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, 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 simplest 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 streetlights came on.
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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.

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Posted by on August 2, 2012
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