My Best Friend’s Favorite: Tea Cakes

25 Aug

If you ask people in different countries what a tea cake is, you are likely to receive surprisingly different answers. In England, it is a yeast-risen bun typically studded with dried fruit and generally served split and toasted. But if you ask for one in Scotland, you might receive a chocolate coated Italian meringue set on top of a biscuit. The Swedes’ tea cakes are lightly sweetened yeast breads often served with butter and jam or cheese, and Australia’s version is a heavy sponge cake served warm as an accompaniment to a cup of tea.

And then there are the tea cakes of the American southeast. Though the history is somewhat muddled, they are said to have originated in the rural south by slaves who used meager rations of simple ingredients to make the unpretentious pastry. These were a sort of rustic version of the delicate pastries served by affluent white women entertaining visitors. They are something of a cross between a scone and a cookie, and are thick, tender, and lightly sweet.

They are also beloved by my dear Joe. He doesn’t have the same insatiable sweet tooth that I do, so when he comes back for seconds of a baked good, I know it must be special. He especially enjoys them as a breakfast treat and has remarked on several occasions that they are his new favorite thing I make.

While the traditional tea cake is served plain, I like to finish mine with just a little bit of vanilla-almond buttercream for extra sweetness and flavor. These soft, wonderful treats are easy to make, take very few ingredients, and can be done quite quickly. That’s especially nice when you want to whip up something special for your sweetheart. So let’s get to sharing…

Tea Cakes

  • 4 oz. (8 tbsp.) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • ½ cup granulated sugar
  • 3 eggs, room temperature
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsp. baking powder (aluminum-free if possible)
  • ½ tsp. kosher salt

Vanilla-Almond Buttercream

  • 1 ½ cups powdered sugar
  • 3 oz. (6 tbsp.) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • ½ tsp. vanilla extract
  • ¼ tsp. almond extract
  • Food coloring (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt in a bowl and set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the butter on medium speed until it is smooth and creamy. Add the granulated sugar and vanilla extract and beat until light and fluffy.

Add the eggs, beating well between each addition and scraping down the bowl as necessary.

Add the flour mixture to the wet ingredients and mix until everything is combined.

Turn the soft dough out onto a lightly floured surface and pat or roll it out to ½ in. thickness. Cut out the tea cakes in whatever shape you desire. I have used a 2 in. round cutter several times for this recipe, but I also love this 2 in. heart shaped cutter. Depending on the size cutter you use, you’ll get anywhere from 12-18 tea cakes.

Place the tea cakes on a parchment-lined baking sheet. You don’t need to leave much space between them. They will rise up, but will not spread very much. Bake for 12-14 minutes or until lightly golden on the bottom.

Move the tea cakes to a wire rack to cool while you prepare the buttercream.

Place the soft butter in the bowl of a stand mixer and beat until creamy. Add the powdered sugar and extracts and beat until smooth and fluffy.

If you desire, you can tint the frosting with food coloring at this point and beat it until well distributed. I really like the Americolor gel food coloring for frosting.

You can spread the frosting on the completely cooled tea cakes with a knife or pipe it on if you enjoy decorating. Of course I had to get a little fancy, these were for my very best buddy.

And that’s it! The tea cakes cool quickly, so you can have these done and ready to enjoy in about an hour. They are best enjoyed fresh, but kept in a well-sealed container at room temperature, they’ll keep for several days. Here are some other variations:

Food doesn’t have to be grand and complicated to be delightful. These treats were born out of a desire to make something special at a time when ingredients were slim. All that really matters is how much they’re enjoyed by the recipient, and the smile on Joe’s face told me everything I needed to know.

Ciao for now,


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