“Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jacks… I don’t care if I never get back!”
Ahhh… The sweet sounds of spring (and the 7th inning stretch). Have you ever wondered why the kid needs Cracker Jacks AND peanuts? I mean there are peanuts right in the Cracker Jacks. Anyway, I digress. I thought it would be nice to round off my week of celebrating the great game of baseball with everyone’s favorite… the CrackerJack! The ingredients are simple, the method is easier than you might think; just takes a little bit of patience. And as usual, I will give you the recipe and provide little short cut tips along the way in case you aren’t a purist like me!
Here we go:
Start with popping corn! Remember this stuff? It actually exists outside of a microwaveable bag! Growing up I used to watch the commercials for Jiffy Pop popcorn (and it seemed they sponsored half the TV shows in the 80’s) and I always wanted them. My Mom loved to make her own popcorn though, so alas we never got the Jiffy Pop. When I got older, I realized Jiffy Pop wasn’t all it was cracked (or popped) up to be anyway. Again, I digress… If you aren’t a fan of making your own pop corn or feel more comfortable with an air popper or your microwave, have at it. Just be sure it’s plain and you have enough for about 10 cups when done (like three bags)
If you are coming along with me on the old fashioned popping train… Just follow your package directions. I’m just adding a few tablespoons of oil to a large dutch oven.
Then add in the kernels over high heat. Put the lid on the pan. When you hear your first few pops, start vigorously shaking the pan until you hear no more pops.
And here is your final product… a lovely pot of fresh popped pop corn. No matter how you achieve this… Just be sure it is plain, fresh, and about 10 cups when all is said and done. Add peanuts in at this point.
Continue prepping. Set your oven to 250°F.
Line a couple of sheet pans with parchment. You can use baking dishes, or whatever you have handy. Just be sure whatever you have has a rim, otherwise you may have popcorn slipping off into your oven… not fun. If you only have one, that will do, it will just mean more mixing during the process, but I’ll explain that later. Oh, and the parchment is kind of a must, unless you have some other type of non stick surface like a Silpat or something. Remember, we are essentially making candy here, so you want to be able to work with it without it sticking to everything. Which brings me to my next step.
You’re gonna want to spray both a very large bowl (I use my Vavo’s massa bowl) and your rubber spatula (or whatever you have on hand) with cooking spray. We don’t want sticking!
Now, gather up some ingredients. You have no time once you start on the stove to gather these ingredients. So, be sure you are prepped ahead of time. In addition to these already measured out ingredients, be sure to have both your vanilla and baking soda at the ready.
Start with a medium sauce pan. I like my non-stick. It doesn’t have to be non-stick, just my preference. Melt your butter and then add in your sugar.
Once that is in and starting to dissolve, add in your corn syrup and salt. DO NOT LEAVE THE STOVE. I repeat, DO NOT LEAVE THE STOVE. This is not the time to get distracted, answer the door, check your text messages or discipline the children. You need 5-10 minutes of uninterrupted time here. You need to stir constantly.
Once you get to right around 250°F on a candy thermometer or in my case a meat thermometer. Try to keep it at that temp. for around 3-4 minutes. This will likely include lowering the heat. You want to keep checking back. Don’t freak if it gets a little higher, just do your best.
Once you make it through that 3-4 minutes, breathe. Then remove from heat and add in the vanilla. This is not the time to skimp out on the vanilla. Please please please use your very best PURE vanilla extract here. This one I am using is Madagascar bourbon vanilla, it’s my preference. But, you aren’t allowed to make this with that imitation stuff! (kidding, but really, don’t)
Now, add in the baking soda. I use a heaping half teaspoon. I like the fluffiness and lightness it brings. Careful not to overdo it though, baking soda can backfire in flavor if you go overboard.
Now stir to combine your new ingredients and it should look something like this.
OK… quickly pour this over your popcorn and start stirring. Again, not a time to take a break. You need to work briskly here.
Keep stirring. Try to work all that caramel in throughout the popcorn as best you can. This process will take some time, assume a good 5 minutes for this step. Be fast but gentle, you don’t want a bunch of pop corn crumbles at the end.
This is what you should have… I don’t like to overdo it with the caramel coverage. If you like more caramel coverage, just use 8 cups of popcorn. I wouldn’t go less than that though unless you are an experienced candy maker, because the caramel may clump up on you quite a bit.
Spread your mixture onto your prepared sheet trays. Pop them in the oven for an hour. But be sure to stir the mixture 3-4 times throughout their time in there. I set my timer to every 15 mins. This helps to further distribute the caramel and ensure you don’t have one big clumped mess when through.
And there you have it folks. Crack-a-lakin’ Cracker Jacks! Enjoy!
Recipe for Crack-a-lakin’ Cracker Jacks:
(serves 4-6) (or one, shhh!)
10 c. plain popped pop corn (instructions above)
3/4 c. peanuts
1 stick unsalted butter
1 1/4 c. light brown sugar
1/3 c. light corn syrup
1/2 t. kosher salt
2 t. pure vanilla extract
1/2 t. heaping, baking soda
Prepare all ingredients along with all equipment. You will need a medium saucepan, preferably non-stick. Two sheet trays with rims, lined with parchment. And an extra-large bowl and rubber spatula sprayed with cooking spray. A thermometer with capability to go to 250°F. Also, pre-heat your oven to 250°F.
Place popped corn in the extra-large bowl with the popcorn.
On the stove over medium/high heat, melt butter. Add in brown sugar, corn syrup and salt. Continuously stir until it comes to a boil. Once it comes to a boil, check the temp. until it comes to 250°F. Keep it at that temperature for 3-4 minutes, checking frequently and adjusting heat.
Remove from heat. Add in vanilla and baking soda. Stir.
Pour over popcorn and peanuts. Quickly, but gently stir to combine. This process takes patience.
Pour out onto prepared sheet trays. Bake at 250°F for 1 hour. Stir mixture 3-4 times throughout baking.