I mentioned last week that I was on a mission to create the ultimate party "snack bar," featuring homemade versions of store bought classics. Of course homemade Cracker Jack was at the tippy top of that list. After learning how easy the recipe is, now I'm cursing myself for not making it sooner!
The recipe for Cracker Jack is similar to caramel corn but with the addition of molasses and Spanish red peanuts. To make it, all you have to do is whip up the simplest caramel sauce (butter, brown sugar, corn syrup, and molasses) and pour it over plain popcorn and nuts. Toss, bake, then snack to your heart's content. The only thing missing is the prize!
While homemade Cracker Jack may fit into my "snack bar" theme perfectly, I have a sneaking suspicion it will somehow find its way into plenty of other party menus. It's perfect for snacking during family movie night, hauling to a kids' little league game or baseball themed birthday, and even for giving as a hostess or holiday gift. Packaged in cute striped boxes or newspaper cones?! Oh my, the possibilities are endless...
16 cups freshly-popped popcorn*
2 cups roasted, lightly salted peanuts (Spanish or regular)
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup light corn syrup
2 tablespoons molasses
1/2 teaspoon table salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
Sea salt, to taste
Preheat oven to 250°. Transfer the popped corn to a large large stock pot (or divide between 2 large mixing bowls), discarding any un-popped kernels as you go. Add the peanuts and toss to combine.
Melt butter in a heavy saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in brown sugar, corn syrup, molasses, and salt. Increase heat to medium-high and bring to a gentle boil, stirring occasionally, until the temperature reads 250°F on a candy thermometer, about 5-8 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in vanilla and baking soda. Working quickly, pour the hot caramel into the pot and gently toss until the popped corn and nuts are evenly coated. (I prefer to use my hands to gently combine the mixture, once the caramel has cooled just a bit. You can where gloves if you'd like.)
Divide the popcorn mixture in half between 2 greased baking sheets, spreading into a thin, even layer. Bake, stirring every 15 minutes, for 50 minutes. Sprinkle Cracker Jack with a little sea salt and allow to cool in pans for 20 minutes. Separate the popcorn into individual pieces with your hands before serving. This is best eaten the day it's made but can be stored in an airtight container for up to 3 days.
*I used 3 (3.5 ounce) bags natural, lightly salted microwave popcorn
Related: Recipe: Homemade Nutty Bars
(Images: Nealey Dozier)