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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Homemade Cracker Jack

A few years ago, a friend of mine had a birthday and invited a group of about 15 people out to a ball game. I wanted to make snacks for everyone and after some thought on how I could stay in line with the baseball theme, I decided to make homemade Cracker Jack.

I used this recipe and doubled it. For the “prizes”, I headed over to Archie McPhee and pawed through their ‘small toys’ section. I had a lot of fun with this project!!

Deluxe Caramel Corn

Pop 4-6 quarts of your favorite popcorn and place in a large buttered roaster. Preheat oven to 200 degrees, put the popcorn in the oven while you make the syrup.

In a deep pot, stir together constantly while heating, then boil together at a full boil for 5 minutes without stirring:

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup honey OR corn syrup

Remove syrup from heat, stir in:

1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1-2 cups toasted pecans, almond slices or other choice nuts

Syrup will foam high when you add the soda. Stir down and as it cools slightly, pour in a thin stream all over the popcorn. Stir in well with two large spoons or gloved hands. Put the well mixed popcorn in its roaster into the oven uncovered, increase temperature to 250 degrees. Stir thoroughly every 15 minutes for 1 hour 15 minutes. Break apart and cool before eating or storing.

The toys:

Slide whistles, spy glasses, warbling bird whistles, siren whistles, “sports fan” (get it?), and hamburger yo-yo’s. Anything that wasn’t already wrapped in plastic I put into small snack-size Ziploc bags.

The popcorn:

The recipe says to make enough to fill a roasting pan. Since I wanted to double the recipe, I made a full roasting pan plus two large-ish bowls. If you look closely, you can see that I buttered the pans.

In the oven:

Of course, I checked to make sure all three containers could fit comfortably in the oven. I let the popcorn sit in there at 200° while I worked on the caramel sauce.

The syrup:

One full cup of butter – melting, melting, melting.

Plus two full cups of brown sugar:

At this point, things started to get a little hairy. I had hot, sugary butter cooking on the stove and slow-moving honey that I was trying to measure out and I just didn’t have enough hands to handle the camera on top of that. But I did get a shot of everything all mixed up and bubbling away:

Now the recipe says to let the mixture sit and bubble without stirring for a full 5 minutes. This was probably the hardest part of the entire recipe for me. I’m an overzealous stirrer. If something is on the stove, I can’t just leave it alone. I must stir! For this reason I am the world’s worst omelet maker, and whenever I make fajitas the meat and veggies end up battered and torn from all the stir treatment they got. Knowing I had to follow the recipe, I gave the syrup a final quick stirs, set the timer for 5 minutes, and forced myself to walk away. I busied myself with dishes and cleaning up while the syrup bubbled.

After 5 minutes, it looked like this:

You can’t really tell from the photo, but it nearly doubled its size in the pot.

Next, a full teaspoon of baking soda:

I was a little nervous about this step, because the recipe warns that the syrup will omgfoamhigh when the soda is added.

I was a bit disappointed, as it didn’t really do anything:

But then I added the vanilla and holy cow WHOOSH:

It even started to smoke/steam a bit, as you can see from the steamy haze in the picture.

I had 12 oz of peanuts in the cupboard, as well as a partial package of chopped pecans. I roughly chopped all the nuts and mixed them in with the syrup, took the popcorn out of the oven, and started to mix the syrup over the corn.

Again, time was crucial at this point because I didn’t want to ruin the syrup. Once I took it off the heat, it immediately started to thicken up. Since I had 3 large containers to drizzle and mix hot syrup into, I really didn’t have a chance to take photos.

But once everything was mixed together, I stuck it all back in the oven and increased the temperature to 250°:

I stirred the popcorn every 15 minutes like the recipe said. However, at about 40ish minutes I did a little taste test with some popcorn that had fallen from my stirring spoon. It had just the slightest taste of char to it, so at 45 minutes I took all the popcorn out. (It’s a good thing I did, because later I asked a few other people if they thought it tasted burned. At first they said ‘no’, but after a moment they said, ‘Yeah. But only just a little!’ Can you imagine what would’ve happened had I left it in for the full 75 minutes??). Next time, I’ll leave it in the oven for 30 minutes and call it good. Or maybe keep the temp at 200 instead of 250 and cook for 45.

I took it all out of the oven and set it out on wax paper to cool. As you can see, the popcorn darkened up in true Cracker Jack form:

While that was cooling, I set out to create the containers. I had looked high and low for some sort of box to put my Cracker Jack in, reminiscent of actual Cracker Jack boxes. But later that afternoon I was at my local QFC picking up popcorn kernels and I noticed some Cracker Jack in the aisle. Did you know Cracker Jack comes in ONE OUNCE boxes?? One ounce, people! Entirely unacceptable! Anyway, QFC just happened to have Cracker Jack on sale. Three (one ounce!) boxes are normally $1.79 (the boxes were taped together and packaged in three). They were on sale at 10/$10. So I bought three boxes of CJ for a buck and thought I’d somehow use the boxes for inspiration.

Later at home I got a brilliant idea:

Lunch sacks! I cut off the front of the Cracker Jack box and scanned it to my printer, then printed up the image and glued it to the front of lunch sacks. I liked the end result. Gave it more of an authentic feel, somehow.

Plus, I was able to fit much more than one measly ounce of snack into each bag:

The final touch was a sticker on the back of the bag to keep it shut:

Everybody seemed to enjoy it and I had tons of fun, too. Here are some photos from the game:

Center Field:

He couldn’t get over the fact that I actually put prizes in with the popcorn:

Pass me some of that!