By Libbie Summers (from Brown Sugar by Libbie Summers, Shortstack Editions)
Photography by Andy Lyons
Green handsaw. Pink sword. Gold pistol. What prison inmate thought up these toys for Cracker Jacks, anyway? As a kid, I’d devour box after box of the crunchy caramel-coated popcorn snack, all the while questioning what kind of person came up with this “surprise inside” marketing plan. Then one day, Cracker Jacks became cool. Suddenly, my “surprise inside” was a small book of temporary tattoos, a kid’s very definition of awesome. This recipe for my grownup version has a rich, crunchy, deep molasses flavor, as well as its own “surprise inside”—a hint of cayenne to finish each bite. The kick doesn’t linger—it stays around about as long as that first temporary tattoo stayed on my skin.
makes 10 cups
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1⁄2 cup popcorn kernels
1 cup Spanish peanuts, husks removed (available in most grocery stores)
1 cup light brown sugar
1⁄2 cup corn syrup
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1⁄4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
Preheat the oven to 250°. In a medium saucepan with a tight-fitting lid, add the oil and 2 popcorn kernels. Cook over high heat until the kernels pop, then add the remaining popcorn, cover and lower the heat to medium-high. Cook until the kernels stop popping, shaking the pan often. Discard any unpopped kernels and spread out the popcorn on a large, deep, nonstick, rectangular cake pan or lasagna casserole dish (I use a 14-by-10-by-4-inch nonstick cake pan). If you use a pan that isn’t nonstick, grease it with butter or nonstick cooking spray first. Toss the popcorn with the peanuts and place the pan in the preheated oven to keep warm.
Attach a candy thermometer to the side of a medium sauce- pan over medium heat and add the brown sugar, corn syrup, but- ter, cayenne pepper and salt. Stir until the mixture comes to a boil. Allow the mixture to cook until the temperature of the candy reaches 260° to 275° on the candy thermometer, about 15 minutes.
Working quickly, remove the popcorn and peanuts from the oven and pour the hot syrup mixture in a fine stream over the popcorn to cover
it evenly. Using a nonstick spatula, carefully toss to coat. Return the pan to the oven for 10 minutes, mixing every couple of minutes to evenly coat the popcorn and peanuts. Remove the pan from the oven and let the mixture cool to room temperature before storing in an airtight container. The Cracker Jerks will keep for up to 10 days.
Note: 1 tablespoon of popcorn kernels yields just over 1 cup of popped corn.
Warning: Don’t even try this with bullshit microwave popcorn.