The old-fashioned Southern Tea Cakes served as a treat for generations of Southerners prior to commercialized bakeries. They could be baked up by the dozens with simple ingredients that were usually on hand: flour, sugar, eggs, butter, milk and, if you were really lucky, vanilla extract. This unpretentious treat was representative of the simple, hard luck times that befell so many residents of the rural south. It was easy and quick and that appealed to hard-working, poverty-stricken families who looked for every way they could to scratch out a living. Wealthy families did exist in the South but my ancestral line never bumped against any of them. Many generations of my ancestors lived in
the poor house abject poverty without even knowing what poverty meant. They were poor people. In fact, poor would have been an upgrade. They were po’ people. Very, very po’ people. I’m only two generations removed from sharecroppers. My people were so po’, they couldn’t even afford their own farm land. They worked the land for the land owners. In return, they were rewarded pennies a day and substandard housing. My grandparents had stopped farming before I was born, and moved into town so Granddaddy could work in the textile mills. There he was rewarded with pennies a day and substandard housing. At least he was out of the weather. He worked indoors in a mill where the huge machines generated massive doses of heat in the oppressive climate of the Deep South. I don’t know that the mills were ever air-conditioned as long as he worked there. My people were po’ people. Hardworking, honest, patriotic, God-fearing po’ people. And I couldn’t be prouder.
Southerners are well-known for our affinity for sugar. It’s part of our DNA. In other words, we just can’t seem to help ourselves. This sweet treat would satisfy that enormous sweet craving….or make you want more. In my case, the latter applies. The more sugar I eat , the more I want. “I just want something sweet”, is oft’ heard throughout the South. Lord knows, those words have come across my lips plenty. Those sugar cravings have no economic boundaries. It was just a little harder for the po’ folks to satisfy their cravings. While sugar cane was an important Southern crop, the cane juice couldn’t be home processed into sugar. Therefore, after the sugar cane juice was sold, it became a pantry staple that required you to have either money or a barter to obtain it. Sometimes the po’ people had neither. It’s hard to imagine not being able to whip up a batch of simple baked goods whenever the notion hits you. I’m fortunate to have never experienced that. But living under those types of extreme conditions, certainly made folks appreciate this kind of treat when it was available.
While researching the history of the Southern Tea Cake, I didn’t come across much history but I found several different recipes. There wasn’t a huge variation from recipe to recipe. What I did find interesting were some of the comments written by folks who had tested the recipe. Comments such as, “It was just too plain” or “I had to add nutmeg and cinnamon to spice it up” and “I was disappointed. This cookie lacks flavor”. These comments were made by people who just don’t understand this simple little baked good and it’s place in history. Our palates have become much more refined due to exposure of many different flavors in our global economy. Our ancestors lived in different times when everything was simpler and dishes were more local or regional. I don’t think my grandmother even knew anything about nutmeg. She certainly used cinnamon because we would have cinnamon toast. So while this simple honest baked good may not be pleasing to more sophisticated palates today, it is apropos for its time when life was simpler and baking ingredients were limited.
Trying to explain the texture and taste of a proper Southern Tea Cake is challenging. It’s not a sugar cookie and it’s not a biscuit. If a sugar cookie left Birmingham traveling at 60 miles an hour and a biscuit left Savannah traveling at 55 miles an hour, they would meet head on in Atlanta and you would have a few dozen Southern Tea Cakes. This little tea cake has special meaning to me. It’s the only thing that resembled a cookie that I ever knew my grandmother to bake. She wasn’t a big baker. She much preferred to cook. I follow right along in those footsteps, too. But I do remember her making these tea cakes. She would let me help her cut them out with a small glass. She never owned a cookie cutter. That was an unnecessary extravagance. If she didn’t use a glass for cutting tea cakes or biscuits, a soup can or Vienna sausage can worked just fine.
We would cut the tea cakes out and bake them. They were stacked on a plain dish from the cupboard and set on the kitchen. Granny would sit at 45 degree angle and rest her left arm on the enamel kitchen table , wearing a cotton print housecoat, as she told me how her mother used to make these tea cakes for her and her siblings and they were “mighty proud” to get them. Despite my youth, I knew these tea cakes were special. It’s my job now to share the stories and meaning of these special teacakes with my heritage. These teacakes have something much more important than exotic spices and tons of flavor. They have something more important than a combination of ingredients that sends world-class chefs on pilgrimages to find the perfect ingredients.
They have a legacy.
What could be more perfect than swimming at Nana and Papa’s, eating fresh tomatoes right off the vine and finishing up with Southern Tea Cakes? Maybe eating the tea cakes on the table that belonged to Papa when he was a little boy? And listening to the stories of Nana, her Grandmother and these special, special tea cakes. These tea cakes have a whole lot of life in them.
Y’all come see us.
Southern Tea Cakes
preheat oven to 350 degrees
yield: 4 dozen 2 inch tea cakes
An old fashioned recipe, handed down for generations, made with simple ingredients.
4 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups sugar
1/2 cup buttermilk
2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla
Sift flour, baking powder and soda with your grandmother’s sifter.
Add the rest of the ingredients and mix well. This is certainly different from most cookie recipes. The butter and sugar aren’t creamed first. Everything goes into the mixing bowl together after the dry ingredients are sifted. The dough will be sticky so you will need to generously flour your surface before turning out the dough.
Place the dough on the floured surface and keep adding flour until the dough loses its stickiness. Divide, wrap in plastic wrap and chill for at least one hour in the refrigerator. I divided the dough in half, but the next time I will divide in fourths. The tea cakes turn out better and keep their shape if you don’t let the dough warm up prior to baking.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and take out your dough but only the part that you are going to use. Let the rest stay in the refrigerator. See that huge chunk that’s missing? I can’t imagine what happened to it.
Roll out the dough to about 1/4 inches thick. Cut with a small juice glass or a Vienna sausage can. I don’t think cookie cutters will work right.
Bake at 350 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes. I baked for the full 12 minutes and they were perfect. Cool on a rack and then store in a jar.
This just looks right to me. This is a candy jar that my grandparents got me from Mr. Lovell Brook’s store.
Southern Tea Cakes
- 4 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 2 eggs
- 2 cups sugar
- 1/2 cup buttermilk
- 2 sticks unsalted butter softened
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- Sift flour, baking powder and soda with your grandmother's sifter.
- Add the rest of the ingredients and mix well. This is certainly different from most cookie recipes. The butter and sugar aren't creamed first. Everything goes into the mixing bowl together after the dry ingredients are sifted. The dough will be sticky so you will need to generously flour your surface before turning out the dough.
- Place the dough on the floured surface and keep adding flour until the dough loses its stickiness. Divide, wrap in plastic wrap and chill for at least one hour in the refrigerator. I divided the dough in half, but the next time I will divide in fourths. The tea cakes turn out better and keep their shape if you don't let the dough warm up prior to baking.
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and take out your dough but only the part that you are going to use. Let the rest stay in the refrigerator. See that huge chunk that's missing? I can't imagine what happened to it.
- Roll out the dough to about 1/4 inches thick. Cut with a small juice glass or a Vienna sausage can. I don't think cookie cutters will work right.
- Bake at 350 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes. I baked for the full 12 minutes and they were perfect. Cool on a rack and then store in a jar.