Saturday, December 19, 2015

Enjoying a Sweet Visit to Ohio’s Amish Country

My dozen of cookies, safe and uneaten back home Photo Crdit: Bill Rockwell

Darn you Lawrenceville. You got me started.
Last December, just as I vowed to limit my intake of sweet treats during the holiday season, I was tempted to take the cookie tour of one of Pittsburgh’s trendy neighborhoods. Not only did the Lawrenceville tour introduce me to some awesome restaurants and boutiques, the Roundabout Brewery, the Arsenal Cidery and one of the most fascinating antique bowling alleys in the country, it also got my sweet tooth stimulated in a big way with a complimentary cookie - in all sort of shapes, sizes, textures and deliciousness, at each stop.
This November, a post card announcing the 8th Annual Christmas Cookie Tour of Inns in Ohio’s Amish Country got those visions of sugar plums dancing in my head. I’d been meaning to take the tour since its inception, but never got around to it. Diet be damned - I was going to go and cross off another entry on my bucket list.
About a two and a half hour drive from my home in Southwestern Pennsylvania, Holmes County is located between Cleveland and Marietta just west of I-77 and boasts the largest percentage of Amish residents of any county in the U.S. The current count is 42 percent, and farming, an Amish specialty, is an important part of the economy - along with tourism.
This year’s cookie tour took me to 12 inns and hotels which hosted the event and supplied the cookies, wrapped in clear plastic baggies and sealed with a label that identified each cookie and its lodging site.
Loretta Coblentz, co-organizer from its inception and owner of the Barn Inn, said it takes her about 25 minutes to drive from her boutique hotel located at the western end of the tour near Millerburg to Sugar Creek, the tour’s eastern terminus. But that’s a direct route that doesn’t have you veering off the main road to get to the participating properties.

A trio of local girls Photo Credit: Bill Rockwell

While the tour is offered over a two day weekend, I did manage to visit each inn by getting an early start and finishing just at closing time around 6 p.m. This year, the tour was offered from noon to 6 p.m. on both Saturday and Sunday, December 12 and 13.
With the cookie tour booklet and my GPS on hand, I managed to find each property with minimal effort and enjoyed the bucolic countryside of gently rolling hills along the way, being careful to watch out for Amish bicyclists and horse and buggy riders who share the roads with motorized vehicles.
Each site along the way was decked out for the holidays and displayed some of the rooms available for overnight guests. Most had additional edible treats like the cheese and punch at the Guggisberg Swiss Inn. The punch, by the way, a mix of Sprite, Blue Hawaiian Punch and pineapple juice, was one of the best non-alcoholic versions I ever tasted.
Each of the inns also hosted at least one local vendor such as Amish Country Essentials whose owner demonstrated at the Victorian Suite in Berlin how to make all natural bath bombs, and the Wendel August Forge, showing an array of textured copper art at the Carlisle Country Inn.
String Quartet at the barn Inn Photo Credit: Bill Rockwell

 Some even had live entertainment like the keyboard musician at the Guggisberg Swiss Inn and the lovely string quartet playing Christmas music in the parlor of the Barn Inn.
But let’s face it, I was there for the cookies, well mostly, which I carefully collected for later consumption.
"Our cookies vary every year," informed Coblentz. "The hosts submit their recipes to our review committee for approval, and each recipe is unique. Initially, we used to make the cookies ourselves I still do, but, with so many wonderful bakeries in the area, the site operators have them make them instead."
And what a tasty array it proved. Carrot cake sandwich cookies, cranberry bliss cookies, melting snowmen cookies, maple oatmeal scones, chocolate peppermint dreams - 12 tasty treats in all. Fortunately, the cookie booklet includes recipes for each one for those who’d like to duplicate them at home.
Although some of the inns participate in the tour year to year, some are also newbies. This year’s newcomers included the Stone Cottage Inn in the charming hamlet of Winesburg and the Miller Manor, once the home of a local entrepreneur, now turned into a rental property that can sleep 20 or also serve as a conference or reunion center.
View of the Stone Cottage  Inn from the Loft Photo Credit: Bill Rockwell

Built in 1834, the Stone Cottage Inn boasts stone walls, wood beam ceilings and a charming loft that overlooks the ground floor.  The entire inn can be rented out for the night or longer and sleeps up to eight.
Wanting a restful start to my own cookie tour, I spent the preceding evening at the Wallhouse Hotel in Walnut Creek. Relatively new to the area, this stylish, modern hotel has 62 rooms with a colorful, crisp decor, an indoor pool, whirlpool and fully equipped fitness room, which I made good use of during my stay. The complimentary breakfast proved above average and is served in its attractive breakfast area. The fact that the inn was also on this year’s cookie tour gave me a jump start on the day.
Breakfast area of the Wallhouse Hotel Photo Credi:t Bill Rockwell

Wanting a place to have dinner the evening of my arrival, I perused the Internet and discovered the Chalet in the Valley in Millersburg, famous for its schnitzel, which comes in six different preparations, including Wiener and Jaeger. On arrival, our waitress, dressed as a Swiss maiden, tempted me with the special drink of the evening - an eggnog hot chocolate. I succumbed like a sailor entranced by Charybdis.
Our Waitress at the Chalet in the Valley

The Chalet is owned by the Guggisberg Cheese Factory across the road, so its no wonder the restaurant also features fondue, a melted pot of cheeses and wine served with your choice of dipping morsels like chicken, bratwurst, pretzel chips, knockwurst or broccoli. I was also glad to see rosti on the menu, a Swiss shredded potato classic I hadn’t had since a visit to Geneva years ago.
Another good place to dine that was adjacent to the Carlisle Country Inn in Berlin, a stop on the cookie tour, is the Berlin Farmstead Restaurant, a popular eatery featuring Amish meat-and-potato meals that start with a humongous salad bar and finish with made-from-scratch desserts like date nut pudding. The Miller family, whose manor house dominates a nearby hilltop and was on the cookie tour, started Dutchman Hospitality Group, a melange of restaurants, including the Berlin Farmstead, inns, shops, even a theater that stages musicals, many with an Amish theme.
After arriving back home with my trove of 12 uneaten cookies, I decided to be prudent and froze my collection with the vow of allowing myself one per day to go along with my morning coffee. To date, my favorite has been the Orange Poppy seed Ricotta cookie, offered by the Wallhouse Hotel, although I still have six remaining cookies to go. I’ve included the recipe below.
Loretta Coblenz, owner of the Barn Inn, and Phil Jenkins, former owner of the Inn at Honey Run, got together one day eight years ago and put their heads together to come up with some sort of tour that could be held during the off-season. The cookie tour was the result of their brainstorming session.
The fist year, organizers sold 175 tickets, with all the proceeds donated to a local charity. Since 2008, the Christmas Cookie Tour has donated over $91,000 to local deserving charities including LifeCare Hospice.
Date Nut Pudding at the Chalet in the Valley

The 2015 tour brought in 1,250 ticket holders over the two days event, which should bolster the tour’s scholarship endowment established to support Holmes County students going on to college to study business and the hospitality industry.
In short, the cookie tour is a sweet way to support a great cause, explore some scenic countryside, see some interesting hostelries and sample some novel and creative sugary treats. Oh, and did I mention fun?
The 2016 Christmas Cookie Tour is scheduled for December 10 and 11. Tickets are $35 and must be reserved in advance. Phone 330-674-3975 or visit website
Orange Poppy Seed Ricotta Cookie Recipe
2-1.2 c. flour
1 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. Salt
½ tsp. ground cardamom
2 Tbls. pppyseeds
1-1/2 c. sugar
zest from 2 oranges
½ c. unsalted butter, room temperature
2 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1 Tbls. Freshly squeezed orange juice
15 oz. whole milk ricotta cheese

Preheat oven to 350°. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper and set aside. In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking powder, salt, cardamom and poppy seeds. Stir with a whisk to blend.
In a large bowl, combine sugar and orange zest. Mix with your fingertips until sugar is moistened and fragrant. Add butter and beat until light and fluffy. Add the eggs until incorporated. Beat in the vanilla, orange juice, and ricotta cheese. Slowly add in dry ingredients and mix until incorporated. The dough will be moist and a bit sticky.
Spoon about 2 tablespoons of dough for each cookie onto a baking sheet. Bake for 16 to 18 minutes until slightly golden at the edges. Remove from the oven and let rest on the baking sheet for five minutes before transferring to a cooling rack.
Glaze with a mix of 1-1/2 c. powdered sugar, 3 Tbls. freshly squeezed orange juice and zest from 1 orange whisked together in a small bowl. Spread about 1 teaspoon of glaze onto each cookie and let glaze harden before serving.

Assorted Cookies Collected on Cookie Tour Photo Credit: Bill Rockwell

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