Thursday, August 2, 2012

Old Fashioned Southern Tea Cakes

Old fashioned, authentic southern tea cakes are basic, simple sugar cookies in their list of ingredients - butter, sugar, flour and eggs - but they speak so much more to our history, heritage and memories.

Old Fashioned Southern Tea Cakes

Food and memories are so intertwined in southern cooking that just the mention of things like fried pies, drinking custard, picking blackberries for cobbler and preserves, or biscuit bread, can bring back a flood of memories associated with loved ones long past. If there is one single food that invokes that excitement for Southerners though, it surely must be a Southern Tea Cake.

Possibly one of the most simple of all cookie recipes out there, these old fashioned, soft sugar cookies almost always have a story and a memory connected to them. Buttery, tender, chewy and delicious, it's likely to bring up memories of standing on a wooden chair in grandma's kitchen during much less complicated times - when bicycles had streamers on the handles, cards on the spokes, and it was perfectly safe for kids to play and wander around outside for hours - without checking in at home, even until the street lights came on.

The evolution and endurance of our southern tea cake is actually a rather remarkable story in itself really. The simple and unassuming cookies that we know, likely evolved from an English tea cake, according to most southern food historians. Arriving in our country probably sometime in the 1700s, it was typically served up at afternoon or high tea in the homes of the wealthy planters, and likely a version of the slightly sweet, light yeast bun, containing currants and other dried fruits.

It wasn't long before little tea cakes found their way into the lives of poor southerners, who adopted them as our own and made them more suitable to our basic, affordable pantry ingredients - and our love for a much sweeter taste. One of earliest recorded recipes for an American version of tea cakes is found in the cookbook, American Frugal Housewife, published in the 1830s. It contained 3 cups of sugar, 3 eggs, 1 cup butter, 1 cup milk, 4 cups flour and a spoonful of dissolved pearlash - an early form of leavening.

In those earlier times, they represented a taste of the better life for those of us with more humble realities, yet even with the more readily available ingredients, southern tea cakes were mostly associated with special times. Appearing at holidays like Christmas and Easter certainly, but more often than not, a part of those special Saturday afternoons at Grandmother's house. Children would wait patiently, first for the coveted spoons and bowls for licking, and later, for the fragrant cookies to emerge from the oven and barely cool, just enough to eat. Sometimes they represented a reward for chores completed and duties finished at the end of a day. If you didn't have the privilege of experiencing tea cakes in your own home, you probably did at the home of a neighbor.
"History is what happens when ordinary people live through extraordinary times." ~Rick McDaniel
Later, through the hardships of wars and food shortages over the years, when meals were centered around basic rations and what we managed to raise, hunt or farm on our own, those tea cakes managed to survive. Mostly as a rare and special treat, but by then, they represented hope for better times ahead.

By the time tea cakes made their way to our generation, they represented happier times, where they reside in our memories now as a reminder of family, of being together, and often of that special bond of love we had with our grandmothers, our moms, or sometimes even a special aunt or other family member. The aroma, the familiar texture and taste, the simplicity of this southern tea cake is what brings us back to those stories of our ancestors.

Today they still include those basic pantry staples of sugar, flour, eggs, and some form of fat, but like other recipes have evolved in the South, there is no one single southern tea cake recipe. If you're looking for one that resembles the ones your grandmother or her mother made, it may be difficult to get there. Over time, as access to different ingredients became more widely available to all, cooks began adding to this humble cookie and rarely wrote down what they did, creating hundreds, maybe even thousands, of variations to the tea cake cookie.

Types and amounts of ingredients vary as widely does the preferred type of fat and whether or not it includes milk. Most recipes include very little milk, if any, while others use quite a lot and some use buttermilk. Some cooks along the way have added a variety of flavorings including spices, like cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger, molasses, various nuts, poppy seeds, lemon zest, and some even add vinegar. Size is generally large, but texture and thickness vary among families, with some favoring a fairly thick cookie, while other prefer them on the thin and crispy side.

The dough I favor is a simple, butter based, egg, flour and sugar cookie, without any milk, with a bit of vanilla and just a tiny pinch of nutmeg. It is a beautiful dough that is easy to work with, though very tender.

Once mixed, some folks do refrigerate the dough to make it firm up, but I don't bother. I'm usually far too anxious to eat a teacake to wait for all that, so I mix, sprinkle with little bits of additional flour until the dough rolls nicely, cut and bake myself. Don't butter your baking sheet but do use parchment, or I use silpats these days on top of cookie sheets - it just makes baking so much easier, if you ask me.

This dough makes a sturdy, but still light cookie, and as with any other sugar cookie, it shouldn't be over-baked. You want them to have only the slightest tinge of color around the edges and that's all. Looking at them you won't think they are done, and all ovens vary in temperature fluctuations, but depending on your oven, they should be ready somewhere between 10 and 12 minutes. 

Kids today don't really know much about their history and heritage, and that's sad. I think that genealogy and researching one's own family history ought to be required curriculum in middle school. The people of our past and their struggles are the backbone of what built this country, and is fast getting lost in this modern world, where there is little stability and lots of change. It's important that we pause long enough to acknowledge the folks that came before us, and the things that they endured. Our children need to know who and what came before them, and not just a vague and generalized piece in a history book.

The Southern tea cake is one of those recipes that calls for a story to be told when making them. It's about keeping our memories connected to a recipe and a time past alive, by passing them on to the next generation. Whether you have a special tea cake memory of your own, or you simply share the history of the survival of the southern tea cake through colonial times to now, share it with your children and grandchildren when you make these cookies - yes, even if you must repeat it every single time you make them.

So, what sets southern tea cakes apart from any other simple cookie of flour, sugar and butter? Maybe nothing much in the ingredients. Or maybe, just maybe, there really is something far more special to them.

Recipe: Old Fashioned Southern Tea Cakes

©From the Kitchen of Deep South Dish
Prep time: 10 min |Cook time: 12 min | Yield: About 3+ dozen

  • 1 cup (2 sticks) of unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
  • 1-1/2 cups of granulated sugar
  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon of vanilla
  • 4 cups of all-purpose flour
  • Pinch of grated nutmeg
  • 1 heaping teaspoon of baking soda
  • Pinch of salt
  • Additional granulated sugar, for garnish

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Cream the butter and sugar until fluffy, add the eggs, one at a time; add vanilla. Whisk together the flour, nutmeg, baking soda and salt and add to the butter and sugar mixture 1/2 cup at a time, until each addition is fully incorporated. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface and gently press into a ball.

Sprinkle top lightly with additional flour. Roll dough to somewhere between 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick, rotating and turning dough and using additional flour as needed until dough is no longer sticky. Cut out rounds using a floured, 2-inch cutter. Use a bench scraper or spatula to carefully transfer the cookie rounds to lined cookie sheets, spaced 1-1/2 inches apart; cookies will spread some as they bake. Gently gather scraps together and re-roll for additional cookies.

Bake one tray at a time at 350 degrees F on the middle rack of the oven, for about 10 to 12 minutes, or just until cookie begins to look dry on the surface, and very lightly tinged with color on the edges. Remove from oven, sprinkle immediately and generously with granulated sugar and let rest on sheet for about 3 minutes; then transfer to a rack to cool completely.

Cook's Notes: I use silpats on baking sheets for my cookies now and alternate two cookie trays so that the dough for the next batch goes on a cool tray. If you prefer a softer, more cake-like cookie, roll these 1/2 inch thick; for more crisper texture, roll them 1/4 inch or less. To me, they are perfect somewhere in the middle of the two.

Although it's not traditional, instead of sprinkling the cookies with sugar, you can also glaze or ice these using a royal icing, as you would on a decorator cookie, and adding sugar or sprinkles after icing the cookies. Set aside in a single layer to fully dry.


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©Deep South Dish
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Posted by on August 2, 2012
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  1. Woah! This is great and it brought up a ton of memories from when I was little with my grandmother! I'm making these the first chance I get :)

  2. I can almost taste these Mary. I love sugar cookies, especially with a bit of nutmeg.
    I loved the history behind this recipe, and I agree with you about knowing our history. It is so important to know where you came from! Knowing our past is so priceless.

    1. I find it fascinating Lynda to learn about our ancestors. I think our young folks are so disconnected from that, but at the same time I think it's an important part of themselves that they really need to know about.

  3. Great recipes and Southern Food History all in one place. That is why I love Deep South Dish!!! And I cannot wait to try these.

  4. Mary, I so much enjoyed reading your post! Oh, the memories of my grandmother making a big batch of tea would be our special time together, with a proper little "tea party" after the tea cakes were done! She would make a pot of tea, and we would enjoy the tea & the tea cakes together, just the two of us (no siblings, no parents!!). Of course, she had no written recipe, and although I have tried to duplicate them, it is impossible, as you said. But I can hardly wait to give your recipe a try! Thanks so much for both the memories & the recipe!

  5. My granny makes tea cakes in my opinion they arent sugar cookies her were always thinner and not as sweet i loved her tea cakes

    1. In my research I found that there are literally thousands of tea cake sugar cookie recipes, and that texture and thickness vary as widely among families, with some favoring a fairly thick cookie, while other prefer them on the thin and crispy side. It's a cookie that invokes wonderful memories for all of us, and the way we remember them, is always the right way for us!

    2. Also, if you are from the UK - your tea cakes are significantly different from the Southern Tea Cake sugar cookie recipe I write about here & from the southern region of the United States where I am from!

    3. I agree, I don't really associate tea cakes with sugar cookies other than the color. Sugar cookies are almost always doused with granular sugar on the top of a sugar cookies and I cannot ever remember my Grandmother ever doing that to one of her tea cakes and the taste is so different from a sugar cookies.

    4. Oh gracious, I just hate these debates about what defines cooking, or in this case baking because we all learn things different from one another depending on where we grew up and what our Mama's grew up with. To say this isn't a "sugar cookie" is certainly true... to a degree, however, keep in mind that to describe a cookie as a "sugar cookie" covers a lot of different kinds of cookies, not just one! Tea cakes are a unique kind of cookie that is sugar based, though you are correct, it is not quite the same as what many of us consider a "sugar-dusted" sugar cookie, of which I have a recipe here on Deep South Dish and is much more different than this cookie. I still categorize tea cakes as a type of sugar cookie, so I guess we'll all just have to agree to disagree on this one!

  6. Hi Mary,

    I have a question....My husband is diabetic and I wanted to know would the texture of the dough change if I used splenda instead of regular granulated sugar?
    Does anyone know?

    Thank you,

    1. Hi Helen! I wish I could help but I've never made them with Splenda myself. I know a lot of folks sub in Splenda for baking but the times that I tried it, it tasted too chemical to me. Since this is a sugar cookie I'm just not sure about how the texture would change. Maybe one of our readers has & can be more helpful. I think the Splenda website might have some recipes so that may also be helpful. Happy Holidays!!

  7. Hi Mary,

    I wanted to know if I use splenda in place of granulated sugar would it change the texture of the dough? My husband is diabetic.


    1. I am not much of a baker but I don't bake at all with Splenda, so I don't really know how it would affect the texture. I do think the baking blend works pretty good but I also believe that its a mixture of sugar and Splenda. Wish I could help more!

  8. Love tea cakes. My mother made them a lot. Can remember coming in from school and smelling them. So good.

    1. They really have so many wonderful memories associated with them don't they?

  9. These sound similar to the tea cakes my mawmaw used to make in my childhood. She probably made hers from memory, so I never got her recipe before she passed. I usually measure and follow a new recipe to the T, but I'm a bit unsure exactly how much baking soda is used in this recipe. Would that be equivalent to about a TBSP-sized measuring spoon? Love your site, and the recipes! :)

    1. Thanks so much!! Not a tablespoon, not quite two teaspoons. Basically, instead of leveling your teaspoon of baking soda, scoop it so that it is mounded.

  10. This was the only cookie that my grandmother ever made and she never made it quite the same. She never measured anything, just put the amount that 'looked right' in a big old mixing bowl and stirred it up. She patted it out on a floured countertop and cut the cookies into squares (did not want to waste even a little bit of the cookie dough). They were quite a bit fluffier looking than yours so she probably used more leavening. I sure wish I had one of hers right now. They were the best!


  12. I made these today. they taste good but very plain and bland.

    1. Yes!! I'm not sure what you were expecting, but it is true that they are a very basic and classic "plain" sugar cookie, so nothing fancy certainly, though I wouldn't say that I find them "bland" at all. They are pretty tasty to me!

  13. These are just wonderful and bring back so many sweet memories. I just love old fashioned tea cakes and these are just most excellent.....Thanks so much....once again, you "DONE GOOD"....just love these! YUM...........

  14. Oh, my goodness! I just made these cookies and they are perfect. I cut Christmas shapes and added M&M's to the trees. Delicious and the dough is easy to handle.

    1. Thank you so much for taking the time to come back by and let me know! Merry Christmas!!

  15. My Big mama made tea cakes for us as kids and sweet bread love them . Every black family has this history also so thank you Alesia

  16. Jeff from Winnie TX
    My Grandmother always used a little bacon drippings in her Tea Cakes. I never had her recipe. Have you ever heard of a Tea Cake recipe using bacon drippings? They were delicious! One of my most favorite memories of her.

  17. My husband said these were just as he had remembered them to be, after he came up for air outta the cookie jar! He's a mess, ha! He says thank you!
    Unfortunately though, I never had these before now. I really liked making them and did bring my 9yr old in to "help". They are very tasty, sweet but not overly so in any way and very soft with just a bit of crunch. They went great with my cup of coffee this morning too! What a wonderful treat!
    I found your sugar cookie recipe today also and after trying these wonderful tea cakes I'm now very curious as to how the two compare?! Yes, I'm a nerd I know!!
    Thank you for sharing these, I look forward to making these for/with my kids many times to come!

    1. Awesome! They are similar of course but there are differences in the fat, flavor, leavening and the method. This one is all butter, that one is shortening so there's a slight difference in texture. The old fashioned sugar cookie has a touch of lemon where this one has the vanilla and nutmeg. The leavening is different in each affecting the spread and rise and the the other sugar cookie is a drop cookie versus this one that is a rolled cookie. All of that results in a taste & texture that separate each from the other, but keep them in the same family!


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