To Southerners of a certain age, tea cakes are the embodiment of a grandmother’s warm kitchen in the dead of winter…or a carefree summer afternoon spent barefoot and running through the sprinkler in the front yard. I don’t know of any other food that holds the nostalgia of childhood for me like tea cakes, except maybe Granny’s Chocolate Sheet Cake.
I’ve written about tea cakes on this site before, but I was never quite happy with the recipe so I deleted the recipe from that post. The problem in trying to recreate a food memory is that nothing will ever live up to the memory, even if you happened to have the exact recipe—which I do not! My memory centers around Grandma, my grandfather’s mother. She baked tea cakes anytime we visited her but she did it from memory and touch, the same way my Granny and my Mama make biscuits. I sat down with Grandma once when I was about 12 and had her tell me what all we put in the tea cakes. I still have that tattered piece of paper, but it has never helped me figure out how to make tea cakes the same way she did. I have realized though that even then I was changing recipes and creating my own ideas…I called the tea cakes cinnamon delights and I added cinnamon.
What has always messed me up was the flour (as much as needed) and the melted butter. I’ve tried to use melted butter and the cookies always come out too crisp, not at all the way Grandma’s were. Hers were just a little crisp on the bottom and soft and crumbly, more cakey than cookie but not a cake. It’s so difficult to describe and nearly every person you talk to who has a tea cake memory will describe them differently. These were literally cookies that cooks threw together using the simplest ingredients they had on hand: eggs, sugar, flour, and butter. So everyone’s tea cake recipe combination probably turned out a little differently. Some were flat and crispy. Some were puffy and soft. Some people added milk or buttermilk. Some people added nutmeg or other flavorings.
I don’t add as much sugar as the recipe above says that my grandmother did, but I just don’t remember her tea cakes being that sweet. Maybe when she was trying to make up amounts from memory she estimated more than she actually added. Or more likely, the “cup” she used to pour the sugar into the bowl was nowhere near the size of an actual measuring cup. Most people will agree that tea cakes are not super sweet, otherwise they would be a sugar cookie. After playing around with various combinations of the ingredients, I’ve come up with a tea cake recipe that’s pretty close to the way I remember Grandma’s tea cakes. Not too sweet, slightly cakey. They are not exact and I’ll probably continue tweaking this recipe for the rest of my life. But this is a pretty good rendition and I hope you will give them a try.
What food triggers your nostalgia of home the most? Share in the comments and please let me know if you make these tea cakes. Have a blessed day!
- 2 sticks unsalted butter
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 2 large egg yolks
- 1 large egg
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 3 cups all-purpose flour plus more for kneading
- Preheat oven to 375. Prepare cookie sheets with silicone baking mats, parchment paper, or lightly grease.
- In a large bowl, cream butter and sugar using a mixer. Add egg yolks, egg, and vanilla and mix well.
- Add salt, baking powder, and flour and mix on low until blended. Sprinkle flour on whatever surface you use to roll dough and turn out the dough.
- Use a little flour on your hands and the dough and knead the dough a few times, then roll out to 1/4-1/2 inch thickness.
- Cut with cookie cutters and place on baking sheet. These cookies will not spread much so you can put them about an inch apart.
- Bake 9-11 minutes (depending on thickness) until bottom is barely turning brown. Remove from oven and cool on a rack.