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Monday, October 24, 2011

Homemade Cracker Jack

"Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack. I don't care if I ever get back!" Who doesn't know those lines from the old song "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." Right now the peanuts and Cracker Jack seem very appropriate with the World Series in full swing and most people associate that delightful caramel concoction of peanuts and popcorn with baseball. For me, however, Cracker Jacks mean Halloween.

When I was growing up we lived several miles outside our small town. Each Halloween my parents would drive me into town to trick or treat in my grandparents' neighborhoods, those of my aunts and uncles, and their old neighborhood. It was always so much fun and at each stop at extended family there were usually special "family" treats awaiting. One of my aunts always had homemade cookies or candy for the family kids, others would have caramel apples or other delights. My grandmother, Nanny to me, always had Cracker Jack for her grandkids.

I loved getting to Nanny's house and collecting my box of Cracker Jack. It was always a battle to keep them in my Halloween bag until we got home because I wanted to start eating them immediately but even more dire was the need to get to the prize! Whatever little piece of cheap plastic nonsense that was in the box was pure gold in a six year old's mind! As an adult I kept Nanny's tradition alive by having Cracker Jack on hand for our friends' and relatives' children who came by for Halloween.

To me, Cracker Jack with its delicious combination of peanuts, caramel, and popcorn signal Halloween and Autumn. As I was waiting for Michael to get home so we could watch the Packers and Vikings I decided to whip up a batch of homemade Cracker Jack. The recipe is quite simple and I think it probably approximates the original Cracker Jack sold in the 1890's at baseball games with its gooey and clumpy quality.

When Cracker Jack was first introduced it consisted simply of the molasses and sugar mixture with peanuts and popcorn. Later on it was produced in large drums with the addition of oil to keep the popcorn from clumping together in large blobs. That's the Cracker Jack we're all familiar with in the boxes (or now in the ugly foil bags). Alas, since Frito-Lay bought the company the venerable Cracker Jack seems to be in decline. They switched out the wonderful cardboard (and recyclable) boxes for plastic and foil bags (non-recyclable) and done away with the cool prizes (I don't consider a sheet of paper a "prize"!) Maybe, one day, someone will resurrect the company and restore Sailor Jack and Bingo the dog to their rightful place on a BOX of Cracker Jack.

If you're craving some Cracker Jack, give this recipe a try. It's utterly addictive. Michael got into it before I had supper ready and ate two bowls. After supper when we finished watching or pre-taped game he polished off another bowl! I added a little Fleur de sel to the final version by sprinkling it over the slightly warm and still gooey mixture. I think that made a lot of difference as you get this wonderful little hit of saltiness with the caramel flavor of the sugar and molasses. If you don't have Fleur de sel you can use regular Kosher salt.

You might notice that I bounce back and forth between Cracker Jack and Cracker Jacks in this post. In the south we refer to Cracker Jacks (with an "s") to mean the popcorn, peanut and candy mixture. The actual name of the product is Cracker Jack (no "s") and depending on where you are that's singular or plural. So, if you're below the Mason-Dixon line you'll ask for a box of Cracker Jacks. 

This recipe is adapted from one published by NPR in an article on food at Fenway Park in 2006. The original calls for popping the popcorn in the microwave using a paper bag and oil. Honestly, I don't see the value in doing that. To make enough for the recipe you either have to use a pretty big paper bag which most of us can't fit in our standard microwave or you end up doing two or three batches. I pop corn in the microwave all the time (without oil) to save calories, but if you're dowsing the popcorn in sugar, corn syrup and molasses - honestly, what's the use? I preferred using my handy dandy old fashioned popcorn popper with a dash of butter flavored oil. I got all my popcorn in one batch and it wasn't that sort of tough texture that sometimes happens in the microwave (not to mention the requisite burned kernels in the middle of the bag!)

: Homemade Cracker Jack
: The classic ballpark (or Halloween) treat brought home to the kitchen.

  • 1/2 cup unpopped popcorn
  • 2 tbs. vegetable oil (or butter flavored popcorn oil)
  • 1/2 cup shelled peanuts (Spanish if you have them)
  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup light corn syrup
  • 1 tablespoon molasses (you can use 2 tablespoons if you love molasses)
  • 1 teaspoon Kosher salt
  • Fleur de sel for sprinkling (optional)

  1. Preheat oven to 350°.
  2. Pop the popcorn using a popcorn popper or large pot on the stove according to package directions. Pour popcorn into a large bowl and add peanuts.
  3. In a saucepan mix together the brown sugar, corn syrup, molasses and salt. Heat over medium-low until the butter is melted and the sugar has lost its grainy appearance. Pour over the popcorn and peanuts and stir well.
  4. Pour the mixture onto a baking sheet and place in oven for 10-12 minutes. Stir once or twice while in oven. The mixture will be very wet and gooey at this stage! Remove from oven and allow to cool and solidify and cool on the baking sheet. Store in airtight containers.
  5. Your baking sheet will look a mess with the caramel stuck to it, but just soak in some hot water and it will come clean quickly!
Preparation time: 10 minute(s)
Cooking time: 10 minute(s)
Number of servings (yield): 24
Culinary tradition: USA (Traditional)

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