by Eric Wharton
My Recipe Book, constantly being added to
We grew up on tea cakes. They were a gift of love. If something has served you well, you never abandon it.
— Etha Robinson, Owner, Mrs. Bethune's Tea Cakes.
Possibly one of the most simple of all cookie recipes, these soft sugar cookies almost always have a story and a memory connected to them. If there is one single food that invokes that excitement for Southerners, it surely must be the Southern Tea Cake.
They probably evolved from English tea cakes, according to most southern food historians. Arriving in America sometime in the 1700s, they were were initially made by African cooks for guests of white slave owners, served at afternoon or high tea in the homes of the wealthy planters and often containing currants and other dried fruits.
It wasn't long before these tea cakes found their way into the lives of poor southerners, who adopted them as our own. They made them more suitable to their basic, affordable pantry ingredients—sugar, molasses, eggs, and vanilla when available. One of the earliest recorded recipes is found in the cookbook, American Frugal Housewife, published in the 1830s. Later, because of the hardships of wars and food shortages over the years, the tea cakes managed to survive as a rare and special treat.
Today they still include 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. Over time, cooks began adding to this humble cookie and rarely wrote down what they did, creating hundreds, maybe even thousands, of variations to tea cakes.
Some people add milk to the recipe. However, in keeping with the “old fashioned” nature of tea cakes, milk was probably not used. Lard was most likely used to provide the fat, but butter is a better substitute these days.
3 sticks Butter (softened)
4 cups self-rising flour*
2 cups sugar
4 eggs (slightly beaten)
1 tsp vanilla
* If self-rising flour is unavailable, substitute plain sifted flour and 3 tsp baking soda.
Soften butter and mix together all ingredients, sprinkling with little bits of additional flour until the dough rolls nicely. Once mixed, some people refrigerate the dough to firm it up, but it can be used immediately as well.
Grease a baking sheet, although parchment or silicone sheets could be used instead. Drop by spoonfuls on the baking surface. Size is generally large, but varies, with some favoring a fairly thick cookie, while others prefer them on the thin and crispy side.
Bake at 350ºF between 10 and 15 minutes, but do not over-bake. They may not look like they're done, but the cookies should have only the slightest tinge of color around the edges.
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