The only downside of making it at home? You have to provide the surprise inside.
Cracker Jack is an iconic American snack that has been around for over 100 years--and that means that most of us have tried the molasses-flavored caramel-covered popcorn and salty peanuts at least once in our lifetime. Eating Cracker Jack brings back childhood memories of sticky caramel goodness and picking those last bits of salty peanuts (and the prize!) at the bottom of the box.
Whether or not you're a fan of the original Cracker Jack, you'll love this updated version: Airy fresh popcorn, crisp buttery caramel, and crunchy salty peanuts make this caramel corn hard to stop eating. It's seriously good.
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A couple of helpful tips: First, be sure to have all the ingredients measured out all of the kitchen tools nearby before you get started. It's a simple recipe, but once the caramel is ready, the process will need to move quickly before the mixture begins to firm up. Second, a candy thermometer is essential for cooking the caramel to the required temperature. In regards to the ingredients, it's okay to use unflavored microwave popcorn if you don't have any popping kernels available. If you prefer a light molasses flavor, feel free to only use one teaspoon of molasses or omit it all together. It'll be delicious with any of these options.
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Makes 8 to 9 ounces (232 grams), around 5 cups
50 grams (1 3/4 ounces) freshly popped popcorn, lightly salted (about 5 cups)
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
70 grams (2 1/2 ounces) salted Spanish peanuts
85 grams (3 ounces) brown sugar
43 grams (1 1/2 ounces) light corn syrup
43 grams (1 1/2 ounces) unsalted butter, melted
2 teaspoons molasses
Pinch kosher salt
Pinch fine sea salt (optional)
Preheat oven to 250° F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a Silpat mat.
In a large bowl, place the freshly popped popcorn. Set aside until ready to use.
Measure out the baking soda, vanilla extract, and Spanish peanuts separately and set each aside until ready to use.
In a small pot, combine the brown sugar, corn syrup, butter, molasses, and salt. Bring the mixture to a boil, over medium-high heat, and cook to 250° F (around 1 to 2 minutes after it begins to boil).
Remove from heat and immediately stir in the baking soda and vanilla until thoroughly combined. Pour over the popcorn and gently but quickly stir the mixture to evenly coat all the popcorn kernels. Add in the peanuts and gently stir to distribute evenly.
Pour out mixture onto the prepared baking sheet. With the back of a spatula, quickly spread mixture out into a single layer. Bake for 1 hour, stirring mixture halfway through.
When done, remove from oven and stir the caramel corn once more. If using, sprinkle with the fine sea salt. Set on a cooling rack and allow it to cool completely. Once cool, enjoy right away or store in an airtight container for 3 to 5 days.
Third photo by Bobbi Lin; fourth by James Ransom; all others by Teresa Floyd