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Old-fashioned Southern Tea Cakes Are Good for the Soul

by Kara Kimbrough

I was feeling good about my foray into baking old-fashioned tea cakes last weekend until I read Martha Stewart’s Instagram post about her weekend project. I could paraphrase her words, but nobody says it better than Martha:

“Here’s an impressive baking project to tackle this weekend!” she wrote. “This rosy riff on a strawberry shortcake is sure to become a new Bundt cake classic. Egg whites and cake flour create a stark white batter (and super tender crumb) that is a perfect canvas for tinting. For the pink part, flavor a third of the batter with ground freeze-dried strawberries. To serve, we filled the center of the cake with whipped cream and macerated berries.”

If you have an Instagram account, check out her impressive cake. If not, picture an elegantly-shaped cake courtesy of Nordic Ware’s Crown Bundt pan, a beautiful interior with a delicate pink swirl, and a crown of fluffy cream and strawberries. I’d share the recipe, but it can only be found in the May issue of Martha Stewart Living. Since magazines are not on my essential must-haves right now, I haven’t picked up a copy.

OK, enough comparison with others’ baking skills. I wanted to make tea cakes after reading an old Guideposts daily devotion. One of the devotions described a pastor’s wife dropping off old-fashioned tea cakes to an older lady who no longer baked. After sampling one bag of the delicious treats, the tea cake recipient told the pastor’s wife that looking forward to the next drop-off added an element of excitement and surprise to her quiet life.

I was so intrigued by the simple act of kindness that I couldn’t tell you the scripture or overriding moral message of the devotion. Maybe it was that reaching out to those in need in simple ways can be more meaningful and portray our love for Christ and others better than grand gestures.

After reading the devotion, I couldn’t stop thinking about those tea cakes. I hadn’t made them in years, so I began searching for a recipe. I settled on the simplest one I could find and made a batch to share with co-workers. Overall, I was satisfied with the recipe but felt the taste was a little flat and dry.

I made a second batch and added a little lemon zest and the contents of half of a vanilla bean (find it in the spice aisle). And, I rolled the cookies between two pieces of parchment paper to reduce the amount of flour I’d previously used for rolling.

If you haven’t bit into a soft, flavorful, old-fashioned Southern tea cake in a while, there’s no time like the present to make some. They may not be Instagram-worthy, but the taste would have made my grandmother, and possibly even Martha, proud. Old-Fashioned Tea Cakes, 2020-Style 4 cups all-purpose flour 1 teaspoon baking soda 2 teaspoons baking powder 2 cups sugar 2 eggs 1/2 cup buttermilk 2 sticks softened butter 1 teaspoon vanilla Half of a vanilla bean, contents scraped out Zest of a small lemon Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. In a large bowl, sift flour, baking soda, and baking powder together. Add remaining ingredients and blend well. Dough will be soft and wet. On a piece of very lightly-floured parchment paper, shape the dough into a disk. Wrap disk with plastic wrap and refrigerate for one hour. Lightly flour another sheet of parchment paper, place dough on top, and cover with another sheet of parchment paper. Roll dough out until approximately 1/4 inch thick. Using a round biscuit or cookie cutter, cut dough into desired shapes, and bake on a slightly greased sheet pan for 10 to 12 minutes.

Makes about six to eight dozen tea cakes. (If you don’t need that many cookies, wrap remaining dough in plastic wrap and place in a Ziploc bag in the freezer for later use.)

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