Chinese Cracker Jacks

LunaCafe Chinese Cracker Jacks

Many moons ago, as director of the Yankee Kitchen Cooking Schools, I had the opportunity to work with the inestimable Barbra Tropp of China Moon Café in San Francisco. She came to Seattle to teach a series of classes for the school and the first thing she wanted when she arrived was a whirlwind shopping tour of Chinatown.

Adding Baking Soda to Caramel Syrup

We loaded my car with bags of condiments, spices, and vegetables I couldn’t pronounce, plus an array of seafood so fresh it looked and smelled as if it had just been pulled from Puget Sound. Then, as our purchases were well protected in ice chests, we rewarded ourselves with lunch on the deck of Ray’s Boathouse overlooking Shilshole Bay. It was an amazing, memorable day.

Toasted Hazelnuts, Peanuts & Pecans

Her classes were a huge hit, both because of her immense knowledge of Chinese cuisine and her most gracious manner. The dishes she prepared were among the best I have ever eaten–before or since.

Mixing Popcorn, Nuts & Caramel Syrup in a Bowl

Thinking fondly of Barbara recently (she passed away in 2001), I was leafing through her groundbreaking (and still completely fresh) cookbook, The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking, and encountered an intriguing recipe, Chinese Crackerjacks. What a fun treat to welcome the New Year–and to kick off All Asia All Month on LunaCafe.

Chinese Cracker Jacks Crisp & Hot from the Oven

But, as Barbara’s Chinese Crackerjacks recipe omits the popcorn and only lightly glazes the nuts, rather than coating them in caramel syrup, my exploration took me further afield.

Ingredients for LunaCafe Chinese Five-Spice

What I ended up with is evocatively spiced, super-crunchy, completely addictive caramel popcorn that is surprisingly reminiscent of the original Cracker Jacks—albeit with four times the nuts and a sublime Asian twist.

Ground Spices for LunaCafe Chinese Five-Spice

Thank you, Barbara, for your continuing inspiration on the eve of this new year. I am grateful to have known you.

Chinese Cracker Jacks

These Cracker Jacks are very similar to the real thing, only super fresh and extra appealing–as only homemade can be. And as I never feel there are enough peanuts in the boxed version, there are three luxurious cups of my favorite nuts here. The Chinese Five-Spice gives this old-fashioned treat a sophisticated new life. We can’t seem to get enough of this addictive treat. Luckily, it is very easy to make.

Note   You may be tempted to use prepared Chinese Five-Spice. Don’t! It takes only a minute to make your own, and the superlative aroma and flavor are essential here.

Ingredient Note  Every time I make this (all too often recently), I find myself debating whether the molasses is necessary or desired. On the one hand, it gives the crackerjacks that distinctive taste of the boxed verionmn, which I love. On the other hand, I feel it competes ever so slightly with the Chinese Five-Spice for the starring role. MauiJim says the two are in perfect balance, but you might want to try it with and without to determine your own preference.

Popcorn & Nuts
½ cup popcorn kernels (8 cups popped corn) (unseasoned microwave popcorn will also work)
1 cup whole hazelnuts, lightly toasted and skinned
1 cup whole roasted peanuts, unsalted or lightly salted (Trader Joe’s peanuts are awesome)
1 cup whole pecans

1 tablespoon LunaCafe Chinese Five-Spice (recipe below)
1 teaspoon fine sea salt

Caramel Syrup
½ cup butter (1 stick)
1 cup dark brown sugar
½ cup light corn syrup
2 tablespoons unsulfured molasses, optional
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon baking soda

  1. Prepare LunaCafe Chinese Five-Spice. Reserve.
  2. Coat two edged baking sheets with vegetable oil spray. Reserve.
  3. Position a rack in the middle of the oven. Heat oven to 300°F.
  4. Pop the popcorn according to your usual method or your popcorn machine’s guidelines.
  5. Remove to a very large mixing bowl. Add hazelnuts, peanuts, pecans, LunaCafe’s Chinese Five-Spice, and salt. Toss to combine and distribute the spices. Reserve.
  6. In a large saucepan, combine butter, brown sugar, corn syrup, and molasses. Over medium heat, bring to a simmer and simmer for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. The mixture should measure 250° on a candy thermometer.
  7. Turn off heat and stir in vanilla and then baking soda. The mixture will foam up dramatically.
  8. As the foam subsides, quickly pour the caramel syrup over the popcorn and nuts. Use oiled, long cooking chopsticks to distribute the syrup. (The minimal surface area of the chopsticks prevents the caramel from getting a good hold.)
  9. Divide the crackerjack mixture evenly between the cookie sheets.
  10. Bake for 45 minutes, stirring cracker jacks every 15 minutes with oiled, long cooking chopsticks.
  11. Remove from the oven and immediately dislodge from the baking sheet with a thin metal spatula. Allow to cool completely and then separate the pieces as desired.
  12. Store in an airtight container in cool, dry location.

Makes about 12 cups.

LunaCafe Chinese Five-Spice

The aroma of these spices when they are toasting is remarkable. For most evocative aroma and flavor, always use fresh spices.

3 whole star anise pieces, broken
20 whole cloves
3-inch Mexican cinnamon stick (canella), broken
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
1 tablespoon whole Sichuan pepper or black peppercorns

  1. In nonstick skillet set over medium heat, toast the spices just until fragrant, about 1 minute.
  2. Immediately remove from the heat and grind to a powder in a spice grinder.
  3. When cool, store in an airtight container in a cool, dark, dry location.

Makes about ¼ cup.

Additional Inspiration

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  1. says

    I could get in a lot of trouble with a bowl of this stuff – it looks dangerously delicious! I completely agree about he lack of peanuts in boxed Cracker Jack – hardly enough to count sometimes.

  2. says

    I’m a huge fan of Barbara Tropp – what an awesome experience that must have been! And wow, these sound entirely addictive. I can almost taste them just from the description. I will definitely be trying these for myself!

  3. says

    Well the last caramel corn I made included bacon and chocolate, but your version uses one of my favorite flavors, 5-spice…so can’t wait to try this. I do agree that making your own 5spice powder is so easy and has the added benefit of the freshest and brightest flavor!
    I so respected Barbara Tropp as a chef and would have loved to have met her…what a fantastic experience that must have been for you! I’ve used so many recipes of hers in my catering of the best is the Tea Smoked Chicken Salad with radicchio, mint and wild mushrooms..a lady’s luncheon staple from back in the 80’s to this day. Her Fresh Ginger Ice Cream is to die for, made even more decadent with her Bittersweet Chocolate Sauce.
    I ‘m looking forward to more of your Asian inspired recipe month; your recipes are consistently on the mark and your blog is so engaging!

  4. says

    All Asia month on Luna Cafe sounds great, I’m looking forward to more of your Asian-influenced recipes! I love your upgrades to standard fare, this is so far above boxed Cracker Jacks with your fresh spices and quality nuts like hazelnuts and pecans. I have made homemade caramel corn before and I see some good tips in your recipe that I wouldn’t have thought of, like stirring it in the oven with oiled chopsticks, thanks again for your thorough instructions!
    Mary (Fit and Fed) recently posted…Preparing ChestnutsMy Profile

    • Susan S. Bradley says

      Mary, so glad you are onboard for my first All Asia All Month exploration of Asian and Asian-inspired (East-West) dishes. I’m knee deep in Asian broth research and testing this morning. :-)

  5. Anne says

    Well, yum. I already had a batch of Illinois caramel corn from an old MSL in the works, but after that, this! Happy New Year to you.


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