Baseball fans in New Hampshire are loyal to the Boston Red Sox, and students and staff in the Londonderry School District are no exception. “We’re in a sports crazy region,” says the district’s director of dining services, Amanda Venezia. In celebration of the championship team’s opening day last April, Venezia wanted to create a scratch-made snack for school lunch. Iconic Cracker Jack made the most sense, “but we couldn’t include peanuts,” she says. “There are lots of students with peanut allergies, and now sesame seeds and tree nuts are joining the banned list.”
With nuts out of the picture, and a need to use a product already in inventory, Venezia partnered with one of the district’s chefs, and together they developed a work-around. “We roasted canned garbanzo beans to replicate the crunch of peanuts,” she says. On Red Sox opening day, each of the 2,000 students in Londonderry’s five schools received snack bags of the revamped Cracker Jack on their lunch trays. The foodservice staff had to pop popcorn for two days straight to get the bags filled—an activity that Venezia is planning again this April, as the snack was a big hit with students, employees and K-12 social media forums, she says.
Canned garbanzo beans—also labeled chickpeas—are a staple in Londonderry schools. The kitchen staff drains the viscous liquid from the beans, then rinses them with cold water and allows them to dry slightly. They are then tossed lightly in olive oil, sprinkled with salt, spread in a single layer on sheet pans and roasted in a 400-degree oven for 15 minutes, stirring halfway through.
The popcorn can be popped a couple of days ahead and kept in large sealed bags or containers. Once the roasted garbanzos cool, they are tossed with the popcorn in large bowls. The ratio of popcorn to garbanzos is 1:1 in Venezia’s recipe.
For that authentic Cracker Jack flavor, the chef developed a caramel syrup, made with butter, corn syrup, brown sugar, molasses and vanilla. This mixture is cooked to 250 degrees, then tossed with the popcorn and garbanzos. The coated ingredients are baked in a 250-degree oven for 50 minutes. Venezia recommends spreading the mixture on parchment-lined or greased sheet pans and stirring several times during baking. Once cool, the Cracker Jack can be stored in airtight containers for up to three days.
Photographs: Amanda Venezia