This recipe for Southern Tea Cakes is a very old recipe, handed down from one generation to another. Its origins, a remarkably deep history with the African American community.
This recipe and today’s post is in memory of Miss Ada. Thank you for the gift of your recipe and the Blessing of your friendship.
An African American Tea Cakes History and The Southern Tea Cookies We Enjoy Today
Old fashioned Southern Tea Cakes. They are easy to find here in Charleston at the Market downtown, any of the plantation restaurants, and on many a southern caterer’s menu of offerings.
Southern Living Magazine says these ‘very vanilla’ cookies are about the easiest of southern recipes, and one that has thankfully not been lost to time. Southern Tea Cakes are thought to have originated out of necessity. That they may have been an enslaved African cooks version of an English tea cake.
Southern tea cakes may have evolved from the English tea cake which is a light, sweet, yeast-based bun with dried fruits. With limited supplies back then, enslaved Africans made their own version of tea cakes based on what was readily available.
At the end of slavery, but with the southern states still refusing to uphold emancipation and the freedom and safety it was to have provided, thousands migrated North. Some did not stop until they reached Canada. Southern foods crafted and perfected by enslaved Africans now fleeing were largely abandoned and left behind. To no surprise, families wanted to begin new lives as free persons of color and leave behind reminders of generations of enslavement.
Southern style tea cakes have likely changed a bit since the 1860s and before. That is because our food supply has changed. We have access to flours of all kinds to include self rising, all purpose, and also bread flour. Baking ingredients as humble as vanilla extract and even stick butter are tens times more sophisticated that both my and your Grandma even knew.
Todays tea cake recipe I hope you will find relaxing and even enjoyable to bake. Eight basic ingredients, nothing ‘fancy,’ and honestly, aside from maybe the buttermilk, everything likely already in plain sight in your kitchen.
I am breaking with tradition and glazing my Southern Tea Cakes with Royal Icing and festive sugar pearls. The tea cake is FANTASTIC before Royal Icing, but becomes a true Christmas treat once glazed and decorated.
I have taken liberties to some extent. I will explain why before the barrage of comments damning me for these not being “true tea cakes.” So here goes…my family LOVES these cookies. I mean to say, L O V E S. And, because it’s Christmas and I include Southern Tea Cakes in my cookie gift tins, in lieu of the traditional round or pinked rounds Southern Tea Cakes are familiar to us as, I use holiday cookie cutters and do shapes.
I also assemble a very fast batch of Royal Icing and bust out the sugar dust and sugar pearls to decorate. One batch of this old fashioned tea cookie dough yields between six and eight dozen cookies depending on the size of the cookie cutters you use. If you plan on 2″ rounds or pinked rounds, have a plan for gifting because you are going to be in cookie crisis if you think you’re going to eat them all alone. Just sayin’.
This recipe for Southern Tea Cakes is very old, handed down from one generation to another, its origins steeped in African American history.
I reserve a full day for Southern Tea Cakes. That is to say, I do not plan to bake or mix any other bread or tassie or cookie recipe on the day I reserve for these. They are not difficult. They just take a bit of time because I like to use cookie cutters with a bit of intricacy and I always plan on Royal Icing.
I bust my slow cooker out and toss in a previously prepared and frozen batch of my Amazing Swedish Meatballs in Creamy Gravy to do the ‘slow thing’ until it’s time for supper. Every baking sheet I own is lined up on my kitchen table and I line each with parchment paper. If you have silpats to fit your cookie sheets, use them, but know that parchment paper is doable and works great.
This recipe calls for both baking powder AND baking soda. You MUST have both on hand. One may not be substituted for the other in larger quantity. The recipe will fail.
You may also use any flavor extract you like. I have experimented with lemon, mint, violet, almond, and even banana. I prefer vanilla extract over anything else I have tried. If you do not have vanilla extract, one half a vanilla bean scraped may be substituted. I am providing a link herein to the vanilla I use if you are inclined to want to use it also.
You will feel like you are right in the South after making and serving Southern Tea Cakes.
What are some tips for working with dough for tea cakes?
Work on a consistently lightly floured surface, as this dough is sticky once it warms. I flour my pin and the blade of my bench scraper and spatulas also. After chilling, I cut the dough in half, then each half in half again. I work with one quarter of the dough at a time, returning the other quarters to the refrigerator to remain cold until I am prepared to roll and cut them.
As I fill each baking sheet with cutouts, I keep in mind that all tea cake recipes are very clear in that YOU MUST SPACE THE CAKES OUT. Like, by several inches each. I probably do not get any more than five to six cutouts on a baking sheet.
I also chill the sheets with the cutouts ready to go until the batch before them is out of the oven. These bake anywhere from 9 to 11 minutes depending on your oven. Personally, I would monitor the first batch for browning on the bottoms and spacing. This way, you know what NOT to do for the next bunch going in.
Oh, and PREHEAT OVEN. The oven MUST be to temperature when the baking sheet goes in. Remember, the bake is short, so every degree counts.
A Traditional Southern tea cakes recipe makes what starts out a simple sugar cookie, but finishes more a cake-like texture and taste.
You will find MANY a recipe for southern tea cake cookies all over the internet. The Southern Living tea cake recipe is fantastic. But, I like mine better. The Pioneer Woman tea cakes are fabulous, too. I still like mine better. I have even followed a method for southern tea cakes with molasses, but…this one is the best. It is an easy tea cake recipe, and a quick tea cake recipe. I personally think it to be the best tea cake recipe. WHY?
This 100 year old tea cake recipe was given to me by the mother of a close friend. It was given to me the spring before she passed away. She was born and raised in Yemassee, South Carolina. She was the eighth of twelve children in an African American household located on a former rice plantation. Her father was a planter for the family who owned the land. Her mother was a cook for the same family for over 40 years. In her words, “homemade tea cakes start with love and end with a full belly.” This recipe and today’s post is in memory of Miss Ada.
All images and text ©Jenny DeRemer for Not Entirely Average, LLC
Southern Tea Cakes
- parchment paper or silpats
- cookie sheets
- Rolling Pin
Ingredients for Southern Tea Cakes
- 4 cups flour
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 2 cups sugar
- 2 large eggs
- 1/2 cup buttermilk
- 1/2 pound butter 2 sticks, salted or unsalted, softened to room temperature
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract any extract may be substituted
for Royal Icing
- 3 1/2 cups powdered sugar
- 4 extra large egg whites NOTE** Must be pasteurized eggs
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- food coloring optional
- Preheat oven to 350 °F.
- Line several cookie sheets with parchment paper or silpats. Set aside.
- In a large bowl sift flour, baking soda and baking powder together. Add remaining ingredients and blend well. Dough will be very soft and somewhat sticky.
- On a floured surface shape the dough into a disk, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour. Remove from refrigeration and cut disk into 4 equal quarters. Re-wrap and refrigerate 3 or the 4 quarters, working with one at a time.
- Flour surface again and roll dough out until approximately 1/4 inch thick.
- Cut dough into desired shapes and bake on prepared baking sheets for 9 to 11 minutes, monitoring for browning bottoms and adequate spacing.
- This recipe makes about 6 to 8 dozen tea cakes based on 2" rounds. If using larger cutouts and shapes, plan for fewer cookies.
- Southern Tea Cakes are traditionally not glazed but they absolutely make fantastically decorated Christmas cookies. Follow my easy recipe for Royal Icing if you desire to decorate your tea cakes.
for Royal Icing
- Sift 3 1/2 cups powdered sugar through a fine-mesh strainer into a large bowl.
- Place 4 large pasteurized egg whites (or 1/2 cup liquid egg whites) in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment. (Alternatively, use an electric hand mixer and large bowl.)
- Whip on medium-high speed until foamy, doubled in volume, and opaque, about 2 minutes.
- Turn the mixer off and add half of the powdered sugar. Mix on low speed until the powdered sugar is completely dissolved and no large lumps remain, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the remaining powdered sugar and continue mixing until completely dissolved, 1 to 2 minutes more.
- Increase the mixer speed to high and whip until the icing is completely smooth, glossy, and slightly thickened, 4 to 5 minutes. The icing should hold a soft peak and slowly run off of the whisk attachment. If the icing is too loose, add more powdered sugar, 1/4 cup at a time, and continue mixing until completely incorporated.
- Decrease the mixer speed to low and add 1 teaspoon extract and a few drops of food coloring, if desired. Mix until the icing is smooth and evenly colored, 1 to 2 minutes.
- Decorate cookies with the icing by piping and let completely dry before touching them, at least 4 hours.