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Old-Fashioned Southern Tea Cakes Recipe

Holle is a retired English teacher. She loves to cook and share recipes with others.

Try my tea cake recipe!

Try my tea cake recipe!

Tea Cakes: A Classic Southern Food

If you’re not a Southerner, you might not be familiar with tea cakes. I grew up on them. At my grandmother’s house, we had them while lots of other kids were munching on Oreos or chocolate chip cookies.

What are tea cakes, exactly? They’re sort of a cross between a small cake and a cookie. They’re very soft and light, while the outer edges are crisp. The sweetness level ranges from cook to cook. Granny’s weren’t quite as sweet as mine are, but some cooks make super-sweet versions that contain more sugar than I use. I guess mine are sort of a “middle of the road” version.

In my opinion, a good tea cake has a nicely browned bottom and browned edges, but most of the top parts of the cake should be very light-colored. How do I achieve this? I get these results from using a dark metal baking pan—my trusty old biscuit pan! It’s also important to bake at the right temperature and for the right amount of time. I’ve found that 350 degrees are perfect for my recipe and that 13 minutes is just the right amount of baking time.

We like our tea cakes while they’re still warm from the oven, with coffee, hot tea, or a glass of cold milk. If you want to get fancy, you can ice or frost your tea cakes or sprinkle them with colored sugar. If you decide to do that, you might want to cut down on the amount of sugar you use in the recipe.

I like my tea cakes to have brown bottoms.

I like my tea cakes to have brown bottoms.

Tea Cake Recipe

Remember to use a dark metal pan for the best tea cakes results. Place your oven rack in the top third of your oven. Don’t put in the tea cakes until the oven has been properly preheated. Also, use real butter—not margarine. Feel free to adjust the amount of sugar to suit your own taste.

Cook Time

Prep timeCook timeReady inYields

5 min

13 min

18 min

makes 2 dozen tea cakes

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 stick butter, softened
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 1/2 cups self-rising flour, plus more for kneading
  • 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg OR cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease a baking pan or cookie sheet.
  2. Cream sugar and butter together until fluffy. Add an egg and beat well. Add the other egg and beat again. Stir in the vanilla flavoring.
  3. Whisk together flour, nutmeg or cinnamon, and salt. Add to butter mixture until a moist dough forms.
  4. Turn the dough onto a floured surface. Sprinkle more flour on top of the dough. Knead dough three or four times. If the dough is still too sticky, add just enough flour to make it stiff enough to handle.
  5. Roll out dough with a rolling pin, or pat it out with your palms. The dough should be about 1/3-inch thick. Flour a two-inch round cutter and cut out circles. Place tea cakes on the prepared pan, about ½ -1 inch apart.
  6. Bake for 13 minutes and remove from the oven. After cooling for about one minute, the cakes can be transferred to a plate or platter. Use a spatula to move the cookies. You can frost the cakes once they cool, but they’re great just as they are. Try them with a cup of hot coffee or spiced tea. Pour the kids a big glass of milk to go with their tea cakes.

The Lost Art of Tea Cake-Making

This is an old-fashioned recipe. In fact, I searched all my cookbooks and was unable to find a single tea cake recipe. I tried some online recipes, but they didn’t turn out exactly as I wanted mine too, so I had to do some experimenting.

Some of the recipes I tried made hard cakes that were like brittle cookies. Some were so soft that they were more like biscuits than tea cakes. I think, however, after trial and error, I finally hit upon the right ratio of all the ingredients.

My Grandmother's Recipe

My grandmother made these all the time. She was a genteel Southern lady from Charleston, South Carolina. Of course, her upbringing had a huge influence on her cooking, and tea cakes were among her specialties. She always used nutmeg in hers, but since I’m not a big fan of nutmeg, I prefer to use ground cinnamon instead.

It seems to me that making tea cakes is a lost art. I have lots of friends who are excellent cooks, with southern cooks among them, but I don’t know of anyone outside my family who still makes homemade tea cakes. I suppose it’s a lot easier to buy cookies and snack cakes from a supermarket, but the taste is nowhere near the same. Not to mention the wonderful aroma that drifts through the house when I bake. You certainly can’t buy that in a store!

My grandmother grew up in this house, in Charleston.

My grandmother grew up in this house, in Charleston.

Sharing Memories and Traditions

I just took a batch of tea cakes out of the oven. Two of the grandsons are here with me, and they could hardly wait for the delicious morsels to get cool enough to eat. It’s all I could do to keep them from devouring the two dozen tea cakes I made. Poor hubby is at work today, and I had to save a few for him. After all, like the rest of my family, he’s a big fan of Southern food.

If you’ve been reading my recipes, you know that Southern recipes are near and dear to me. Oh, I cook and eat all sorts of cuisines, but Southern dishes will always be my favorite. Of course, I grew up on Southern food, but even if I hadn’t, I’m sure I would have discovered it sooner or later.

And lately, I’ve been making some old-fashioned Southern recipes and sharing them with the grandkids. I want them to experience different foods from their family history. As I’m compiling the cookbook I’m writing, I’ve been rediscovering lots of heirloom recipes that I’d all but forgotten. Tea cakes are one of them.

Questions & Answers

Question: My tea cake dough is way too sticky; what did I do wrong?

Answer: You probably need to add just a little flour.