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Homemade Cracker Jack – Vernon U. Miller’s recipe

December 9, 2020

Ready to tackle making cracker jack for the end-of-year holidays still to come?

The moment we’ve all been waiting for. A few years back. My sister-in-law Barbara and her husband Richard in the background, along with my oldest daughter and husband at the sink.

We actually made it closer to New Year’s Day, because with the array of sweets that are normally available at your typical Christmas dinner, cracker jack with its cups of various sugars can provide simply too much of a tasty thing. It is truly a family project, with at least three people working together. So it doesn’t hurt to plan ahead.

My dad (and all of us) loved making cracker jack—in fact we begged him to make it—but it always turned him into a bit of a captain barking out orders that we hastened to follow. Mom recalls how frantic she became hunting for the stirring paddle, because when you only use something once a year, you don’t tend to remember where it was/is stored.

Now that my husband and I have attempted a few turns at making cracker jack ourselves, I understand the need to pay attention to things like stirring the syrup until the exact moment when it begins to be brittle and break “like glass” when you test it, and more.

This recipe is not for the faint of heart, but in our opinion, is much better than many simpler and easier recipes for cracker jack. So here is the somewhat famous “Vernon Miller’s Special” Cracker Jack as published in the North Goshen Mennonite women’s cookbook in the early 1960s. (I previously shared it on Amish Wisdom blog but not here on my own blog.)

Please read the entire recipe for instructions before you start. I have adapted Dad’s recipe somewhat and added what I hope are helpful improvements and cautions.

“Vernon Miller Special” Cracker Jack

4 gallons homemade popcorn, popped
1 16-oz. bottle white Karo syrup
1 cup sorghum molasses (not “Grandma Molasses” brand)
2 cups white sugar
1 cup brown sugar
¼ cup water
½ pound butter, or two sticks
1 pound peanuts (my husband says 2 pounds is better)

Directions: One person can start popping homemade popcorn first, enough to make about 4 gallons. Set aside keeping popcorn warm in large ovenproof container, on lowest oven setting.

In large pan or Dutch oven, combine next five ingredients (the sweets plus the water). Heat on medium, stirring constantly with large spoon. Bring to a boil and cook until ready to test in a glass measuring cup that has about a cup of ice-cold water in it. Drip a small thread of syrup into the water and try breaking the thread. You want it to break like glass and not “taffy” or stick in the teeth. Keep testing the syrup until it “breaks.” At that point, add butter to the syrup mixture, and boil again, stirring constantly, until it breaks again. (Again if it taffies, it is not ready.)

When the syrup mixture is ready, have one person quickly pour all warm popcorn and peanuts into a five-gallon stainless steel kettle on the floor (protecting floor with a clean kitchen rug or towels. The syrup and popcorn are easier to stir together if lowered). One person should pour the hot syrup mixture into the kettle (caution, the syrup can burn bare skin) into the popcorn/peanuts, and another, using a large spoon or long paddle, mix the syrup and popcorn together.

(My husband made a paddle of poplar wood which has worked well). Using potholders, another person should hold down the kettle so it stays flat on the floor while one continues the stirring-in process until all or most of the popcorn is well covered.

Paddle my husband made.

When well mixed and still warm, pour the whole mixture out onto a clean, clear table or counter to cool off. Then spread it out and begin eating! Some people put it into balls at this point, but that makes eating small parts of it harder later, (to bite into a hard popcorn ball). We always just left the cracker jack loose to pick up and enjoy a few pieces for snacks for weeks afterwards. Soak the empty kettle immediately in water so you can clean it later.

Store the remaining cracker jack in a container(s) with a tight lid.


Amish cookbook author Lovina Eicher frequently reminds folks in her syndicated newspaper column when neighbors, family, and friends pitch in to help, “many hands make light work.” Her The Essential Amish Cookbook contains one popcorn ball recipe. Her newest cookbook is below.

Or, buy some from Shirley’s Popcorn, another “Mennonite” specialty. It is tops and helps a small business! There are also 7 local locations in Ohio, Virginia, and Indiana.  


Or tell us about your favorite “must have” holiday treat!


From → Family Life, Food, Recipes

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