Foodie Travels: Best We Ate in 2017

Best We Ate 2017

2017 has taken us to more than half of America’s 50 states with more than 8,000 miles on the road, which means we’ve enjoyed a lengthy list of amazing #FoodieScore Travels experiences. In this second annual “Best We Ate” edition, we’ll share a few of our favorite food finds from this year. We must tell you that many of these picks were tough, and several categories were almost impossible to select! We’ve noted a few runners up where possible, and you’ll have to stick with #FoodieScore throughout the new year to learn about the rest.

BEST MEAL

Cattlemen's Steakhouse

Matthew – Cattlemen’s Steakhouse, Oklahoma City, Okla. – This 100-year-old steakhouse is commonly ranked among America’s best, and we now know why. The steaks are flavorful, juicy and come from beef in the adjacent National Stockyards. But this great meal doesn’t end with the meat. The fresh salad with a special house-made dressing, the soft and savory dinner rolls, a filling and delightfully topped baked potato, a creamy baked macaroni and cheese, and the fresh and fruity blackberry cobbler all played a role in this being the greatest meal I ate in 2017. Perhaps the greatest course of all: The check didn’t break the bank after dinner! HONORABLE MENTION: Dinner, The Dillard House, Dillard, Ga.

Tuna Tacos

Molly – Webb Custom Kitchen, Gastonia, N.C. – Every time I tried to decide on the best meal of 2017 – which was a Herculean mental effort, mind you – I couldn’t get Webb Custom Kitchen out of my head. Not least in my mind were the incredible array of options from the beginning of a meal – the Duck Cigars I picked as my favorite appetizer of the year – to the end – the multi-layer chocolate mousse cake that melted in our mouths. But first in my mind was a dish with such delicious, fresh flavor and texture that it truly made Webb Custom Kitchen rocket to the top of my list: the Raw Ahi Tuna Tacos. I’m a fish taco person anyway, but rarely eat anything that isn’t fully cooked. Yet the sound and description of these on the menu made me take a chance, and I am so glad I did. The rich tuna flavor, the firm, steak-like texture and the fresh toppings all nestled in a soft, light flour tortilla = fish taco perfection. So much so that I have wanted to get them again ever since.

BEST BURGER

Kim's Kitchen

Matthew – Kim’s Kitchen, Stanley, N.C. – I grew up eating Kim’s Kitchen cheeseburgers and even had them delivered to other cities and states in which I lived, so I was saddened in 2013 when Kim’s closed. Fast forward to April 2017. That’s when Kim’s reopened under its longtime management, and the cheeseburger I loved so much in my youth returned. You won’t find a better burger with fresher meat, meltier cheese and a softer, hearty bun than Kim’s, and I didn’t all year. HONORABLE MENTION: Smoke Stack, Montana Ale Works, Bozeman, Montana

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Molly – Breaded Burger, Snappy Lunch, Mt. Airy, N.C. – A breaded burger might sound like an odd option for best burger of the year, and we certainly did have some amazing options for this title. But something about this homemade, hometown burger just really hit the spot for me. The soft, slightly crispy breading as you take a bite of the burger is just pure Southern comfort. Kitchens across the South in America in former generations made plenty of unique burger creations during the Depression era, in order to save on and stretch the hamburger meat. The method of adding bread to it is one my great-grandmother, Banny, passed down to my mother, who passed it down to me. Banny’s method is a bit different than Snappy Lunch’s, but both result in a simply delicious burger. Maybe that’s why it made my Best Burger of 2017.

BEST SANDWICH

Snappy Lunch

Matthew – Pork Chop Sandwich, Snappy Lunch, Mt. Airy, N.C. – Being the unofficial “state sandwich” carries a lot of pressure! The famed Pork Chop Sandwich at Snappy Lunch in Mt. Airy absolutely lives up to the heralded billing. It all starts with a milky-sweet fried pork chop that’s topped with a flavor explosion of zingy chili and cool coleslaw. Just as the restaurant name says, you’ll get it snappy, and you’ll get it cheap.

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Molly – Half and Half, Shake Shop, Cherryville, N.C. – I hadn’t been to Shake Shop in years, though it is a famous institution in my hometown of Cherryville. When we went this year, which was Matthew’s first visit!, I got one of my classic picks: a half and half. The sandwich carries different names everywhere you go, but the description is simple: a long, hoagie-style bun with a cheeseburger on one side and a ham sandwich on the other. For me, you can’t get much more satisfaction than going back and forth between a melty, salty ham and cheese sandwich, to a hearty, cheese-covered burger, both topped with slaw and tomato, of course. And Shake Shop does both sides right.

BEST APPETIZER

Garage on Beck

Matthew – Mormon Funeral Potatoes, Garage on Beck, Salt Lake City, Utah – Outside of Utah, you won’t find many Mormon Funeral Potatoes, so you have to make such an experience count. Garage on Beck’s dish is like a crispy jalapeno hash brown hushpuppy. They’re so expansive you could make them your meal. Accent on COULD. Don’t miss everything else Garage on Beck has to offer, including the funky ambiance that’s part biker bar and part outdoor brunch.

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Molly – Duck Cigars, Webb Custom Kitchen, Gastonia, N.C. – What a delightful, egg-roll experience Webb Custom Kitchen’s Duck Cigars are. Not only are they perfectly fried in a crispy spring roll shell and perfectly filled with a surprisingly delicious duck confit, they are accompanied by three impeccable sauces, including a house-made soy sauce. Try them all, repeatedly, and you won’t regret it!

BEST SWEET TREAT

Lulu's

Matthew – Cinnamon Roll, Lulu’s Bakery & Cafe, San Antonio, Texas – This cinnamon roll is 3 pounds. Do I need to tell you more? If so, it’s made of fresh-baked bread, delicious cinnamon spices and a rich icing that remarkably stay fresh for almost a week. We know because we ate a few bites with our meal and then took the rest on the road. After enjoying bites in San Antonio, Dallas and Oklahoma City, I think we finished it all somewhere near Little Rock, Ark. It was delicious to the last ounce. HONORABLE MENTION: Pie Flight, Baked Pie Company, Asheville, North Carolina

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Molly – Reese’s Donut, Wake N Bake Donuts, Wilmington, N.C. – Luck was with us in Wilmington as we strolled down a quiet street, just happening to pass a donut shop we hadn’t previously heard of. This is highly unusual for us well-researched foodies, but Wake N Bake was a highly unusual, phenomenal find. The donuts in the window lured us in and let me just say, we were glad to be caught by this donut shop! My favorite was the Reese’s donut, with a creamy, whipped peanut butter filling, chocolate icing, and a Reese’s cup on top. (Top left in the photo above.) There was no wrong way to eat this Reese’s. HONORABLE MENTION: Key Lime Cheesecake, Mayworth Public House, Cramerton, North Carolina 

BEST BREAKFAST

HenDough

Matthew – HenDough, Hendersonville, N.C. – Get it all, and savor every bite! But certainly don’t miss the fried chicken biscuit, the biscuit with cheese and local bacon and eggs, the doughnuts, the smoked gouda macaroni and cheese, the sweet potato salad, or the locally made Dynamite Roasting coffee. HenDough also gets points for atmosphere, with its seating inside and outside of a house converted into a restaurant. HONORABLE MENTION: Breakfast Menu, Causeway Cafe, Wilmington, N.C.

BLET

Molly – BLET (Bacon, Lettuce, Egg & Tomato), Brunch, Peace-N-Hominy Q Shack, Belmont, N.C. – What a Southern combination Peace-N-Hominy has put together in this BLET! The bacon is thick and crispy; the tomato is fresh and the lettuce has that fresh crunch; the egg is fried (or cooked any way you want it) to perfection; the bread is so buttery-toasted; and the cheese is – this is where the OMG comes in – pimento cheese. This sandwich is everything you need and nothing more. HONORABLE MENTION: Bacon, Egg and Cheese Biscuit, Hamrick’s Country Store & Grill, Cleveland County, North Carolina

BEST SOUL FOOD

Shirley Mae's

Matthew – Shirley Mae’s Cafe, Louisville, Ky. – You’re family when you eat at Shirley Mae’s, even on your first visit. Isn’t that the definition of soul food? This place serves up the best pinto beans Molly has ever eaten. The fried chicken wings are meaty and crispy. The macaroni and cheese is creamy and filling. And don’t get me started on the hot-water cornbread wrapped and kept warm by a foil blanket in its own little cup. You’ll wish Shirley Mae’s was in your town, and you’re in luck, if you live in Louisville.

Molly – Shirley Mae’s Cafe, Louisville, Ky. – The best soul food places serve Kool-Aid. Shirley Mae’s is one of the best, and I got grape. How good and how pleasant it is for food to be accompanied by Kool-Aid! Not only that, Shirley Mae’s gave me one of my favorite food items period on our 6,000+ mile road trip this summer: the pinto beans. Flavored with real pork, these pintos were the star of my meal, which also included delicious fried tilapia. Don’t miss this place if you ever go through Louisville!

BEST MEXICAN FOOD

Chico's Tacos

Matthew – Chico’s Tacos, El Paso, Texas – We enjoy an array of Mexican food each year. It’s one of our favorite cuisines, so you’d think this would be a difficult choice. It’s not. Chico’s was by far the most authentic Mexican food experience I’ve ever had, not because of the type of food but because of the delivery and the clientele. Sitting just a couple of miles from the Mexico border, Chico’s serves up a boat of rolled-corn, beef-filled, taquito-style tacos that you won’t find at any other taco shop. They’re cheap, so eat up! HONORABLE MENTION: Lunch Buffet, El Pinto, Albuquerque, New Mexico

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Molly – Puffy Tacos, Ray’s Drive Inn, San Antonio, Texas – Ray’s Drive Inn’s Puffy Tacos are the stuff of legend – literally, they are credited with inventing the “Puffy Taco.” What is it? A soft, puffy (because the word just fits), fluffy, thick taco filled with the absolute freshest ingredients – lettuce, tomato, and any meat you want, including fish, beef, carne guisada, or chicken, just to name a few. To give you a good idea of what they’re like, here’s an analogy: these Puffy Tacos are to Taco Bell chalupas as a rack of Memphis’ restaurant Charlie Rendezvous’ Ribs are to a McDonald’s McRib. It’s the original, high-end, mouthwatering version that you’ve got to have, even if you can’t have it all the time. (Although, if we lived in San Antonio, I would!)

BEST ITALIAN FOOD

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Matthew – Cristina Pizza, Moon Pie Pizza, Pasta & Bakery, Dillard, Ga. – We don’t eat pizza out very often, so when we do it’s a testament to how promising a pizzeria’s menu looks. Similarly, there are few pizza shops we reference in our household as memorable, because we hold a great pizza in high regard more than just something to be scarfed down like a Ninja Turtle would. (To be inclusive and to show you we’re not crazy here, we hold great pasta and stromboli in high regard as well, so Italian isn’t just pizza to us, but it’s a big part of the Southern food experience when it comes to Italian cuisine. Molly actually worked as a server at an Italian restaurant in Cherryville, N.C., for a while, and pizza wasn’t close to her favorite menu item there.) So it means something big to us when we enjoy a pizza enough to include it in this list. Moon Pie’s pizza dough was soft yet crackly from the oven, the cheese was ooey gooey perfect, and the prosciutto, spinach, mushrooms and truffle oil on top were both fresh and completely complementary. Delizioso!

we have the meats

Molly – Meat Lover Pizza, Portofino, Gastonia, N.C. – Portofino’s has been a favorite Italian spot of mine for years, less due to its proximity in nearby Gastonia, and more due to the satisfaction its rich, authentic dishes bring during every meal there. I have never been disappointed at Portofino’s and their pizza is truly to die for, hearty and full-flavored. This year, we got, for the first time, the Meat Lover Pizza. Matthew doesn’t typically love all-meat pizzas, but with the inclusion of Italian meatballs, he was all for it. If you’re near Gastonia and in need of a pizza, skip all the national chain spots and go straight here. I know you won’t be disappointed either!

BEST BARBECUE

Arthur Bryant's

Matthew – Burnt Ends, Arthur Bryant’s BBQ, Kansas City, Mo. – I’ve eaten a lot of barbecue throughout the Southern United States (and I ate more great barbecue in 2017 than any year ever before), but I’ve never had barbecue like this, quite literally. Kansas City is known for its burnt ends the way Texas is known for its brisket and the Carolinas are known for pulled pork. Arthur Bryant’s offered a delicious first experience with burnt ends, which were almost like a combination rib-brisket bite, covered in a barbecue sauce that was more tomatoey than I’ve ever had. And my plate of burnt ends came with pieces of plain white sandwich bread (just the way I like getting my barbecue) and a load of hand-cut fries. It was a true #FoodieScore! HONORABLE MENTION: Pulled Pork Plate, Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ, Charleston, South Carolina

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Molly – BBQ Chicken with White Sauce, Saw’s BBQ, Birmingham, Ala. – Oh, white barbecue sauce, how I love you! Could any barbecue sauce be more perfect than one with a mayonnaise base? My answer to that is now a definitive no. There are many sauces in the world, but Saw’s BBQ’s white sauce is the quintessential, unique sauce for me, and it goes perfectly on a roast chicken sandwich with a pickle, which is how I first tried it at Saw’s in Alabama. If you’ve never heard of it, or simply haven’t tried it, maybe this year is your time to be adventurous! If you can’t make it to Alabama, you can order white sauce in a bottle, as I did this year for Matthew, so we could include it on our own dishes at home. I can’t wait!

Why Christmas Always Reminds me of Blueberry Pancakes

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This Christmas foodie adventure started in the back of a Jeep Grand Cherokee. Once all the wrapped and tightly taped gift boxes and bags were inside the car, I climbed in the back seat behind grandpa Lee and grandma Vember, and away we went. It was early one Christmas Eve morning in the 1990s.

My grandparents lived in the small textile mill community of Caroleen in Rutherford County, North Carolina. Some years I’d stay with them for a few days during my Christmas break from school, and this year I’d spent a short time with them prior to the holiday. Every year on Christmas Eve we’d gather with my mom and dad at our house in the Gaston County community of Alexis for dinner, gifts, goodies and time together. Grandpa was also known to go shopping for gifts on Christmas Eve itself—he was calm, cool and collected enough to do such a thing—and I accompanied him at least a couple times. Grandma and grandpa would spend the night in my room, which meant I slept in our third bedroom on a different side of the house. The change of venue for that one night each year always produced a magical quality for me.

But this isn’t a story about the usual Christmas experiences of my youth. Rather, it’s the memory of one exceptional year when our Christmas Eve journey from grandma and grandpa’s house had a special stop on the way to mom and dad’s.

I always remember my grandma as one who enjoyed eating breakfast in restaurants. She didn’t eat eggs, grits, bacon and toast at home when she helped make it for grandpa and me. But get her in a restaurant and it was a different story. So it’s no surprise that we stopped for breakfast at The Pancake House in Shelby, North Carolina—coincidentally less than a mile from where my wife and I now live—on the way to mom and dad’s this particular Christmas Eve.

What honestly is a mystery is why I ordered a massive stack of Pancake House blueberry pancakes that day. I was known for, as the Southerners say, “having eyes bigger than my belly.” I often tried to eat more food than I could actually hold as a child. (I’m so sorry, Mom!) And it won’t surprise my close friends to read that I’d order blueberries. If anything, I’m over-known for my love of blueberries. Yet, I’ve always been one to prefer my pancakes with only butter and hot, hot syrup, which The Pancake House serves quite well!

So, the blueberry pancakes arrive, and I remember grandpa, grandma and me gawking and fawning at how they were hanging off the plate in front of me. I ate pancakes, and I ate pancakes. Then I ate some more pancakes. (If you’re familiar with the movie or book “Matilda,” perhaps imagine a situation figuratively similar to Bruce Bogtrotter eating the massive chocolate cake, but far less repulsive!) The blueberry pancakes were incredibly delicious. Grandpa finished his breakfast—what it was, I don’t remember exactly—and then he took bites of my remaining pancakes.

We couldn’t finish them.

We tried anyways, and a sizeable portion remained.

We were stuffed, and my mom is known for her Christmas goodies, so I don’t think we took them with us. I may be wrong, but I don’t think we took leftovers, which would in no way happen now. I’ve developed firm beliefs in not wasting any food if at all possible.

For years, we talked about the size of those pancakes and how grandpa and I couldn’t finish them together. It became food legend in our family, and I don’t think it will ever leave any of us.

My grandpa and grandma Quinn have passed on now. Grandpa died in 2013, and grandma passed away this year (October 2017). But they’ve supplied me with an estate of so many fond memories, including treating me to those blueberry pancakes.

On one recent morning, I had a hankering for blueberry pancakes. Maybe it was something grandpa and grandma put into my head from Heaven. So I got up and went for an extra long walk in my neighborhood to prepare myself, took a shower, got dressed and drove a mile up the road to The Pancake House. I sat down in a booth by myself, imagined grandma and grandpa side by side across from me, and I ordered a plate of two blueberry pancakes, a side of sausage links and coffee when the server arrived at my table.

For a half hour, I sat there slowly indulging in the pancakes and the memory of my childhood visit to the very same restaurant. This time, the pancakes didn’t seem quite as large, but then again I’ve grown much larger myself in the years since that adventurous day years ago. And somehow I remember the blueberries being cooked into the pancakes before, while these pancakes had a tasty blueberry compote on top. But with all of the differences between the memory of the past and the reality of the present, I still know grandpa and grandma were enjoying the Christmastime breakfast with me.

Mrs. Vickie’s Simply Divine Cherry Cobbler

Divine Cherry Cobbler

Each December, my financial advisor hosts a Christmas open house at his church in Denver, North Carolina. We always look forward to having a chance to see him and his staff and to enjoy the barbecue and fixings he graciously serves his clients. We also anticipate a DIVINE cherry cobbler that’s always present on the dessert end of the food table. For years now, our family has swooned over this cherry dessert and how melt-in-your-mouth delicious it is when a new batch arrives all hot and fresh. The cherries are juicy, slightly tart and perfectly sweet, and the top is so buttery and crumbly!

Well, this year, I decided I finally had to ask my advisor Patrick who makes the cherry dessert we love so much. He referred me to the serving staff, and when I asked them I learned Patrick’s mother, Vickie, is the baker responsible for the delicious dish.

After enjoying a brief visit and tasty lunch, I sought out Vickie to see if I could obtain the recipe. She first told me the dessert contains “a little of this and a little of that.” After a few smiles and laughs, she proceeded to dish on the contents of our beloved cherry concoction. I couldn’t wait to share it with you and make it at home. Here it is!

Mrs. Vickie’s Simply Divine Cherry Cobbler

Ingredients

2 cans cherry pie filling

1 small can crushed pineapple

1 box yellow cake mix

2 sticks butter

Steps

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Mix your pie filling and pineapple and add to a 13×9 oven-safe pan.
  3. Spread your yellow cake mix atop filling mixture.
  4. Top with the butter, spreading pats evenly across top.
  5. Bake until cake topping is “done.” We baked ours about 45 minutes to get a nice bubbling filling and a slightly buttery-brown topping.
  6. *Mrs. Vickie recommends adding pecans or another preferred nut to the topping, but that step is optional and can be avoided in case of nut allergies.

Foodie Travels: Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ, Charleston, S.C.

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When we travel, we like to maximize our foodie opportunities to visit great local restaurants. You won’t find us eating at a chain establishment in a faraway city. But you might find us driving slightly out of the way to test out a restaurant we’ve seen or heard great things about.

On a recent trip to Charleston, one of the greatest and most diverse foodie cities in the Southeast and all of America, I faced a major dining dilemma. For months, I’ve been hearing about a place called Scott’s BBQ in the small community of Hemingway, South Carolina, a 90-minute drive from Charleston and way off the beaten path on my journey from and back to Charlotte, North Carolina. Scott’s, I’m told, is one of the best places anywhere to eat whole-hog, pulled-pork barbecue because of the emphasis on quality wood and slow smoking. But how could I sensibly add three hours to my trip for one meal, even if meant sampling some of the best barbecue out there?

A little restaurant research solved my quandary. (I recommend you always thoroughly research restaurants and cities before making your dining plans. Spontaneity can lead to great foodie adventures, but I’ve seen many Yelp and Trip Advisor complaints that could’ve been avoided with a little planning and scouting.)

Apparently the people of Charleston also wanted to enjoy Scott’s BBQ, enough that Rodney Scott has opened a location on Upper King Street to sell his delicious barbecued meats and sides. So, I got to go to Charleston and have my barbecue, too. And what an amazing barbecue experience it is!

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Scott sells ribs and chicken in his Charleston spot, too, but I had to try out his renowned whole hog pulled pork because that’s what I’ve heard so much about. (When we say whole hog, we mean the whole hog is cooked slowly for about 12 hours in the barbecue pit.) I’m proud to say I watched a Southern Foodways Alliance feature on Scott that reveals he shares my belief in the power of perfectly cooked meat that doesn’t need to drown in sauce. He offers his own spicy, thin barbecue sauce, but his meat is so masterfully and flavorfully smoked that you don’t even need it.

What you do need is to get a pork plate with sides of cornbread and macaroni and cheese. The moist cornbread appears to be brushed on the top with honey and comes with a cup of fresh cream butter. The mac and cheese is hot, gooey and oh, so creamy, too.

If you get cornbread on the plate, you will have double bread, as two slices of white sandwich bread come with the pork as well. I always love that style of service, as it’s what I’m familiar with from eating barbecue in Alabama and Kansas City, too. You can make a sandwich with some of your pork and your bread, and you might consider your sweet cornbread a dessert of sorts. That’s what I did.

Rodney Scott’s BBQ is like an alternate double world within Charleston, a city known so much for its culinary prowess, particularly food with lowcountry flair. Scott’s serves pork that I imagine mirrors the product in his hole-in-the-wall old joint up in Hemingway, but it comes in new-age digs that I found to be neat, tidy and without unnecessary frills. From door to counter to table, the service was incredibly friendly, too.

I’m sure glad I did my research before traveling through Charleston. If I hadn’t, I would’ve missed this prize in a city full of great food. For the barbecue lover, Rodney Scott’s is, as advertised, the must-visit BBQ spot in all of South Carolina, whether you’re in Charleston or can make it to Hemingway for the original.

Rodney Scott’s Whole Hog BBQ, 1011 King Street, Charleston, S.C.

Simple Scratch-made Chocolate Crackle Cookies

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A great cookie is all about texture. Whether it’s the crunch of chocolate chips, the crackle of sugar or just the soft gooiness of the center, the texture makes and breaks (in a good way) any cookie we eat. And it’s that texture I’ve always loved about these Chocolate Crackle Cookies.

I also love that all of the ingredients for this cookie recipe are always in our pantry and fridge, and they’re likely in yours, too, which means no need to run to the store! On a recent Saturday afternoon, I scoured a few cookie sites for popular recipes, came up with this combination, and walked right into the kitchen and started mixing and baking. The result was about 30 chewy morsels of sweet, chocolatey goodness that we enjoyed throughout the following week.

One of our #FoodieScore Facebook friends even suggested adding a little green food coloring to the recipe around the holidays to create Grinch cookies. Great idea! That’s what we love about cooking: You can always take a recipe and adapt it however you want.

It won’t take you long to mix the dough and watch these cookies bake and crackle on top, so we hope you enjoy the rest of the time you spend on the best part of the homemade cookie process: Eating!

Ingredients

1/2 cup powdered sugar

1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup butter

1 1/4 cups granulated sugar

2 large eggs

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Grease baking sheet(s)
  3. Add powdered sugar to bowl and set aside.
  4. In a separate bowl, stir together flour, cocoa, baking powder and salt.
  5. In an electric mixer bowl, beat butter, granulated sugar and vanilla on medium speed for about 3 minutes, until creamy. Scrape down the sides of the bowl.
  6. Add one egg to the mixer bowl and mix until blended. Then add the second egg.
  7. Add the dry flour-cocoa mixture and mix on low speed until blended.
  8. Once all ingredients are blended, rest cookie dough in freezer for about 10 minutes. This will help cookies be less sticky when you form them for baking, which is important because you have to ball them up and roll them in the powdered sugar.
  9. After dough is cooled, use a spoon to scoop dough and roll into spoonful-size balls using your hands.
  10. Roll each ball in the powdered sugar in your bowl until each is covered well.
  11. Place the balls on the prepared baking sheet(s), about 2 inches apart, and bake cookies for 10 to 12 minutes, until crackled and puffed.
  12. Let cool on a rack and then enjoy!