn. Typically, what I have to do is I make the popcorn, put it in a big bowl, and then make the caramel. I'm trying to get the caramel to cover all the popcorn by pouring it over and mixing it up, and it often loses a little bit of its aeration by doing that. But with this big pot it was easy for me to make the caramel and then just dump the popcorn into the pot and mix it all up and cover it. 
Photos by Kristin Teig
When you're a baker, you have to be comfortable with math. A lot of people say baking is very precise, and it is, but once you learn the ins and outs you can really take your understanding of how baking soda or baking powder reacts to this or that and make your own adjustments to your recipes. Being comfortable with math really allows you to take those chances with what is a very scientific art. Pastry is a lot of chemistry, but you can take some liberties with chemistry and come up with great results.

Big Deal

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