Soft and Salty Goodness

Soft pretzels make me happy. Whether they come from a street cart in New York City, an Auntie Anne's in a shopping mall food court or a ballpark, I tend to pick pretzels as my go-to snack. (I'm not sure why I feel they're a healthier option. I just do.) 
Last week I had a hankering for a soft pretzel and rather than scour the streets for the closest food cart, I decided to make my own. Enter...Google. 
Within seconds of a simple search for "Homemade Soft Pretzels" I had the recipe and it was underway. I've never watched Alton Brown or made any of his recipes before but this was easy and delicious. (And easy and impressive. For my readers, you know this is a favorite combination of mine.) Click here for the recipe from the FoodNetwork
I made these pretzels on a Thursday afternoon in preparation for a Saturday Halloween party. (The recipe said they could keep for up to 1 week in an airtight container.) When I finished they were picturesque. (See above!) I was so pleased with them (and myself!) and packed them away for the weekend's festivities. 
Come Saturday, they still tasted great but the salt had dissolved a bit and they looked more swollen than crisp. I would MOST DEFINITELY recommend this recipe but would urge you to serve them the day of baking them. 
So...what about you? What's your go-to snack? (And have you ever made them yourself??)


Now I know how "CRACKer" Jacks got their name.

Fall is in full-swing. Pumpkins decorate the stoops of my neighbors' homes. The doorbell is constantly chiming with the arrival of trick-or-treaters. And ladies (and men alike) are dressed a little too risque for my liking. (Seriously? A "Sexy Sanitation Engineer?" Really? Must we fish-net EVERY profession?) 
Tackling one of the most nostalgic holidays, I wanted to re-create one of the most child-like treats I know...Cracker Jacks! Luckily, my current obsession is Baked Explorations, the latest cookbook by Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito. I covet their recipes and this one is precisely one of the reasons why. 
This year I hosted a Halloween Party and wanted my spread to be filled with sweet and savory treats that reminded guests of childhood fare. Circus, carnival, comfort. With homemade soft pretzels, bat- and ghost-shaped sugar cookies and an open-bar (a candy-bar that is) this caramel corn was the addiction of the evening. One taste and you finally understood why it was called CRACKer Jacks. This stuff is addictive and sinful! (And easy and impressive. Two of my favorite things!) Enjoy!!

Caramel Popcorn with Peanuts and Chocolate - aka "Home Grown Cracker Jacks" from Baked Explorations...
1 cup unpopped kernals or 24 cups popped corn.
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into chunks
2 cups firmly packed dark brown sugar
1/2 cup light corn syrup
2 tbsp unsulfured molasses
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups peanuts (honey-roasted!)
8 oz good-quality dark chocolate, melted and tempered.

Pop popcorn any method you prefer and let them cool. (I just used Newman's Own Natural Microwave Popcorn.) Preheat the over to 25- degrees F. Place the popcorn in a large roasting pan. (I just used an oversized baking sheet. It was a bit messier but still worked!) Line a sheet pan with parchment (wax) paper. 
In a medium saucepan over low heat, start to melt the butter. Add the brown sugar, corn syrup, and molasses, and stir gently with a heatproof spatula. Continue to cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the mixture starts to boil. Clip a candy thermometer to the side of the pan and bring the syrup to the soft-ball stage, appox 240 degrees. (I use my espresso machine's thermometer!) Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the salt, the baking soda, and vanilla. Pour the caramel over the popcorn, coating as much as you can. Toss and coat. Toss and coat. Sprinkle with the peanuts. Use the spatula to fold the popcorn until it's completely coated with caramel. Toss and coat is the main action with this recipe! ;)
Place the roasting pan (or large cookie sheet) in the oven and bake for 15 minutes. Use a spatula to lift, flip, and coat the popcorn in the warm caramel, then continue baking for another 20 minutes. Cool the carmel popcorn in the pan/sheet for 5 minutes and transfer it to a lined sheet pan. (I just placed wax paper over my countertops.) Cool for appox 15 minutes and drizzle the chocolate in crisscross patterns over the top. Let the chocolate set before breaking the popcorn into serving-size pieces. Store in an airtight container for up to 1 week.