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David Benthal, editorial, portrait,

Jessica Melendez’s Bourbon Caramel Pine Nut Tart. (Credit: David Benthal)

There’s something about the smell of freshly baked desserts filling the air during the holidays that invokes a Norman Rockwell type of nostalgia. The seasonal aromas and comforting bites are best enjoyed when shared. Whether you’re a professional chef or an at-home cook, the desire to create holiday desserts that wow guests is universal. 

We asked three North Fork chefs to reveal their go-to holiday dessert recipes that are easy to make at home and leave a lasting impression on guests. Save these recipes; you’ll want them for next year, too. 

Jess Morris 

North Fork Roasting Co., Southold

Jess’ Spicy Cookie Crinkles. (Credit: David Benthal)

Two weeks before Christmas is prime baking time for Morris and her Southold family. They gather in the kitchen for a marathon cookie-making extravaganza, tradition they’ve dubbed Cookie Day. 

“We will make six different kinds of cookies and triple the batch so we have just hundreds of cookies,” she said. “It is a feel-good Christmas tradition.” 

Chocolate Crinkles are Morris’ go-to holiday dessert. They are a cookie-brownie hybrid she’s been making since she was a child. The consistency is brownie-like and confectioner’s sugar rolled into the dough causes it to crinkle during baking. As an adult, Morris put her own stamp on the original by making Mexican Hot Chocolate Crinkles with just a little bit of chili spice for extra warmth.

“I am always trying to reinvent something in my own style, but especially for the holiday. I want to keep it close to my heart and not make an entirely different cookie,” she said. “Chocolate and spice go very nicely together and I’m a little spicy myself. It’s more my style for the next generation.”

Mexican Hot Chocolate Crinkles with just a little bit of chili spice for extra warmth. (Credit: David Benthal)

Jess’ Spicy Crinkles

2 cups sugar

¾ cup vegetable oil

¾ cup dark cocoa

4 eggs 

2 teaspoons vanilla paste

2 ¼ cups flour 

2 teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon red chili flakes 

Powdered sugar for rolling 

Cream the wet ingredients together in a stand mixer with the paddle attachment. Stir dry ingredients together in a separate bowl and slowly add one egg at a time. Slowly add dry ingredients to wet after adding eggs to form a dough. Roll into a ball, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for six hours. Roll into one-inch balls and drop into confectioner’s sugar. Place on sheet tray with cooking spray and cook for 10 to 12 minutes at 375 degrees.

Jessica Melendez 

1943 Pizza Bar, Greenport

Bourbon Caramel Pine Nut Tart. (Credit: David Benthal)

Pastry chef Melendez fondly remembers the Easy-Bake Oven she had growing up. A love of cooking and sharing food led the Cutchogue resident to culinary school, where she got serious about desserts. She landed her first kitchen job as pastry chef at Caci North Fork before moving to 1943 Pizza Bar, where she focuses on desserts made with farm-fresh ingredients that complement the cocktails made at sister establishment Brix & Rye. 

Her Bourbon Caramel Pine Nut Tart recipe came about through conversations with her fiancé, Jonathan Shearman, who is executive chef at 1943 Pizza Bar. The couple often sits down on Wednesday evenings to discuss the weekly specials and pairings. With all that contemplation of delicious eats, perhaps it’s not surprising that cravings arise. 

“He wanted a nut tart with lots of caramel and all these different types of nuts in it and I was like, ‘Wait, let’s make it more refined,’” Melendez said. “I like it during the holidays and the winter because it’s bourbon weather and it’s nice to incorporate that into the dessert.”

This tart was one of the first desserts she made when she started at 1943 Pizza Bar in 2015 and it’s remained a holiday go-to since. 

“I’ve really got a soft spot for it,” she said. “The caramel and the spiced bourbon and the nuttiness are perfect for the season.”

This tart was one of the first desserts she made when she started at 1943 Pizza Bar. (Credit: David Benthal)

Bourbon Caramel Pine Nut Tart

Shortbread Crust

2 sticks unsalted butter 

½ cup sugar

¼ teaspoon salt

2 eggs 

2¾ flour cups all-purpose flour

Cream the butter, sugar and salt until light and fluffy. Slowly add eggs and mix until fully incorporated. Add flour and mix until combined. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for one hour or overnight. Roll out chilled dough to a little less than a quarter-inch thick. Carefully place the rolled out dough into a 10-inch tart pan and press so the dough sits flush against all edges of the pan. Remove any excess dough. Using a fork, poke holes in the bottom of the tart shell to prevent bubbling of the crust. Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven until lightly golden. Let cool.

Bourbon Caramel Filling

1 cup sugar 

2 tablespoons honey

5 ounces bourbon 

5 ounces heavy cream

1 stick unsalted butter

1 heaping teaspoon of vanilla extract 

1¼ cup whole pine nuts 

Over low heat, cook the sugar and honey until the mixture turns into a deep amber caramel. Turn off heat and add bourbon carefully (it may flame up). Turn heat back on cook for a few minutes until the hard pieces of caramel melt into a uniform syrup, then add the cream. Once the syrup is combined and smooth, turn off heat and add butter and vanilla. Add pine nuts and carefully pour the filling into the cooled tart shell. Bake at 350 degrees for 10 minutes. Chill tart until cool and firm. Finish by sprinkling the top with a little North Fork Sea Salt.  Serve with spiced whipped cream or your favorite ice cream.

Rachel Flatley

Nick & Toni’s, East Hampton 

White Chocolate Pot de Crème. (Credit: David Benthal)

Custard is a go-to holiday dessert for pastry chef Flatley, a North Fork resident. The simple dessert is easy to make but still provides that wow-factor to impress guests. Custards, she says, are like a blank canvas. The creamy treat can incorporate a variety of toppings and flavors that can be changed seasonally. 

Flatley’s Caramelized White Chocolate Pot de Crème with Cranberry Compote is the perfect example. She developed the recipe during the summer to pair with strawberries and substituted cranberries to transform it into a holiday dessert. 

“After playing around a bit with quantities of ingredients, I came up with this recipe,” she said. “The result is a super creamy, very flavorful chocolate custard. It’s not too thick, but perfectly luscious and creamy. The warmth from the caramelized white chocolate works well with the tart and spiced cranberry compote. To me, this is a perfect winter dessert: creamy, spiced, tart and sweet.”

The creamy treat can incorporate a variety of toppings and flavors that can be changed seasonally. (Credit: David Benthal)

White Chocolate Pot de Crème

1 ¼ cups sugar 

½ teaspoon salt

36 ounces heavy cream

10 egg yolks 

4 ounces white chocolate (can be caramalized)  

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

To make the custards, combine sugar, salt and cream in a pot and stir. Bring the mixture to a boil then temper the cream mixture into the egg yolks, whisking the yolks constantly. Once the yolks and cream are combined, pour the mixture over the chocolates and let sit for a minute or two, until the chocolates start to melt. Whisk the mixture together until smooth, and then strain into a measuring cup or pitcher Pour the mixture into glass ramekins and place in a water bath — a cake pan or roasting pan will work as long as the sides of the pan are higher than the ramekins. Fill the pan with enough hot water to come halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Cover the pan with foil, poke holes in the foil and bake at 325 degrees until the custards are set at the edges but still slightly wobbly in the middle. This should take about an hour, depending on your oven. Check every 20 minutes and carefully rotate the pan to ensure even baking. Remove the ramekins from the water and let cool for 20 minutes to come to room temperature, then refrigerate them for three hours. 

*Caramelizing the chocolate is optional. 

To caramelize chocolate, chop it and spread pieces onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Place in a 250-degree oven for an hour, stirring every 10 to 15 minutes until caramelized. Once it’s a deep golden color, remove from the oven. If it’s lumpy, place in a food processor until smooth. It should resemble peanut butter. Pour into a jar and store at room temperature until ready to use.

Cranberry Compote

1 bag frozen cranberries

¾ cup granulated sugar

¾ cup prosecco, riesling, verjus or water

1 vanilla bean, scraped (optional)

1 strip of orange rind

1 ½ tablespoons fresh grated ginger 

3 cinnamon sticks

Combine all ingredients in a pot and cook on low until the cranberries begin to burst and are tender. Pour mixture into a bowl and refrigerate until ready to use.

To serve, spoon cranberry compote over the white chocolate custards.

Garnish with whipped cream, candied or toasted nuts or shaved white chocolate.