Desserts

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The inspiration for these chocolate straws (or chocolate twists?) was a recipe from the Canal House ladies. I mentioned them a few weeks ago when they were in town for the Antiques and Garden show. I tell ya what, for ladies from New Jersey, they sure know how to make really fantastic pimento cheese. The deviled eggs were also fantastic, though their biscuits were a little more dense than I prefer.

Anyhoo, they have a recipe for cheese straws (published here on the New York Times website) that uses puff pastry instead of just flour, cheese and butter like my cheese straws. Though I very much intend to try this with cheese, I decided I wanted to make a sweet version. I just bought a jar of the Hershey’s version of Nutella (forgive me, Nutella, but I had a coupon), which I thought would be a nice little treat. And they were! These chocolate straws are delicious (and so easy!).

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I had to experiment quite a bit to get the chocolate straws just the way I wanted them, though. Different types of twists, different temperatures, lengths, and amount of chocolate, but I finally got to the perfect recipe. We preferred the ones that were a deep golden brown and very crispy to the ones that were a little lighter and softer, so adjust the directions accordingly if you prefer something not so crisp. The reason why I used one sheet and pressed it out was to ensure that it was thin enough to be as crisp as I’d like. You can take the shortcut of putting all the chocolate on a single sheet and then putting the other sheet on top of that, but you’ll have a thicker pastry that would be softer in the middle.

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Chocolate Straws (or Chocolate Twists)
yield 4-5 dozen

1 box (2 sheets) of puff pastry, thawed but chilled (I used Pepperidge Farms)
4 tablespoons chocolate spread, divided (Nutella, Hershey’s, or another brand; I used Hershey’s hazelnut)
1/3 cup turbinado or raw sugar

Pre-heat oven to 400F. Remove one sheet of puff pastry from the box and return the other sheet to the refrigerator. Unfold the pastry and then fold it in half, lengthways (opposite of how it was folded in thirds). Spread 2 tablespoons of chocolate on one half of the pastry (ensuring that it’s thinner at the edges) and fold it over so that the spread is between two layers.

Sprinkle about a quarter of the sugar out on a clean work surface and place the folded pastry on top. Sprinkle more sugar on top and roll out the pastry with a rolling pin until it is about 8 inches by 14 inches and about 1/8 inch thick. Then, using a pizza wheel or sharp knife, cut the pastry into 1/2 inch thick strips. Pick up each strip and twist from both ends 4-5 times. Transfer each twist to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper, about 1 inch apart. Bake for 10-12 minutes or until golden brown and crisp.

Remove from the oven and let cool on the parchment paper before removing so that they retain their shape. Repeat with second sheet of puff pastry dough.

Notes:
1. The twists move around on the baking sheet a bit when they’re cooking and even untwist a little. Check on them about half-way through baking to make sure they’re still on the sheet and to straighten them up.

2. I really tight twists yields a straw that’s not as crispy because the dough doesn't open up as well and puff as much. The inside is softer and a little more doughy. Try a couple with a tight twist just to see how you prefer them.

3. I baked mine for the full 12 minutes (and just a bit longer, actually since I had to take them out and straighten them) because we liked them extra crispy.

4. As you can see in the photos, I sprinkled the sugar on the work surface before unfolding the dough, but it doesn't matter when you do it because the dough is cold and doesn't stick too well until it's rolled.

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Chocolate gingerbread men? Oh, yeah. Chocolatey, gingery, tasty.

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Last year, my daughter’s pre-school class was going to decorate gingerbread men for a Christmas project. Having signed up for my part a little too late, all that was left was to provide the cookies to decorate. I don’t love making rolled cookies, but I signed up anyway, particularly when the teachers helpfully suggested buying them in a kit or at the grocery bakery.

But when I saw the kit and bakery cookies, I decided they wouldn’t do. Most cookies were too small and delicate, I thought for two- and three-year-olds to handle. So I went in search of a cookie recipe that would make a cookie that was firm but not crispy (so it wouldn’t break when handled roughly or dropped—no tears, please!) and also tasty for a younger palate. My resulting baking science/Frankenrecipe actually turned out really well. In fact, I got several nice comments from the other parents who tasted the cookies their kids brought home.

The cocoa makes the gingerbread men a little darker and there’s just enough to taste it without overpowering the classic gingerbread flavor. But I did cut back on the spices so that the kids would like them, too. If you like a stronger, spicier cookie, just double the amount of spices.

I rolled these out to just over 1/8 of an inch and they rise just a bit to end up just under a 1/4 inch thick. Note that the dough is pretty stiff and dry--that's because I wanted them to be firm but not crispy and crumbly. They’re soft and chewy, but hold their shape well. Most importantly, they’re delicious!

Chocolate Gingerbread Man Cookies
12-16 large gingerbread men

3 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
3 teaspoons powdered ginger
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 cup molasses
1/4 cup maple syrup
1 large egg

In a large bowl, mix together the flour, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

In a large bowl, beat the butter, sugars, ginger, cinnamon, allspice, and vanilla on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add the molasses, syrup, and egg and continue beating on medium speed for another 2 minutes.

Add in the dry ingredients to the mix slowly while beating on low speed until just combined.

Remove the dough, cover with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator for at least hour.

Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.

Break off about a quarter of the dough, leaving the remaining dough in the refrigerator. Lightly flour a flat work surface and roll out dough to a thickness of about 1/8 inch.

Using your cookie cutter, press out the shapes as closely together as possible and place the cookies on the prepared cookie sheets, about 1 inch apart. Return scraps to the dough in the refrigerator. Take out another quarter of the dough, and continue rolling out and cutting until all the dough has been used.

Bake cookies at 350F for about 10 minutes until slightly raised. Transfer the cookies to a wire rack to cool. Decorate as desired.

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Ah, September. I have such mixed emotions about this month, particularly since I no longer look forward to the birthday that’s at the end of the month. Now, September mostly just means that summer is over, I have to put my shorts and t-shirts away, and say goodbye to homegrown tomatoes.

However, I do get to pull out my beloved sweaters. And as tomatoes make their exit, the apples return. Good apples. Like, from Michigan. The McIntosh is my favorite. So there will be fresh apple slices, apple muffins, apple cakes, apple pies, apple dumplings and now this, the apple crisp.

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This apple crisp is a variation on the cherry crisp from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. Of course, I added a few things here and there (okay, a lot of things) to the filling but only one minor change (the oats) to the topping. Mr. Eats said this was just about the best dessert I’ve ever made. It was really good. The topping is nice and crunchy (even stays crunchy for days) and I think the oats were a particularly good addition (pecans would be good, too). Though, to be fair, I rarely make desserts. I'm planning to make this crisp again, though, but with blueberries I’ve got in the freezer. Because other than peeling and slicing the apples, this is super easy to make.

But, really, you don’t even have to use fresh apples if you don’t want to. If you need to throw something together quickly, substitute apple pie filling. But definitely add some ginger to it (fresh grated will work fine, too if that’s what you have). Skip the sugar, vanilla, and cinnamon if you use pie filling, of course.

Autumn Apple Crisp
about 8 servings

Filling:
3 pounds apples, peeled, cored and cut into 1-inch square chunks
¾ cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon lemon zest
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground ginger (more, to taste)

Crispy Crumble Topping:
1 stick (8 tablespoons butter)
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
½ teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup all-purpose or whole wheat flour
¼ cup quick oats
pinch salt

Combine all the filling ingredients together in a 9-inch square or 9 x 13-inch baking dish (or in a bowl and then transfer to the dish).

In a separate bowl, cream the butter and sugar. Stir in the remaining ingredients  until combined and crumbly.

Sprinkle the crumble topping over the apples in the baking dish and bake at 400F until golden brown (about 30 minutes). Serve warm.