Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Time for Tea Cakes

We’re going into day three of “Snowmegedon 2011” as a few folks around here have named it. The snow, rather ice, is losing its charm as the city has been virtually shut down. The cold weather is making me go into hibernation mode. All I want to do is cook, eat, sleep (and write). While there were a million other household projects I could and should have been working on, all I could think about yesterday is what to bake. Nothing says “home, comfort and warmth” more to me than fresh from the oven tea cakes like my mom and granny used to make. Whenever the weather was bad, we were sick or just needed a pick-me-up, tea cakes were the cure. When my mom was sick in the hospital for months, a family friend kept sending her amazing homemade tea cakes down to the hospital with anyone heading that way. They brought such comfort during a difficult time.

After dinner last night, I set out to make tea cakes with the hope they would raise my spirits and give the endurance I need for another day of being stuck in the house with my young children. Food is magical like that! My five-year-old was very confused when the tea cakes came out of the oven. “That’s not a cake,” he said. True. Southern style tea cakes are actually a kin to a soft, billowy sugar cookie. After he went to bed, I did a little research and learned that the word “cookie” is derived from the Dutch word, koekje, which means “little cake.” I should have told him that all cookies were thought of as little cakes at one time!

Southern tea cakes are thought to be descended from English tea cakes. They were likely adapted by enslaved African American cooks who made them with the simple ingredients they had on hand – flour, butter (or lard), sugar and eggs. Another theory is that English and Scotch-Irish settlers, especially in the Appalachians, adapted the butter cookies or biscuits of their homeland. In either case (likely a combination of the two), the dense, soft and mildly sweet cookie eventually became a staple of the Southern kitchen.

Every Southern cook has their own version of tea cakes. My granny’s are more firm and crunchy. She uses margarine so they aren’t as buttery and soft as my mom’s usually were. Our family friend (I mentioned earlier) incorporated powdered sugar into her tea cakes so they were a bit more delicate – almost like shortbreads. I still haven’t perfected my signature tea cake. What I made last night was an experiment that turned out quite well. I made a small batch because I only had one egg – and it’s not like I could go to the store. I also didn’t have any buttermilk which I think gives them a nice tang. I did have heavy whipping cream which ended up giving a nice texture – almost scone like.

I also experimented with using whole wheat flour. Inspired by my friend Niki at Life, in Recipes, I have been trying to incorporate more whole wheat into my baking. I think you really have to experiment with proportions and sneak it in so that it doesn’t change the flavor and texture too dramatically. I used King Arthur Organic White Whole Wheat Flour since it has a milder flavor. My mom and granny would have only used White Lily flour, of course. I used one cup of whole wheat and one cup of regular flour to see how it turned out. The result was that you couldn’t really taste a difference. Maybe next time I’ll go all the way.

Without further adieu, here is my recipe if you want to try it out. Note that I am an improviser – especially when it comes to flavoring. Some measurements are not exact. Let your intuition be your guide!:

Tea Cakes
¼ cup butter (1/2 stick)
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1/3 cup heavy cream (milk or buttermilk would also work)
Lemon zest (maybe around a tsp. -- just grate until it feels right)
Vanilla (a good splash – again until it feels right)
1 cup of plain flour
1 cup of whole wheat flour (note: can use 2 cups regular flour instead)
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
Sugar for sprinkling

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Mix together butter and sugar until fluffy. Add egg. Slowly add cream or milk, lemon zest and vanilla. Sift together dry ingredients and add gradually to the wet mixture. The dough should be pretty firm. Roll into balls and place about an inch apart on a cookie sheet. Wet a glass bottom, dip in sugar and flatten each ball. Sprinkle the tops with more sugar if you desire. (You can also roll out the dough and cut into rounds if you’d like). Bake for 8-10 minutes until edges are golden brown.

I’d love to hear from you about your tea cake memories and recipes. Do you actually enjoy your tea cakes with tea (maybe sweet tea)? I think they are excellent dipped in coffee or with a glass of milk. If you try my recipe, let me know what you think. It’s always a work in progress!


  1. I have a great tea cake recipe from the Civil War days that uses vinegar and baking soda for leavening and calls for scant measures of some of the ingredients. I'll be glad to share the recipe if you are interested!

  2. Yay for using whole-wheat flour! I say go all the way next time, just maybe increase the fat and liquid to compensate. I'll have to try these tea cakes - they weren't a staple in our southern kitchen.

    Loving your stories, by the way.

  3. I was thinking today as I saw on the news about the Southern storm, that I rather miss those unusual times when I'd get snowed or iced in for days. It could create some unusual fun. No snow or ice here in Silicon Valley!

  4. @Nancy- I'd love to see that recipe. I'm thinking about doing some stuff with historical recipes. @Life - Thanks! A friend of mine from N.C. didn't grow up making/eating tea cakes either. I'd love to figure out what region they come from. Hmmm. @Tastemonials -We are thawing out here, but I have to admit it has been fun having "what to eat" be my primary concern these past few days. Thanks for visiting my blog!

  5. I like my tea cakes with hot tea with milk. Reminds me of my days in Germany at kaffe kuchen zeit. These sound very tasty, Rachel. I'll have to give them a try.