All clone recipes for Cracker Jack that I know about—including my previous version— call for butter, which makes the candy coating more like toffee than the caramel-flavored coating on the 122-year-old American snack. So, this time around I have eliminated the butter and replaced it with just a little bit of margarine, which contains the vegetable oil and lecithin found in real Cracker Jack. I have also tweaked the formula to use a more convenient amount of popcorn (1 bag of microwave popcorn rather than 1½ bags), and I found that I was able to eliminate the molasses since there is enough in the dark brown sugar to give the candy-coated popcorn only a subtle molasses flavor more like the original.

8 cups natural (not butter flavor) microwave popcorn (from 1 bag)
⅓ cup Spanish peanuts
7 ounces (1 cup packed) dark brown sugar
⅓ cup light corn syrup
1 tablespoon margarine
¼ teaspoon salt

Cooking method

1-Preheat the oven to 275 degrees F.

2-Combine the popped popcorn with the peanuts in a large metal (or other oven-safe) mixing bowl and place the bowl in the preheated oven. Make sure it sits in there for at least 15 minutes to get hot.

3-Combine the brown sugar, corn syrup, margarine, and salt in a medium saucepan over medium heat and heat to 290 degrees F, or just under the hard crack stage. You should use a candy thermometer to monitor the temperature, but you can also test the caramel candy by dribbling a little into cold water once it begins to darken in color. If the candy in the cold water is hard when cool, then it has reached the right temperature.

4-Drizzle the caramel over the popcorn, then hold the bowl with a towel or potholder and stir the popcorn until it is well coated with the candy. If you have trouble coating the popcorn, place the bowl back in the oven for 10 minutes and stir again. Pour the coated popcorn and peanuts onto wax paper or a silicone mat. Break up the popcorn and peanuts as it cools.

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