Cracker Jacks and The Devil in the White City

It’s been a while! I’ve made some lovely pecan pies and ghost meringues and I’ve snuck in  some excellent books, but I haven’t had any time to write about them (yet). One particularly fun book I stumbled across is The Devil in the White City, the story of the 1893 Chicago world’s fair and a veritable jackpot of trivia. Ever wondered why PBR is called PBR? Originally Pabst Select, the beer won its much-touted blue ribbon at the fair. Isn’t that satisfying to know? I’ve spent years thinking it was just a marketing ploy, but turns out it’s legit. Cracker Jacks also debuted at the fair, along with Shredded Wheat and fake ostrich-egg omelets. It wasn’t hard to decide which to make.

Cracker Jacks

1 cup popcorn kernels

3 tablespoons canola oil
6 tablespoons butter
1 1/4 cups light brown sugar
1/3 cup corn syrup
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2–1 cup light salted peanuts (or mix it up and use another nut, like almond slivers)

Grease two large baking sheets and preheat the oven to 250 degrees.

Next, heat three tablespoons of oil at medium to medium-high heat in a large sauce pan with a lid. Add three kernels to the oil. When all three have popped, the oil is hot enough. Fish them out and pour in the rest of the kernels.

Cover the pot and shake it to coat the kernels evenly. Shake the pot every minute or two during the popping to prevent burning. When the pops have died down to one every two or three seconds, dump the popcorn into a large bowl, mix in the nuts, and set aside.

Whisk together the brown sugar, corn syrup, butter, and salt over medium heat. Bring to a simmer and stir constantly for 5 minutes.

Remove from heat, quickly whisk in the vanilla and baking soda, and pour the caramel over the popcorn and nuts. Gently fold in the popcorn until it is coated evenly, then spread the mixture onto the baking sheets as flat as possible. This can be a messy and sticky process. There was one moment when I thought the syrup mixture was too hard, the baking soda was too bubbly, and the popcorn was too unevenly coated–persevere. The secret is that you can’t really mess it up. Just mix it all up the best you can, stick it in the oven, wash your hands, and get ready. It’s going to be amazing.

Bake for 1 hour, stirring every 15 minutes. Let cool for about twenty minutes, break up the popcorn, and serve.

N.b., this fairly easy recipe produces a highly addictive, mouth-wateringly delicious snack. Just so you know what you’re getting into. Bring it to a casual holiday party or make it for a game nigh—anything to avoid being alone with a giant bowl of fresh, crunchy, salty, sugary cracker jacks. You know that’s dangerous.

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson (447 pages) ♥♥♥♥

“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.” –Daniel H. Burnham

The Plot. A compelling, non-fiction account of the 1893 World’s Colombian Exposition (also know as the Chicago world’s fair) told through the stories of two very different men: Daniel Burnham, the exposition’s leading architect and director of works, and H.H. Holmes, America’s first serial killer.

Why you should read it. Larson creates a harsh but warm and vital portrait of Chicago at the turn of the 19th century, just as the wild west is fading into folklore and America is beginning to compete with Europe in terms of culture and art. His story infuses a serious and well-cited history of the fair with a double biography that is infinitely readable and engaging. While Burnham, the managing architect of the fair, struggles against time, unfavorable conditions, economic recessions, and countless other trials to create one of the most remarkable expositions of all time, Holmes outwits the city—inquisitive neighbors, jealous husbands, and an incompetent and poorly staffed police force—as he designs and erects his masterpiece, a hotel now known as Murder Castle (one of Time‘s top ten evil lairs of all time), and proceeds to calmly seduce, murder, and dispose of his unfortunate guests. Sounds fun, right?

This book is also a goldmine of fun (if useless) knowledge. Impress dates and bore friends with awesome tidbits, such as the fact that the Ferris wheel debuted at the Colombian Exposition and could carry more than 2,000 people per ride. Oh, and that the famous snake-charmer song was written by an American entrepreneur to accompany his belly dancers when no other music seemed appropriate.

I did wish that Larson had been able to connect the plots a little better. The transition back and forth was sometimes jarring, but it was more than worth it.

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