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Renee SchettlerWashington Post Staff Writer
December 12, 2001; Page F7

Real popcorn is not that wretched stuff that comes in an inflatable bag and is coated with orange gunk and nuked until it's reminiscent of charcoal.

Real popcorn is unadulterated corn that, when properly popped, explodes out of its hull, turns itself inside out and forms snowflakes whose contours capture just the right amount of salt.

Real popcorn makes a great holiday gift. But you can't plunk just any popcorn in a box and tie it up with a ribbon. Each specialty popcorn -- and there are many -- has a surprisingly different flavor and texture.
 
Such differences are more pronounced when kernels are popped in hot oil -- not in hot air. Fancy contraptions are unnecessary. Instead, reach for a simple heavy-bottomed pot or kettle (such as a Dutch oven or wok) and drizzle in a decent puddle of bland vegetable oil. Toss in three or five kernels, cover and place over medium-high heat. Using hot pads, grasp the pan and give it a good shake now and then. When you hear popping, add a handful of kernels, cover and continue shaking occasionally. Once the popping really picks up, shake the pan almost constantly and crack the lid a bit to allow the steam to escape. Then immediately transfer the popcorn to a bowl and salt to taste.
 
Then, the hard part: You have to let it breathe, just like some fine wines. Really. Otherwise, on first taste, the popcorn will be exceedingly chewy, even sticky, and corny. I'm told it's something to do with moisture content. Instead, set the popcorn aside a few minutes to set the crunch. Good things come to those who wait.
 
The color of the kernel can be deceptive because it doesn't always match the resulting popped corn. It does, however, dictate the ensuing flavor and texture. Yellow kernels tends to be large, chewy and slightly corny. White is commonly tender, mild and sweet. Red has mildly nutty overtones. Blue and purple veer toward the tiny, chewy and earthy end of the spectrum. Still confused? Read on.
 
FIREWORKS Wisconsin White Birch is everything I ever wanted in a popcorn. Exceedingly light and tender, it bursts into enormous snowballs rich with popcorn flavor. I wish movie theaters served this. (It's that good.)
 
Other favorites: High Mountain Midnight boasts a "robust, wild" flavor, and so it is, popping up bright white, crisp and nutty. Savanna Gold is brilliant yellow and delivers on its promise of a "smooth, sweet flavor." Orchard Blossom magically goes from pale violet to white in a crisp, subtly corny way.
 
Less impressive are the small, earthy Sturghll Red and the exceedingly chewy Autumn Blaze, which is too miniscule to taste.
 
Available locally at Crate & Barrel (six-pack crate for $29.95) , Linens 'n Things (four-pack crate for $14.99).
 
Also available by mail order from Fireworks Popcorn Co.; call 877-668-4800 or see www.popcornlovers.com.
 
WHITE CAT CORN This popcorn yields immense yellow kernels that really follow through on the pop with lots of airy crunch and a mildly corny, slightly sweet smack. Available locally for about $3.50 per 27-ounce jar at Williams-Sonoma stores.
 
CROWN JEWEL Try letting these varieties "breathe" for a few minutes, and an entirely different kernel emerges. It's like magic.
 
Purple Amethyst initially tastes no better than a dry corncob, but it quickly becomes crisp and crunchy with a robust corn flavor that wanes to almost nutty. Baby Black Pearl is mild though corny with sweetish overtones.
 
Red Ruby has a lovely amber cast with an initial sweet, stickiness that soon gives way to a buttery, mildly corny taste with nice resistance.
 
The snow-white Baby Pearl smacks more of earth than of corn. Petite Princess Amber is small, tender and, depending on one's perspective, either delicate or bland. Blue Sapphire pops up firm and large but tastes like any plain old yellow. Yellow Topaz and White Diamond are fine if unremarkable.
 
Available locally at some Williams-Sonoma stores. Also available by mail order from Crown Jewel; call 800-653-9357 or see www.crownjewelgourmet.com.
 
INDIA TREE These popcorns are dubbed paloma (Mexican for "dove" and a nickname for popcorn). They're a tad perplexing. They look like popcorn. They smell like popcorn. They even crunch like popcorn. They just don't taste much like popcorn. They apparently are for those who like a big crunch accompanied by a delicate flavor. Blanca (white) is airy and crisp, Dorado (gold) tastes buttery of its own accord, Roja (red) is tiny and chewy and de Colores (mixed) is, well, all of the above.
 
One-pound packages of some flavors are available locally at Dean & DeLuca ($5.75 to $8.50; 3276 M St. NW, call 202-342-2500); La Cuisine -- The Cook's Resource ($6 per bag; 323 Cameron St., Alexandria, call 703-836-4435); and Sutton Place Gourmet stores ($5.49 to $5.99). Also available by mail order from La Cuisine (call 703-836-4435 or 800-521-1176).
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