A Dispatch From the Land of Tea Cakes

The tea cake is the madeleine of the American south. Like the madeleine it is a very basic, sugar, flour, butter, eggs concoction. It is the sort of thing our elders served when people came over in the afternoon. It’s simple and a bit dense, the sort of thing you’d dip into a cup of tea. Unlike the madeleine, the tea cake is a shape shifter. But more on that later.
sugar, flour, butter, eggs, salt, vanilla, baking soda

These are the ingredients. The eggs are sitting in warm water because I forgot to bring them to room temperature:

  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 cup butter
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 3 eggs

–cream these ingredients and then add:

  • 4 1/2 cups flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon soda

The dough will look like this:

An important thing to remember is that there is a lot of flour in this dough. It isn’t sticky. I think that’s why it’s so easy to roll out.

This is only half the dough the recipe made. I rolled the dough into two logs and put them in the fridge while I considered my next move. I decided I’d make little cakes, and put dough inside a mini- muffin tin. I sprinkled the dough with sugar.

Here’s the mini-muffin tin. And now, a confession. Although I liked these, they were not a hit with everyone in my house. My husband thought they were too dry. One son liked them a lot. Another son said they were just way too rich. He had a quarter of a cake and that was it for him. I left them in the kitchen at work, and they did disappear.  This might not be the best measure of yumminess.  Stale cheerios will disappear from that kitchen, if you are patient enough.

I began to think about the denseness problem, and had an inspiration. If I rolled the dough out very, very thin, maybe the cookies wouldn’t be so overwhelming. And then I remembered those farm animal cookie cutters, the ones I’ve never used because, well, I’ve always been too busy to use things like that. Or thought I was. But this summer — and the rest of my life — is going to be different. I’m using our stuff. But I digress.

Here they are — cute huh? Animals.  I cooked these in a 325 degree oven for eight minutes, then took them out, turned the cookie sheet around and cooked them for another eight minutes. They’re done when they’re brown and smell really good.

Apples are nice too.

This is what I mean by the shape shifting properties of this dough. Roll it thin and cut it out with any cutter you like and it will be whatever you wish. How many things in life are like that?

Here are my family’s reactions:

  1. Husband: The thinner the better. (Not you, of course, just the dough. Your shape is perfect.)
  2. My youngest son: They’re good. I like the fat ones better, because you get more.
  3. One of my older sons: Good job mom. I’d like these in my lunch. They’re like chessmen cookies.
  4. Other son. Too busy talking on the phone with a friend to say much. Thumbs up.

Have a cookie, darlin’:


12 thoughts on “A Dispatch From the Land of Tea Cakes

  1. Hi Susan — Did you hear the sound of small children eating apples? Crunch, crunch. They liked the farm animals too. We sat outside, and toasted summer. Best, Lily (PS: Your book came today — it looks lovely — full of wonderful essays and poems. I’m so glad I ordered it.)

  2. They look yummy, I might try this recipe. Just one thing: are you using vanilla extract or vanilla essence? I like to use pods, but I guess when baking, extract (or essence) gets through everything more evenly.

  3. Dear Edwin — I used vanilla extract — I imagine you could use other kinds of extracts. I thought about making these more lemony, with lemon essence and lemon peel. As I said, this is a protean kind of dough — you can play around with it, I think.

    Charlottte — i was surprised by the amount of flour and thought about reducing that some. Next time, I very well might. One reason the cookies are a bit dry is because of all that flour. And, also, the only liquid is from the eggs. Other, more modern, sugar cookies employ things like sour cream (just a tiny bit) to perk up the dough. What interests me about these cookies is that they’re from an entirely different time and I wanted to know what that feels like. Eating them was a little bit of a time machine experience. It is a bonus that they actually taste quite nice. Let me know what happens!

  4. Oh, I always forget to bring eggs to room temperature and every time, without fail, they explode. Putting them in warm water is a good idea. I like your duck cutter. I have a very small man cutter but he doesn’t get much use. I like the idea of using him to cut out these cookies, lemon zest ones sound delicious.

  5. Hello Q (I feel like I’m james Bond whenever I type your name!) That’s such a nice way to put it, about the hearth and the center. As for cameras, I use an inexpensive digital camera — a kodak easyshare cx73.. something maybe cx7300 or 7330.

    It’s easy to use, and now that I have rechargeable batteries and have figured out how to upload pictures, I feel like it’s finally useful. I used to use a Nikon FM SLR, which I really liked, but this small digital camera travels so much better. Many people who are far better photographers than I have emphasized how doing good work is a matter of a person’s eye, much more than their camera. I use the camera for illustrative purposes, and find it interesting to illustrate what I’m writing about.

  6. I’m searching the ‘net for my north Texas gramma’s recipe and came upon your’s. You are quite a gifted writer, thank you!

    The only parts I can remember from my childhood are that she used self rising flour and oil. When mom made them, she’d roll little balls, which left her hands oily, and the balls would melt into perfect round flat cookies. They were best when just barely turning brown around the edges, mostly “white” all over. They’d be crunchy at first, but in ensuing days, they’d pull moisture from the air and get wonderfully soft and chewy.

    I’d been told that they were meant to be little cakes, but all the sugar makes them fall, becoming cookies.

    Oh, and the best ones – mom started adding cocoa and chocolate chips! Pure heaven.

    Thanks for a wonderful blog!

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