When I was in elementary school I remember hearing the song Take Me Out to the Ball Game and wondering what in the world a Cracker Jack was. This is probably something that most American kids take for granted, but I didn't grow up in the United States, the grown-ups around me didn't know what it was, the term "Cracker Jack" did not appear in the encyclopedia, and Google didn't yet exist, so my 8-year-old self probably just shrugged and ran off to amuse herself with other things.
The answer to my long-forgotten question came only a few years ago when I was watching an episode of Unwrapped on the Food Network. A snack of caramel-coated popcorn and peanuts that came with a toy, Cracker Jack made its debut more than a hundred years ago and is still around today. Even after getting to the bottom of my Cracker Jack mystery, and in spite of my seemingly insatiable sweet tooth, I never actually got up to get me some Cracker Jacks. The combination of caramel and popcorn didn't really appeal to me, and truth be told, my sweet tooth may be insatiable but it's also a bit picky.
In fact, I probably would have been perfectly content living my whole life with nary a taste of caramel popcorn had it not been for a book called DamGoodSweet and its mesmerizing photograph of deep-golden kernels peeking out from slender white paper cones, boldly introduced with the guarantee that "if you make it once, you'll make it again".
Although tempted, I didn't try the recipe until almost my entire family came to spend Christmas with us last year. None of us were caramel popcorn fans, but I figured there was strength in numbers, meaning that if it turned out comme ci comme ça, I wouldn't have to finish it off all by myself. What I didn't account for, though, was that if it turned out great (which it did), there were a lot more people around to share it with!
My first-ever batch of homemade Cracker Jacks had barely cooled down before it was all gone, devoured by my family of caramel popcorn converts. My mom and I sneaked a taste right from the tray and raved so earnestly and convincingly - which in greedy hindsight we probably shouldn't have done, because before we knew it everyone had gathered around the tray and was punctuating mouthfuls of the caramelized munchies with variants of "Mmmm ... ". There wasn't even time to transfer those charming little nuggets into a serving bowl.
Luckily, it was so easy to make, so I was able to make a second batch that very same day. This recipe actually should have come with a warning, not a guarantee: "These are addictively delicious and ridiculously easy to make - do not allow yourself to be left alone with a batch of this caramel popcorn. Consider yourself warned."
Sweet but not cloying, crunchy but not hard, I've since made these little nibbles many times, and they are always received with the same enthusiasm by kids and grown-ups alike. I still haven't tasted the original Cracker Jack - and I must admit that with this recipe I don't feel the need to - but those Rueckheim brothers sure were on to something when they introduced their idea more than a hundred years ago! My picky sweet tooth stands corrected.
Pop according to the package instructions:
1 package plain microwave popcorn (2.9 - 3.5 ounces)*
Coat a large bowl with nonstick cooking spray. Transfer the popped corn into the bowl, pick out the unpopped kernels, and add:
1 cup salted peanuts, roughly chopped
or 1 cup sliced almonds (I prefer almonds)
Set this bowl aside. Preheat your oven to 250°F.
Whisk in a pot and bring to a simmer over medium-high heat:
1 cup packed light brown sugar
¼ cup light corn syrup
6 Tbsp unsalted butter
¼ tsp salt
2 Tbsp water
Stir the mixture often until it reads 250°F on a digital thermometer. This may take 3-4 minutes or longer, depending on how strong you have set your heat.
Turn off the heat and immediately and quickly whisk in:
½ tsp bakig soda
2 tsp vanilla extract
Immediately pour this mixture over the popcorn and nuts. Using a rubber spatula, very gently fold in the caramel until everything is coated relatively evenly (don't worry if not all the kernels are fully coated).
Transfer the mixture to a parchment-lined baking sheet (measuring around 17"x12") in an even layer and bake for 1 hour at 250°F, stirring at 20 minute intervals. You may be tempted to skip this step, but don't. The caramel softens in the oven and stirring helps coat the kernels and nuts better.
Remove and place on a cooling rack. Let cool for at least 20 minutes. This cooling time allows the popcorn and nuts and caramel to crisp up. Gently break up any large clumps. Serve immediately. This will keep for up to 5 days in an airtight container.
Makes about 10 cups.
*If you prefer non-microwaved popcorn, you will need to start off with ½ cup unpopped kernels