As a child, I loved helping my grandma make tea cakes. Wide-eyed, I watched her turn simple ingredients such as vanilla, sugar, flour, and butter into sunshine-colored batter. I couldn't wait to shower the circles of rolled-out dough with cinnamon or rainbow-colored jimmies.
While the tea cakes baked, Grandma and I talked and laughed. Then we munched the melt-in-your-mouth cookies until our hearts and stomachs were full.
When I was growing up in Pittsburgh, tea cakes were a part of my hometown heritage. Just as I could proudly name the black writers who sprang from our neighborhoods and the legendary jazz musicians who once made joints jump on the Hill, I celebrated my grandma's special cookies.
Now, as a wife, mom, and writer living in the South, I realize they connect me to an even deeper legacy.
One bite of a tea cake sends me on a tour through African-American history. I think about plantation cooks who may have baked tea cakes for their white owners, but could have been whipped for sneaking a taste themselves.
I remember my grandma telling me about her grandmother, Ida, who kept a couple of the golden cookies in the front pockets of her apron and popped them into her children's mouths just when working on the farm got hardest.
I recall the joy I felt when my brother and I came home from school to find tea cakes fresh from the oven.
That's what I thought about when I spotted a recipe for tea cakes in a Southern cookbook a couple years ago. Right then, it hit me what Grandma had given me – a bridge between today and forgotten times.
I hadn't longed for tea cakes in years. But that recipe and recollection made me ache for that taste of home. Grandma never wrote her recipe down, so I relied on cookbooks, my mom and aunts, and my memory.
I stood in the kitchen mixing the batter and rolling the dough as I had seen Grandma do so many times before. I felt her spirit and the legacy of strong, black women who struggled and soared, turning scraps into sustenance.
I debuted my tea cakes at a family Kwanzaa celebration. All around, people smiled and nodded their heads when they saw them. Some relatives closed their eyes as they took a bite. I knew they, too, were transported to a special place.
Today, I tell my 3-year-old daughter about my grandma's tea cakes and hope that one day the recipe and story will give her family a taste of history.
For now, they're my special link to a rich part of Southern culture. They're a piece of home and the past.
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
2-1/4 cups sugar
1-1/2 teaspoons vanilla
3-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
1-1/2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
In a large mixing bowl, cream butter and sugar. Add eggs, one at a time, and vanilla. Mix well after each addition.
In another bowl, blend flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Add the flour mixture, a cup at a time, to the butter mixture, beating well each time.
Roll dough on a floured board or surface. You may want to flour your hands so you can work with the dough more easily. Cut the dough into rounds with the floured rim of a glass. Place on a greased cookie sheet. Decorate cookie rounds with chocolate or rainbow-colored sprinkles or cinnamon sugar.
Bake until cookies begin to firm and bottoms are lightly brown, about 12 to 14 minutes. Makes about 3 dozen.
Many Southerners, white as well as African-American, have fond memories of the tea cakes – actually a type of cookie – they remember from their childhood.
Tea cakes originated in Britain and were served, as the name implies, with afternoon tea. But in the South, the cookies evolved into a special snack.
In some families they were served only on holidays. In others, they were especially for children.
Recipes for tea cakes were passed down in families. Often the cookie was plain – much like a sugar cookie but usually softer (although there are crisp versions). It was a basic cookie that could be made with ingredients on hand. But some cooks added finely chopped nuts, grated lemon rind, or spices. Multicolored sprinkles on top were always a particular treat.
Elbert Mackey of Austin, Texas, has been collecting recipes and memories for a book he hopes to release soon. (See www.teacakeproject.com.)