Christmas in the Coal Region embraces certain generations-old traditions without which Christmas just would not be Christmas. The annual flurry of cookie-making was embraced in all it’s glory in my home.
We occassionally got adventurous with decorating, trading in the strings of multi-colored lights for a new “fashion shade”, switched out the real tree for an artificial one, even skipped the ham and turkey one year, but the annual Christmas cookie baking was not to be trifled with.
For a few weeks ahead of Thanksgiving, Mom started adding items to the “store order” (grocery shopping list) in preparation for a weekend of mixing, rolling, cutting, and baking.
Every cookie tin and jar we owned came out of storage, got inspected, cleaned, and lined with wax paper in preparation to swallow up some of the “must have” family favorites.
Kolacky, pfefferneusse, tassies, and sand tarts sprinkled with glittering specs of colored sugar were always on the list, but the favorite of mother and daughter in that Coal Region kitchen were Michigan Rocks. Nothing prevented us from whipping up a batch any time of year, but Michigan Rocks just epitomized Christmas to me.
Soft and chewy, the cookies were studded with sweet pieces of dates, plump raisins, toasted chopped walnuts and kissed with a hint of cinnamon.
Mom and I usually wound up eating the first tray that cooled, snacking away while we scooped and dropped dough on baking sheets for subsequent batches of the “rocks” and other cookies throughout the day.
Thankfully, Mom’s recipe for Michigan Rocks made a large batch and it’s doubtful anyone else in the family noticed some missing! Once the cookies were cooled, they were packed into a ceramic cookie jar I made during the 1970’s ceramics craze that I was less than thrilled with, but my Mom adored.
In went a slice of plain white bread whose purpose was to help the cookies retain their signature moisture, then the jar took its place among the other goodies awaiting Christmas week.
To this day, I use Mom’s recipe for Michigan Rocks although there are countless versions out there. Every cookie that comes out of the oven brings her back to me in my heart and in my mind.
Why “Michigan Rocks”?
The origin of “Michigan Rocks” cookies is a bit hazy. Some information led me to the claim the cookies originated at the Bavarian Inn, Frankenmuth, Michigan. I have also turned up claims that they’re inspired by the cliffs and rocks of northern Michigan. Mostly made at Christmas, the cookies have a long history of popularity in The Coal Region of northeastern Pennsylvania and the Lehigh Valley.
Old time recipes from German cooks refer to the cookies as “Rocks Cookies” and there are recipes to be found for them in cookbooks at least as far back as the 1930’s. The cookies can most certainly be referred to as “vintage”.
Cookies that really “rock”
My recipe calls for toasting the nuts. This is something I do almost any time I make baked goods containing nuts. Toasting the nuts crisps them up and gives them a fragrant “nutti-ness” that really makes a difference. It helps them stand out among the other flavors in the recipe.
My preferred method to toast nuts is in the microwave. They do not get as deep a color as with oven or stove-top toasting, but the method is fast and convenient and works well for nuts used in baked goods.
Spread a single layer of nuts on a microwave-safe plate. Cook them on high power in one minute intervals until they are crisp and fragrant. Toss them around in between cooking bursts. If you feel they are close, but not quite there, proceed in 30 second intervals. They can go from “not-quite-there” to burnt quickly, so watch them carefully. Set aside to cool to use in your recipe. The amount of time will vary based on the size and variety of nut being toasted and your microwave.
Although many recipes for these cookies call for baking soda, mine uses baking powder. This is a very stiff dough that requires no chilling after mixing. The cookies stay in a “mound” with minimal spreading resembling “rocks”. As an added bonus on occasion, I top each cookie with a half maraschino cherry lightly pressed into the top before baking, but these Michigan Rocks are perfectly delicious unadorned.
The recipe calls for scooping the cookies out onto the baking sheets using a “tablespoon”; this does not refer to a measuring spoon, but to a tablespoon from your flatware set. That means you need to eye-ball a lump of cookie dough each time you scoop it out and your idea of a “tablespoon” of dough may not be the same as intended in the recipe. I much prefer to use a level 1 1/2 Tablespoon cookie scoop; it results in much more uniformly shaped results for any drop cookie.
Michigan RocksCourse: DessertCuisine: Coal Region, German, PA DutchDifficulty: Intermediate
Makes approximately 5 dozen 2 1/2 inch cookies
2 cups brown sugar
1 cup butter, room temperature
3 whole large eggs, room temperature
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup walnuts or pecans, chopped and toasted as directed below
1 cup coarsely chopped raisins
1 cup chopped pitted dates
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
Maraschino cherries, sliced in half length-wise, well-drained and patted dry.
- To toast nuts easily in the microwave
- Spread a single layer of nuts on a microwave-safe plate. Cook them on high power in one minute intervals until they are crisp and fragrant. Toss them around in between cooking bursts. If you feel they are close, but not quite there, proceed in 30 second intervals. They can go from “not-quite-there” to burnt quickly, so watch them carefully. Set aside to cool to use in your recipe. The amount of time will vary based on the size and variety of nut being toasted and your microwave.
- Cookie dough
- Pre-heat oven to 375F degrees. Line baking sheets with parchment paper or grease well. Set aside.
- In a large mixing bowl, cream together brown sugar and butter with an electric mixer until well blended. Add eggs and beat in well. Add vanilla along with nuts, raisins, and dates and stir in well by hand.
- Place flour, baking powder, salt, and cinnamon in a sifter or fine mesh strainer and sift the ingredients over the top of the wet mixture. Mix in well until evenly blended.
- Drop by heaping tablespoons (or use a 1 1/2 Tablespoon sized cookie scoop) about three inches apart onto prepared baking sheets. Optional: top each with a half maraschino cherry.
- Bake 9 to 11 minutes or until lightly brown on the edges. Remove to racks to cool completely.