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~ My Caramel Corn vs. Cracker Jack? No Contest. ~

IMG_4966"Take me out to the ball game,

Take me out with the crowd,  

Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jacks,

I don't care if I never get back."

Crackerjack2NOT SO FAST.  I don't like Cracker Jack.  I never did.  I never will.  As a child, even the prize in the box wasn't enough inspiration for me to ask mom or dad to buy me a box.  As an adult, I never bought Cracker Jack for my children.  Come to think of it, in my lifetime I've never bought any Cracker Jack.  Why?  I grew up eating freshly made caramel corn (along with salt water taffy) on the boardwalk in sunny Ocean City, NJ!  

Sweet, salty, buttery, crispy, golden caramel corn can't be beat!

Yes my friends, there is a difference between caramel corn and Cracker Jack.  Both consist of popped corn that is coated, then baked, in a simple caramel sauce, but, Cracker Jack has molasses added to the caramel sauce and Spanish peanuts (red-skinned peanuts) stirred into the mix...

... not that there is anything wrong with that, it's just not the caramel corn I fell in love with while smelling the salt air.  In my opinion, molasses adds a tad of bitterness to the flavor, and, peanuts interfere with the entire caramel corn experience.  That being said, to turn my beloved caramel corn into Cracker Jack:  add 2 tablespoons full-flavor molasses to the simmering caramel sauce and stir 2 cups of Spanish or regular peanuts into the coated corn just prior to baking!

ImagesA bit of Cracker Jack history:   Cracker Jack is considered a type of caramel corn because the molasses is caramelized prior to being poured over the corn.  Back in 1872, two German immigrants came to Chicago to help clean up after the famous Chicago fire and worked selling popcorn from a streetcart for additional income.  Frederick "Fritz" Rueckheim and his brother Louis debuted an experimental popcorn candy at the 1896 Chicago World's Fair.  It was a mixture of popcorn, molasses and peanuts and was called "Candied Popcorn and Peanuts".  It was popular, but, not perfect... the molasses made it difficult to handle, as it stuck together in chunks.  In 1896, Rueckheim came up with a way to keep the popcorn kernels separate.  As each batch was mixed in a cement-mixer type machine, a small quantity of oil was drizzled in.  A customer tried a sample and said, "that's crackerjack", which at the time was slang for "that's fantastic".  The rest is some very interesting trivia:

F493cjmagnet1899:  The wax-sealed, moisture-proof box was introduced.

1908:  The song "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" was written.

1912:  Prizes were put in every box (some were baseball cards).

1919:  Sailor boy Jack and his dog Bingo became trademark logos.

1964:  The Cracker Jack Company was sold to Borden.

1993:  The 100th anniversary of Cracker Jack was celebrated at a party at Wrigley Field.

1997:  Frito-Lay purchased Cracker Jack from Borden.

2004:  The NY Yankees replaced Cracker Jack with Crunch 'n Munch but switched back immediately due to public pressure and outrage!

Because April is the start of 'America's favorite past time' (baseball season) & National Caramel Corn Day (April 6th):

IMG_4834Start by popping some corn.  You'll need 4 quarts, or:

16 cups popped, plain popcorn (no butter or salt added), cooled to room temperature (from 8 tablespoons unpopped corn kernels), or:

3  3.2-ounce bags popped, plain microwave popcorn, cooled to room temperature 

IMG_4830Calculating popcorn:  If you are popping corn on the stovetop, 2  tablespoons of unpopped corn kernels will yield 4 cups of popcorn, so you'll need 8 tablespoons of corn kernels.  Follow the cooking instructions on the bag or container.  If you're popping corn in a corn popper or hot-air popper, follow the manufacturer's instructions until you yield 16 cups. If you are microwaving popcorn, 3 bags is going to yield 18 cups of popcorn, or, 2 more cups than you need.  Munch away!

IMG_4837Spray the largest bowl you can find with no-stick cooking spray and place the popcorn in it.  This is an enamelware basin that I use for proofing bread dough.  Line a 17 1/2" x 12 1/2" baking pan with aluminum foil and place a piece of parchment in the bottom.

Preheat oven to 275 degrees.  

"Mise en place" ("get organized")!  It's time to make the caramel sauce!

IMG_4839Making caramel sauce is really easy, but moves very quickly, so be sure to measure and have all of your ingredients ready to go:

1 1/2  cups firmly-packed light brown sugar

6 ounces salted butter (1 1/2 sticks), I like salted butter better in this recipe... trust me on this

6 tablespoons light corn syrup

1  teaspoon sea salt

1  teaspoon pure vanilla extract, not imitation

1/2  teaspoon baking soda

IMG_4848 IMG_4843~ Step 1.  In a 4-quart saucepan melt the butter over low heat.  Stir in the brown sugar, corn syrup and salt.  Bring to a boil over medium heat, whisking constantly, about 4-5 minutes, until the sugar is completely dissolved and incorporated into the melted butter.

IMG_4880 IMG_4866                                           ~ Step 2. Adjust heat to a rapid simmer and continue to cook, without whisking or stirring, for 3 additional minutes.  Remove from heat.




~ Step 3.  Immediately add the vanilla and baking soda.  Whisk vigorously until the caramel sauce is foamy, doubled in volume and light in color, about 10-12 seconds.

IMG_4899~ Step 4. Immediately drizzle all of the caramel sauce over the popcorn.  Using a large rubber spatula, fold the caramel into the popcorn until it is evenly coated.

IMG_4903 IMG_4913~ Step 5. Transfer to prepared baking pan and do your best to spread it out into an even layer without pressing down on it or crushing it.

Note:  At this point the popcorn is a bit stiff and sticky to handle, but worry not.  It's going to get easier to work with as it bakes in the oven.

IMG_4931 IMG_4922~ Step 6. Bake the caramel corn on center rack preheated 275 degree oven for 45 minutes.  During this process, remove the caramel corn from the oven every 15 minutes and give it a thorough but gentle stir.  Remove from oven.

IMG_4943~ Step 7.  Grab one corner of the parchment paper and give it a tug. Use it as a mechanism to easily slide and transfer all of the caramel corn from the the pan to a large work surface.  Wait a moment or two and then use your fingertips to pull it apart into chunks and pieces. Allow it out to cool completely, about 1 hour, prior to serving:

IMG_4939 IMG_5009My Caramel Corn vs. Cracker Jack?  No Contest.:  Recipe yields 16 cups.  In the event you have any leftovers, store them in a cookie-type tin with a tight-fitting lid.

Special Equipment List:  8-quart stockpot w/lid, popcorn popper, hot-air popcorn popper or microwave oven; very large bowl; 17 1/2" x 12 1/2" baking pan; aluminum foil; parchment paper; 4-quart saucepan; whisk; large rubber spatula

IMG_4377Cook's Note:  Making snacks from scratch is usually quite easy, always more economical, and, it goes without saying they taste better too. For another one of my fun, sporting, game-day snacks, you might want to try ~ Mel's #1 March Madness Munchie:  Potato Chips ~.  You can find that recipe in Categories 2, 4, 17 or 20!

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2013)


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