Today we are celebrating southern tea cakes. If you have a Southern grandmother, then it’s quite possible that you’ve grabbed one of these bad boys out of a reused lard or margarine container. These cookies do not have the cult following of chocolate chip cookies. They don’t have sprinkles. In a world of instagram-ready bakes, Tea Cakes have very little razzle dazzle. Y’all know what they say about judging a book by its cover. Y’all can judge a tea cake by its looks if you want, and you will miss out on a hand-held delight.
If you've been following my baking challenges you'll notice that this one is kind of short. Tea Cakes are the first of what I am calling "mini baking challenges" where I bake a smaller sample size, like 4-6 recipes. This challenge is extra special because it’s basically a baking challenge with a side of history all wrapped in one.
Mini Baking Challenge Rule:
Make the recipe as written. In this mini challenge it meant setting eggs, butter and buttermilk on the counter an hour in advance. It also meant measuring the vanilla extract – which I never do– and after reading the history of tea cakes for this challenge I recognize that this is quite the privilege.
To my husband who ran to Food Lion at 9:30pm on a Wednesday night to buy buttermilk and lemons because I mentioned that I was thinking about doing a new baking challenge. Find a partner who not only supports your crazy, but actively enables it. Lol.
Alright, so what is Juneteenth? Now it’s a paid federal holiday, but for African Americans, especially those with roots in Texas, celebrates the final declaration of emancipation.
June 19, 1865, is when the Army couriers finally arrived in Galveston, Texas and announced that the Emancipation Proclamation was signed two and half years earlier. This announcement meant that 250,000 black people were free from chattel slavery, and led to what is known as the reconstruction period in American history. Even with this late proclamation, it still took another planting season for many to find freedom. But when they did, a year later, black Texans commemorated freedom with music, dance and food to celebrate Juneteenth.
Growing up in Charleston, I didn’t know the significance of Juneteenth until much later in life. I don’t recall celebrating it, or even knowing the history of the delays in Emancipation.. A few years ago, I started researching traditional Juneteenth celebration recipes and I found this article in NPR listing foods to celebrate Juneteenth.
After reading the article, Etha Robinson stayed with me because of her passion and commitment to reclaiming and sharing the history of Tea Cake. In the article she explains the history of the Tea Cake and proclaimed that “Tea Cakes are an experience”. And she’s absolutely right. Eating a Tea Cake immediately reminds me of hanging out in my grandmother's kitchen, while she was cooking or baking. Tea Cakes taste like home.
Tea Cakes show up consistently in black cookbooks in the dessert section, so I knew for this challenge I would have a hard time narrowing the field of authors. All of the women bakers featured are those that I’ve admired and followed for a while.
Toni Tipton-Martin Jubilee, Two Centuries of African American Cooking
Cheryl Day Cheryl Day’s Treasury of Southern Baking
Belinda Smith-Sullivan Southern Sugar
Jocelyn Delk-Adams Grandbaby Cakes Cookbook
All of the recipes featured are in the corresponding cookbooks available to purchase (no, I am not getting paid if you click these links, you should have these cookbooks in your collections anyway.) The recipe by Jocelyn Delk-Adams can be found on her website.
Note: I created this challenge before my copy of Nicole A. Taylor’s new cookbook, Watermelon and Red Birds arrived. The tea cake recipe in her book looks divine.
A teacake is a recipe that utilizes simple ingredients that you likely already have on hand. I dug up an old LA Times article about the history of the Tea cake:
“Culinary historians say the cookie may have been slaves’ version of the English tea cake. With very little provisions, those enslaved Africans took what was available and made their own version.” Immediately, my thoughts were “culinary historian seems like a cool job” and “yeah, the idea of making something out of nothing checks out”.
I flipped through several cookbooks and ventured past page 2 of google search results before settling on the recipes for the challenge. When I am choosing recipes for these challenges. I am looking for variations in the ingredients, unusual process instructions or even notes from the author.
As I read through several tea cake recipes I noticed that there seemed to be two schools of thought on HOW to make tea cake– some follow a typical cookie approach: cream the butter and sugar, add the eggs, flavors and dry ingredients. These tea cakes are essentially drop cookies that you scoop right onto the pan.
The tea cake recipes with buttermilk are more cake-like. The addition of buttermilk allows the tea cake to rise and gives them a perfect domed shape. These recipes are the ones that are rolled out and cut like biscuits. The recipes by Toni Tipton-Martin and Belinda Smith Sullivan are the ones that call for buttermilk
Unlike the other baking challenges where I would go to the store and buy an insane amount of an ingredient (like bananas or molasses) I had everything that I needed in my well-stocked pantry, except for lemons and buttermilk. This is a testament to the history of the tea cake– that it is possible to take what you already have and make it into something celebratory and delightful.
To make tea cakes at a minimum each recipe calls for a combination of
- All purpose flour
- Unsalted butter (always at room temperature)
- Granulated sugar
- Eggs (always at room temperature)
- A combination raising agents (baking powder, baking soda, salt)
- Vanilla Extract
What is Light Molasses?
One recipe calls for light molasses. I assumed that regular Grandma’s Molasses would suffice, but upon researching, it turns out that light molasses is different. Technically, light molasses is the syrup that remains after the first processing of sugar cane and has the consistency of maple syrup. And most importantly, light molasses is sweeter than regular molasses. Right off the bat, y’all know this recipe went sideways… but more on that later.
Every single recipe in this challenge calls for vanilla extract. In Jubilee, Ms. Tipton-Martin notes that in her research of black cookbooks, tea cakes are flavored in one of three ways: “nutmeg, a bit of citrus or extract”. This observation rang true across the four recipes:
Jocelyn’s = vanilla extract only
Toni’s = vanilla extract + nutmeg
Belinda’s = vanilla extract + nutmeg + molasses
Cheryl = vanilla extract + nutmeg + fresh lemon zest
Per usual, Ms. Cheryl had to stunt on everyone with her flavor combo of vanilla, nutmeg and fresh lemon zest. And honestly, it’s not wrong. I am always a sucker for a bit of lemon zest, so I wasn’t surprised at all at how much I loved these.
I was worried that Jocelyn’s vanilla only approach would be underwhelming, but y’all the amount of vanilla extract was enough to give it all of the UMPH necessary.
Y’all know that I’m not going to rate these recipes, right? Okay cool. I will tell you my thoughts though…
This is the one you need to stand in the kitchen with the person to learn how to make them. Once the batter is done, the instructions say to turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead. Real talk: the batter was incredibly wet, and I was scared to add too much flour. This is one of those if you know, you know, recipes and I did not know. I must have added over a cup of flour and just knew that they were wrong. I was stressed. Miraculously, they did turn out– the batter puffed right up creating a very delicate tea cake that would go perfectly with a cup of tea (obviously).I also really loved the color the molasses added to the tea cake.
Toni Tipton Martin.
This is the tea cake that your rich Auntie who moved to California makes and brings to parties.It comes with fancy sugar sprinkled on top giving it a bit of crunch. The inside is a soft delicate hand-held pound cake flavored just enough to not overpower the tea. These cakes come together really quickly and the recipe calls for a very long chill time– at least 1 hour, but as long as a couple of days. I love it when cookie batter has a chance for the flavors to meld.
Y’all The addition of lemon zest is basically unfair. This is a chewy lemon pound cake cookie. The process for making these was fairly straight-foward and had the shortest chill time – 20 minutes. A cookie scoop makes this recipe a breeze. In my day job the best compliment I can give a person is “No edits”. Not a single edit.
I am not going to lie though– I did not have high hopes for this one because all of the others had more “extras”. Lesson learned, y’all, Lesson Learned.
If there had been lemon zest in this cookie it would have been my favorite. What I liked about this recipe is how flavorful the cookie was– there was something about the quiet simplicity of the recipe that made it that memorable.
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