The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern, is a transporter of a book. The setting, a circus powered by magic that travels from one exotic location around the globe to the next, is artfully captured. It’s the story of two protagonists, Celia Bowen and Marco Alisdair. Both have been trained in the art of magic since a young age, and both are bonded to a competition by their mentors, to battle each other for magical supremacy. Their ring: the circus. The book takes you on their journey from humble beginnings; Celia is orphaned at a young age by a mother who declares that her innate magical skill comes from the devil, and Marco, ignorant of magic, is hand-selected from a London orphanage and learns his trade from esoteric books. The two go from strangers to competitors, and from competitors to lovers.
As interesting as these two are, and they are joined by multiple intriguing minor characters, once the setting of the circus is established, they seem to fade into the background. Le Cirque des Rêves (The Circus of Dreams) is built of large black and white striped tents that show up unannounced in one city after another around the globe. Each tent is unlike the other, one more magical than the next, because the attractions are a product on the magical competition being held between Celia and Marco. From her conjuring, a carousel of creatures becomes alive. He creates an ice garden that stretches as far as the eye can see. As you get further into the novel, the magic becomes even more imaginative.
The Night Circus has been given some flack for Morgenstern’s lack of character development (see reviews here and here from the NYTimes and NPR respectively), and these reviewers have a point. The forbidden, but not unexpected, romance that flares up between the two should drive the story, but the setting is so well-crafted that it takes on a life of its own and becomes the main character. Our heroes become accessories to the tale of the circus.
Now I’m not sure that this is completely unintentional. Dispersed throughout the book are chapters where the narrator switches perspective and starts to speak directly to the reader. Using “you” as the form of address, the narrator walks us through our entrance into the circus and into the dark and winding alleys that, no matter how long you are given, you will never be able to fully explore. You never meet any of the characters as you’re invited in, only the circus.
It was in those chapters, ones where the narrator consistently reminds you of the smells of chocolate and caramel corn that waft through the air, which created the craving for homemade caramel corn.
Using a recipe from epicurius.com as a template, I created a bowl of chili-chocolate caramel corn that is both addictive and evocative of the atmosphere of The Night Circus. It’s a curious blend of sweet, salty and spice.
I used ¾ cup of white kernel popcorn and popped it in a hot-air popper. Given what is in this recipe, I didn’t use the hot-air popper to save on calories. This was much more about ease – it’s one less pan to clean.
Into that bowl, I added ¾ cup of salted cashews, the crumbled bits of six thick strips of bacon that I had cooked in the oven at 375° earlier, and one 6oz chili-spiced chocolate bar chopped into small pieces. I sprinkled this mixture with cayenne pepper and kosher salt to taste.
After a good mixing, I poured the ingredients onto a foil-lined cookie sheet that had been sprayed with a non-stick cooking spray. Next, I poured homemade caramel sauce, to which I added a generous splash of rye whiskey and the zest of half an orange, over the popcorn. After another through mixing, I put the tray into a 300° oven and cooked for approximately 20 minutes (I pulled it out once I could smell it from the next room).
The bacon added a rich smokiness that cut through the sweetness of the caramel, and the cashews gave the snack a satisfying bit of crunch. The orange peel, with its slightly bitter citrus, added a unique flavor, and the chili flavored chocolate provided an addictive punch of heat at the end of your bite.
This is an exotic dessert fitting for an exotic tale. I ate a bowlful with the book in one hand and an Old Fashion, mixed with the same orange and whiskey in the caramel sauce, at my side. They were perfect companions.