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Chicago gets special popcorn for its birthday

Hot dogs, deep-dish pizza and cheesecake are about as synonymous with popcorn as they are with healthy dieting.

But a Chicago-area popcorn company is bent on changing that by releasing popcorn that captures some of the city’s most iconic tastes.

"We wanted to have some flavors that really got to the essence of Chicago, what people think about when they think of comfort foods," said Marty Dennis, Chief Popcornist (yes, that's his real job title) at The Popcorn Factory.

The Lake Forest-based company is set to release the three new Chicago-style popcorn flavors on Monday in honor of the city's 176th birthday.

"Birthdays come around every year but I think this one's a little special for Chicago," chief operating officer Alan Petrik said.

Dennis said the final three flavors came after months of research. The company worked with local flavor houses, tinkering with various formulas for each before coming up with the right one.

Translating the big, brassy flavors into something that worked on popcorn presented a number of challenges, particularly when it came to the hot dog-flavored popcorn.

"I made a list of all the condiments that go on a hot dog and said 'I want the flavoring of these condiments,' so the sport peppers, the mustard, the green relish and onions," Dennis said. "The more we worked on it, the less it tasted like a typical Chicago hot dog. At the same time, I asked them to do Polish sausage. We went and tested the Polish sausage, and amazingly enough on our first run of Polish sausage, it tasted like a Chicago hot dog."

"You can taste the celery salt, you can taste the relish and a little bit of the tomato and the pickle," added Popcorn Factory master popcorneer Leila Kaufman. "It sort of just pops in your mouth."

But the company is quick to stress there's no meat involved.

"For everyone, there was a common denominator, and that was everything but the dog," Kaufman said. "It's just sort of this big hot mess that you put into your mouth. We thought it would be a bit more approachable from a popcorn stance to not go with the meat."

The cheesecake flavor, on the other hand, required a bit more experimenting, particularly when it came to replicating the full experience.

"That particular popcorn took about 25 tries," Kaufman said. "Our biggest struggle was taking that tangy cheesecake flavor and marrying it to the popcorn. (Marty) added some graham crackers to the mix to simulate a crust, and it gave it the complexity that it needed because you've got that creamy chocolatey drizzle, the tanginess of the cheesecake and the crunch of the graham cracker. We felt 'wow, we think that we've nailed it.'"

The flavors will be available through the company's website, www.thepopcornfactory.com, through the end of the month.

"We'll make it fresh daily, and we'll basically make it to order," Petrik said. "We're not gonna build a large volume of it. We'll keep the production in line with the actual demand."

And while hot dogs and deep-dish pizza translated well to popcorn, another iconic Chicago flavor didn't.

"There are a lot of places that do Italian beef sandwiches in Chicago, and we thought we'd try to do that as well, but it just didn't work," Dennis said. "Italian beef seems to have a vinegary note, a sharp note to it that was really hard to get. When you combine that with the flavor of the corn, you get something that definitely doesn't taste like Italian beef."

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