February 25, 2010

Old-Fashioned Caramel Corn & Peanuts

The caramel coated popcorn and peanuts that we known as Cracker Jacks is a true American relic. The crunchy, addictive snack was introduced by German brothers F.W. and Louis Rueckheim who set up a booth at Chicago’s First World Fair in 1893 and sold “candied popcorn and peanuts” made with popcorn, molasses and peanuts. (Other notable firsts at the Fair include Juicy Fruit gum, Quaker Oats, Cream of Wheat, and Shredded Wheat.) In 1896, the first Cracker Jacks hit the market. Legend has it, the Rueckheim brothers got the name from an animated sampler who remarked, “That’s a Cracker Jack!"

Courtesy of candyfavorites.com

Cracker Jacks were virtually immortalized by the American classic baseball song “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” which has its roots of fans singing it at baseball games since 1908. Then, more than 15 years after Cracker Jacks were trademarked, the product included a feature that made it an instant indelible part of American culture: the prize in every box! The history of Cracker Jacks prizes warrants an essay in itself—there are books and websites dedicated to the history of the surprise toys, which became a part of childhood for many generations. Prizes ranged from anything from baseball cards, wooden trinkets, tin jumping frogs, and model trains, to name a few. But the question remains, how many kids were truly excited and how many secretly disappointed by the prize they received in their box? Also in the early 20th century, the mascots Sailor Jack and his dog, Bingo, first appeared on the package, inspired by F.W. Rueckheim's grandson.

Whether you are a fan of Cracker Jacks or not, it’s hard to deny their lasting popularity and influence on American pop culture. I came across this TV advertisement on youtube, which I found to be quite amusing. I like to picture my parents (and even grandparents) scrounging up money to by a box from a local corner shop, and then tearing up the box to find the surprise toy. I encourage you to watch the commercial by clicking here.

Personally, I totally get why Americans fell in love with the original Cracker Jacks. I especially love the salty-sweet combination, bite-size crunch, and peanuty taste. I have to admit though, I find Cracker Jacks to be much too sweet for my taste. (I would be curious to know if the recipe has changed overtime to include more sweetener.) The company was sold to Frito-Lay in the 1990's.

I came across several caramel popcorn recipes online and tweaked them to my liking. The recipe for my old-fashioned oven toasted caramel corn is quite good (and not as sweet as other versions!) with the reminiscent childhood taste of Cracker Jacks. I took a bowl to a recent dessert potluck and it was empty in no time. Next time I would like to try other add-ins…almonds and cinnamon would be delicious!

Old-Fashioned Caramel Corn

10 cups fresh popped popcorn (I prefer the stovetop method)
3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
2 tablespoons molasses
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1/2 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup lightly salted peanuts, roughly chopped
Special equipment: candy thermometer (recommended)

  1. Preheat oven to 250°F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.
  2. Pour popcorn into a large bowl and pick out any unpopped kernels.
  3. In a small saucepan, whisk together sugar, corn syrup, molasses, butter, salt and 2 tablespoons of water. Bring to a simmer over medium heat and whisk for 3-4 minutes (until the mixture reads 250°F on a candy thermometer).
  4. Working quickly, remove from heat and whisk in baking soda and vanilla. Pour mixture over popcorn, using a rubber or silicon spatula to gently fold into popcorn. Stir in peanuts and continue stirring until distributed fairy evenly.
  5. Transfer to prepared baking sheet, using hands to press down flat. Bake for approximately 1 hour, stirring every 20 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool.
  6. Gently break up (leaving some larger clumps). Serve or store in an airtight container for up to a week.