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Make these family-friendly pepper poppers

In my culinary repertoire, there is a special category of dishes that I have made throughout my life that have evolved from everyday to extraordinary. They’re not necessarily the fanciest or most involved. Usually they are staples that have been refined through the ages and stages of my life in the kitchen.

Jalapeño poppers are one of these special recipes. For many years my father, a career Army officer, taught Spanish and Latin American studies at West Point. He studied in Spain and Mexico and loved Latino culture, especially the food. No matter where we moved—from Kansas to Maryland, New York to Panama and Bolivia—we were always on the hunt for our best-loved foods and the varied interpretations from city to city.

Jalapeño poppers were my Pop’s favorite; he liked his deep fried and screaming hot, which was my first introduction to them. I loved the fiery, crispy kick of these cheesy bites of stuffed, peppery goodness, but as my life changed, so did my popper preparation.

Since my family shied away from the intense heat that traditional jalapeño poppers proffered, I made it my mission to re-imagine the traditional recipe.

The first issue was the often-overpowering heat of classic jalapeño poppers, conveyed not only in the pepper, but also in the cheese and added spices. I needed a milder version for my young family, so I started by substituting sweet baby bell peppers in place of the hot jalapeños. Then I switched out the traditional pepper jack cheese with a milder Monterey Jack. Finally, it was out with the cayenne pepper and in with a mellower smoky paprika. The classic jalapeño popper had morphed into our new family favorite—the pepper popper!

My next mission was to make a few healthier changes in ingredients and preparation. I switched from regular cream cheese to Neufchâtel, cream cheese’s lighter cousin. Unlike cream cheese, which is made with rich cream and milk, Neufchâtel is made only with whole milk—so it still has real, wholesome ingredients, but a third less fat. I also discovered that baking the poppers yielded the balance of a creamy middle paired with a crispy, crunchy topping that was every bit as satisfying as the deep-fried version my Pop loved so much.

Pepper poppers have become a staple at my house for everything from movie night snacking to pass-around party food. They’re easy to prepare and a huge hit, no matter when you serve them.

⇓ PEPPER POPPERS

Photo by Candace Karu

INGREDIENTS
12 multi-colored baby bell peppers, seeds removed, cut in half
8 ounces Neufchâtel cheese
1/4 cup shredded sharp cheddar
1/2 cup Monterey Jack cheese, (hotter: pepper jack, hottest: habanero cheddar)
1/2  teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon onion powder
1/4 teaspoon smoky paprika
1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup panko breadcrumbs

INSTRUCTIONS

Preheat oven to 325°. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside.

Mix Neufchâtel cheese, cheddar cheese, Monterey Jack cheese, garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, Worcestershire, salt and pepper.

Spoon filling into each pepper cavity. Place three or four tablespoons of panko crumbs on a flat surface. Turn the stuffed peppers cheese side down and press them into the panko crumbs, covering the cheese mixture.

Place peppers on baking sheet, panko-covered cheese side up.

Bake until filling is melted and panko crumbs are golden, 15–20 minutes. If panko isn’t toasty brown, put the poppers under the broiler for 3–5 minutes, taking care not to burn the topping.

Remove from oven and serve immediately.

PEPPER POPPER PRO TIPS

Make sure your peppers sit flat on the parchment lined cookie sheet. If necessary, cut the bottom of the pepper so it doesn’t roll.

Don’t overstuff the peppers. The cheese will ooze out of the pepper when it cooks if there is too much filling.

The beauty of pepper poppers is that you can adjust the heat for your audience. If you’re cooking for a crowd, you can double or triple the recipe and make several versions of the poppers. I color code mine. I stuff yellow peppers with the mild version (Monterey Jack and paprika), orange peppers get a slightly hotter version (pepper jack and chipotle pepper powder) and red peppers get the “only the brave” version (habanero cheddar and cayenne pepper).

Candace Karu makes her living writing about food, fitness and travel. She lives near the ocean in an old farmhouse with two ill-behaved dogs and two hard-working barn cats. Follow her on Instagram: @candacekaru or at candacekaru.com.

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