Growing up in the Deep South I have had the chance to try all sorts of southern culinary delicacies but the humble and plain tea cake brings back some of my most cherished childhood memories of the kitchen.
Tea cakes in Mississippi have always been a favorite cookie. Served to eager children and enjoyed by adults alike from all walks of life throughout the South, this simple sugar cookie has simply stood the sustained test of time.
It has been said the southern tea cake evolved from a recipe brought to America from England during the 1700’s. Known as “little cakes” they were first served with afternoon tea. The earliest recipe I found for a traditional tea cake as we know it today, was on page 71 of the 1841 edition of The American Frugal Housewife (originally published in 1830) by Lydia Maria Francis Child at Google Books.
As a young child I remember my mom baking these simple cookies. I could always tell when she was preparing tea cakes, as the faint aroma of vanilla extract would drift through the house like a light fog coming off the river bottom at dawn. The cookie dough, simply consisting of eggs, flour, butter, vanilla extract and milk would be transformed into a delectable baked treat with golden crispy edges and a soft chewy center. Around the holidays at Thanksgiving and Christmas my mom would sometimes add a hint of nutmeg to the cookies giving them a unique holiday taste.
Yesterday I retrieved my mom’s old recipe box from the kitchen pantry, and in thumbing through the hand-written recipe cards, never came across a recipe for tea cakes. I’m really not surprised there was no such recipe in the box because the tea cake is one of those recipes that every southerner should know by heart, and rarely needs writing down. It’s simply one of those culinary traditions orally handed down from one generation to the next.
I found several recipes for southern tea cakes online and finally, after quite a bit of research, found one to my liking. With the recipe in hand, I gathered the ingredients of flour, sugar, butter, eggs, vanilla extract, and milk and proceeded to produce my own tea cakes. Rolling out the dough with my grandmother’s big wooden rolling pin, I cut the cookies, placed them on a baking sheet and in the oven they went. As the tea cakes slowly baked in the oven, the subtle scent of vanilla, butter and flour permeated the kitchen bringing back precious tea cake memories from times long gone by.