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Pistachio Caramel Popcorn. A "Healthier" Take On a Fave Snack

Junk food. We all love it. I crave it most at midnight and then at 2 am. Every night. It’s like my body gets excited at the strike of twelve in anticipation of me feeding it something decadent, normally crunchy and always sweet. I have a very strict repertoire of snackage consisting of black bean tortilla chips, fruit and nut medley, whole wheat cracker crisps, dark chocolate by the bag and popcorn — enhanced with tons of citrus or spicy seasoning.

In this month’s challenge presented by the foodies behind the 5 Star Makeover cooking group, a wild bunch was asked to recreate junk food into something sexy, fun and not so junky. I loved the idea as I pondered the different things I could to do reinvent my late night, thigh-spreading culprits.

But I thought I’d take it a bit further and attempt to put a healthier spin on an already dangerous option. I don’t do movie-style popcorn,  which I swear whose manufacturers are in bed with health insurance companies! My word! Those bags are equivalent to pouring a tub of melted butter down your throat! Gah.

My late-night popcorn is usually an Orville Redenbacher variety. More often than not the lightly salted and whole wheat one fill my fancy bowls. In comparing that “healthier'” option to the “standard” one, I found no difference in sodium, calories or  fat. I’m a bit particular about my rosita de maiz, and always opt for one that doesn’t leave me feeling guilty and walking for miles first thing the next morning. That’s if I’m buying pre-made kernels at the store and not making it fresh–you know where you control just about everything.

When I finally decided on popcorn for my makeover, it took me no time to settle on caramel covered popcorn with pistachio! Things in my kitchen happen quite fast. I eyeball my ridiculously overstocked pantry and mother-like counter and pick a few things to work with. I went for the pistachio because of a recent experiment with the green nut and some freshly ground dandelion. I used it in a flan and it was nothing less than marvelous.

I’ve made a pistachio flan before, but the idea of adding those two key ingredients to my popcorn sounded fancy. No reason not to try. Caramel and pistachio work so well and have a divine taste and on popcorn it would be just as amazing. Plus, with all of the unpopped kernels every single bag known to man, yields, I figured I’d rather bite into something I can actually enjoy verses a hard little yellow ball.

Oh yes, and it’d be a bit healthier, right?? This is my attempt at ridding myself of all guilt of eating junk when I ought to be sleeping…

While I’m totally okay with the popcorn I currently enjoy at midnight, or two or three A.M., I embraced the idea of caramelizing it. That way, I’d be satisfying my unforgiving sweet tooth.  It beats having popcorn AND chocolate. Might as well have it all at once.

I played around with this recipe a few times before settling on this last approach. I substituted refined sugar for raw, eliminated butter and sweetened condensed milk, two ingredients I’ve used before and most traditional caramel popcorn recipes call for, and forgot about salting it. If I was going to be tearing this up an hour before bedtime, I need it to minimize any negative effects it could have.

It’s not like popcorn is the best option for weekday late nights anyway… but I was determined.

I started boiling my sugar, adding my pistachio and after 20 or so minutes, I poured all that gooey goodness over my popcorn. I sang really happy notes and dug into it before it could even cool. Having an instant gratification personality, I only  baked half and let the other chill at room temperature. If I told you it was for the mere sake of having two different crunch factors, I’d be lying. I didn’t want to wait. That’s all.

Baking or not, the popcorn is great! The pistachios stand out but don’t take away from the caramel. And to note, the lack of sweetened condensed milk simply makes the consistency of the caramel a bit thinner and not as thick as you’d probably be accustomed to seeing. It’s all good though, especially when you’re counting calories!

A bit cumbersome, I won’t tell you otherwise, but the few extra steps are worth the sweetness. Bag it up, tightly seal and keep for up to 4 days!

Eat well, love unapologetically, pray with true intention, and take care of yourself.

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  • 2 bags of lightly salted popcorn, popped
  • 2.5 cups raw sugar
  • 2 cups water
  • 2 tbsp. pistachios, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract


Pre-heat oven to 250F. Add cooked popcorn into large mixing bowl. In medium non-stick skillet, add 2 tablespoons of water, 4 tablespoons of sugar, and pistachios. On medium to high heat, stir ingredients  constantly until pistachios start browning, not allowing sugar to fully thicken. Quickly transfer mixture to medium sauce pan and add remaining water and sugar. Bring water and sugar to boil. Reduce heat and stir constantly with wooden spoon until caramel starts to thicken and darken in color. Stir in vanilla extract. Simmer.  When sugar has fully caramelized and thickened, about 20 minutes, remove from heat and pour over popcorn. Stir and toss well until popcorn is fully covered. Let popcorn cool for 10 minutes. Transfer to baking sheet with parchment paper. Evenly spread popcorn and bake for 15-20 minutes. Let cool before removing from baking sheet.

Transfer to serving bowl.

*You don’t have to bake the popcorn if you like it chewier. If so, simply let popcorn cool for 20-25 minutes after pouring caramel overtop.

57 thoughts on “Pistachio Caramel Popcorn. A "Healthier" Take On a Fave Snack

  1. Even with the tweaks in the caramel, this is a great “junk food” turned gourmet creation. The pistachios definitely add something special 🙂

  2. oh now this is niiiice! Won’t you please make me some and bag it up for me. You did you make that suggestion. I love it!

  3. Bren! You kill me with these! Pistachios and caramel popcorn are my weakness!! I am totally making this at home this weekend!

  4. Elle: Fabulous. I love the idea, too and it worked perfectly. Will be making again! 😉

    Victoria: Yes! I need the tweaks, though I now kind of wished I would have shared the more traditional caramel recipe. Still, this one is perfect for my calorie-watching nights!

    Rosa: Glad you like 🙂 Super simple.

    Michele R: Not a prob. I think pumpkin would like it too. Don’t you think?

    Ericka: I love that kind of response. Perfect! Dejame saber if you do!

    Helena: You are too! Thanks for loving it! Derverdad que esta riquisimo.

  5. Perfect snack…salty and sweet and with lots of nuts 🙂
    Thanks for this yummie recipe and hope you are having a fabulous week Bren!

  6. I’m a late night snacker too, and this sweet/salty popcorn looks like the perfect thing to satisfy a craving! Love the addition of pistachios!

  7. Juliana: Yes, yes, yes. As you can see, I limited the normal amount of sweetness but it’s all good. Have a lovely week, too!

    Eva: Yay y gracias. I pinned it too! 🙂

    5 Star Foodie: Yup!

    Peru Delights: Si, eso mismo!

    Justice Jonsie: Your kidos would really enjoy it.

    Angela: Ugh, right! I mean, who does that!?!?!

    Faith: I’m telling you. I eat popcorn a lot but am always looking for something sweeter, so I end up eating an entire bag and chocolate. That can just be too much so late. This is the perfect fix! 🙂

  8. Oh my gosh, this looks so good! Sounds easy enough to make. Our pistachios are so expensive in Thailand so I need to make this before I go back. Great recipe.

  9. La verdad que eso si se ve rico. Y mas rico si me lo haces! Te lo comiste con esta receta, mija.. besos.

  10. What a great snack…love these! I am a big fan of popcorn as well and these little babies could be my new addiction 🙂 Love the pistachio add!

  11. Lynn: Oh wonderful! I love it, though I think we’ve connected via the 5 Star Cooking Group, no? Hmm. Either way, nice to have you pop by. And yes, I like to think this was pretty exciting.

    Joan: Thanks!

    Nicky: I think you’d love it! Take 1 pound of pistachios back to Thailand when you go visit!

    Mami: Te lo voy hacer, ya que Missy tambien me lo pidio!

    Magic of Spice: Thanks! So easy and so tasty. Popcorn doesn’t have to be boring, you know!

  12. Love. Reminds me of some the great caramelized popcorn mixes we have her in Chicago from Garrets. Pistachio makes everything better.

  13. Caramel corn is an old old favorite of mine. I haven’t had it in way too long.. great to add the pistachios to it for an extra hit of fabulous flavor. Great job with the challenge

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