Homemade Cracker Jacks

by Louise Ayer

Cracker Jacks make me smile. They take me back to when I was a little, little girl and would go to the movies with my family, my two brothers Eric and Steve and my parents. You could buy Cracker Jacks at the movie theater. Cracker Jacks are a sweet treat made of popcorn, crunchy caramel, and peanuts sold in a little box. Each box has a little prize. It was so thrilling to hunt around in your box for your prize and then eat your delicious Cracker Jacks.

Cracker Jacks were actually created in 1871 by a German immigrant. They made their first appearance on a grand scale at the first World’s Fair in Chicago at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. There was even a song written about them in 1908, “Take me out to the Ball game, buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jacks.” When I saw that New York Times Cooking had come out with a recipe for homemade Cracker Jacks, I got really excited.

Cracker Jacks remind me that food is more than aroma, texture, and taste. It is more than the building blocks of our bodies, essential as all of those things may be. Food is also memories, sometimes strong memories, good or bad. Many of the memories I have of when I was very small revolve around food and the connection and love I had for the people who made that food; picking wild strawberries with my grandmother, Dee, and making jam together, losing power and my mother making our meals in the fireplace, including hot chocolate and toasted marshmallows, until the power came back, or my brother Eric and I making a cake for the first time for our mom on her birthday. I’m sure you have your own collection of beloved memories of food and the connection you have to the people who created that food. When I find recipes that connect me with my past, that have a history in my family, I feel entirely different about them. I encourage you to prepare your own food that has special memories for you and make a collection of those recipes that you can cook together.

Homemade Cracker Jacks
16 cups

This recipe was inspired by Samantha Seneviratne, a writer for New York Times Cooking. I have made only a few changes to make these Cracker Jacks a more healthful, but equally delicious treat.

3 tablespoons ghee, plus more to grease the baking sheets
½ cup popcorn kernels
1 cup roasted red-skinned peanuts
1 teaspoon vanilla
¼ teaspoon baking soda
½ cup ghee
1 cup coconut palm sugar
¼ cup molasses
½ teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for sprinkling

Grease 2 baking sheets with ghee.

Melt the 3 tablespoons of ghee in a small pot. When it becomes liquid, turn off the heat.

Place a large glass or metal bowl on the counter in front of your popcorn popper to receive the popcorn as it pops.

Plug in the popper. Pop the ½ cup of popcorn kernels in an air popcorn popper. As soon as the corn is all popped, unplug the popcorn popper. Immediately pour the ghee on the popcorn, distributing it as evenly as you can. Then sprinkle on the ½ teaspoon of kosher salt. Using a large spoon, stir the popcorn to further distribute the ghee and salt until you feel it is evenly coated. Discard any unpopped kernels. See Cook’s Note.

Add the peanuts to the popcorn and toss to combine.

To make the caramel that is poured on the popcorn, you have to move a bit quickly, so have the baking soda and vanilla on the counter near the stove.

In a small saucepan, add the ½ cup ghee, coconut palm sugar, and molasses. Heat at medium until the ghee melts. Once the ghee has melted, attach a candy thermometer to the side of the pan and cook without stirring until the candy reaches 248 F.

Remove from the heat and immediately add the vanilla and baking soda. It will foam. Now pour the candy onto the popcorn and peanuts, stirring hard and fast with a big wooden spoon to coat it as evenly as possible.

Spread the popcorn out on the baking sheets. Bake at 250 F to dry it out, tossing occasionally. This should take 20 to 25 minutes. It will still be a bit sticky, but will dry more as it cools. You can sprinkle with a little more salt, to taste.

Let the cracker jack cool completely, then store in an airtight container. It will keep for several days, if it lasts that long.

Cook’s Note: Alternatively, you can pop the popcorn on the stove. In this case, add the 3 tablespoons of ghee to a large pot with a tight-fitting lid. Also add 2 kernels of popcorn to the pot. Cover and heat to medium. Once you hear those 2 kernels pop, add the rest of the popcorn, cover and cook, shaking the pan occasionally so it doesn’t burn. When the popping starts to slow down, wait until there is a lag of about 2 seconds between pops and remove from the heat. However, wait about a minute before you remove the lid, in case of any last minute, surprise pops.

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