When my nieces were young, my mother entertained them with elaborate, imaginative, improv games like “Shop.” In “Shop,” my mom played the shopkeeper and my nieces played various versions of stereotypical shoppers — some young, some old, some nice and friendly, others pushy or with discriminating taste, some who liked everything, some who couldn’t be pleased. The “Shop” setting was my mother’s den, which worked very well because she had lots and lots of beautiful little things, little breakable, fanciful things, displayed in pretty glass-front cabinets and other ornate open-front furniture pieces.
Inevitably, “Shop” turned into “Fancy Tea Party,” played with British accents, elaborate costumes and very serious character acting. The girls assigned themselves and my mother each a character then went about creating. Having access to the many racks and boxes of costume pieces my sister (their mother), Amy, stored in the upstairs studio of their home, they donned wigs, jewelry, hats, vintage dresses, veils, faux fur stoles, high heeled shoes and anything else they could find. As resident choreographer and dance teacher at the local children’s theater, my sister was always collecting for the always-upcoming next production, so the girls could play dress-up like few others.
Pinkie fingers out; mom’s vintage Royal Albert tea set filled and set; lemon slices, cream, and sugar cubes arranged; the girls practiced their manners while sipping tea and eating what my mother called “tea cakes.” Regardless of whether they were homemade or a store bought variety, the cookies were called tea cakes.
Inevitably, conversations about what made a tea cake a tea cake arose. By the girls’ logic, neither the Pepperidge Farms cookies they were nibbling nor any of the cookies they baked were actually called “tea cakes” on the label, so clearly what they had couldn’t be a tea cake.
My mom spun all sorts of stories about all things British, complete fiction really, since she had no firsthand knowledge, but the girls loved her stories and occasionally put the missing real tea cakes out of their minds. Before long, however, they circled back. Never actually being clear, thanks to the imaginative tales mom told while “in character,” the girls managed to revisit their desire to make and serve real tea cakes.
This is the recipe that became the tea cake recipe. It originated from a supposed “friend of my mother’s,” whom she said was born and raised “just outside of London.” As though it had been handed down from royalty, the girls were thrilled to have such a prize. I admit I was, and still am, dubious of this recipe’s origin. But admittedly, I didn’t know much about real English tea cakes at the time, so I kept my suspicions to myself. Regardless of how my mother came to have this recipe, the resulting cookies are just what you’d choose to accompany your hot beverage of choice. Not too sweet and with a hint of vanilla, they are simple and delicious.
It’s funny, I still don’t know the real story behind this recipe, or if there even is a backstory. I do know these were a hit from the first batch. They are an icebox cookie, so you make the dough then chill it for two hours before rolling it out. They are the perfect cookie with which to let the kids help. I generally make the dough ahead of time when entertaining little ones, then they help roll it out and use their favorite cookie cutters to make the cookie shapes.
You’ll love the taste of these just as they are, but you can use this recipe to create as many different flavor combinations as you can imagine by adding spices and/or very finely chopped nuts. It is foolproof.
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I can attest that these cookies go great with the telling of tall tales and grand stories. My mother was one of the best at the art of embellishment, and my nieces have incredible memories tied to these cookies thanks to the fun their grandmother both created and inspired while serving them. Riffing off of some kernel of knowledge about some historical figure or bygone British custom, she knew how to weave a wonderful yarn. I think she missed her calling as an actor, but she did help manifest a magical world of pretend for my nieces, all while instilling table manners and providing a history lesson or two.
This tea cake recipe may very well be an old family recipe of my mother’s friend who was born “on the outskirts of London,” (but it might not be). All we know for sure is that it makes real tea cakes. Just ask my nieces.
30 minutes, plus 2 hours of chilling
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar
2 small eggs
1 tablespoon *sour milk or buttermilk (Sour milk is made from adding a tiny bit of vinegar to regular milk or even alternative milk like almond or macadamia milk; see Cook’s notes)
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- Beat butter with electric whisk until creamy, then gradually add the sugar, beating well.
- Add eggs and beat well.
- Combine milk, baking soda, salt and vanilla.
- Add this mixture to the butter mixture alternating it with the addition of the flour.
- Knead it to combine thoroughly.
- Cover and chill in the refrigerator for 2 hours.
- Preheat to 375 and line baking sheet with parchment or lightly butter
- Roll dough to ¼-inch thickness on a floured surface.
- Cut out cookies using cookie cutters of choice.
- Bake for 10 minutes.
- Cool completely on wire racks.
I like using Brown Coconut Sugar in this recipe. It is unrefined, has a low glycemic index, and imparts subtle caramel and molasses notes. It isn’t as sweet as regular sugar, but I like that too. That said, any sugar works for this recipe. Experiment and see what you like best.
Any milk works in this recipe. Just make it “sour” by adding a tiny bit of vinegar. I use raw, apple cider vinegar. Because you use so little, and if you choose not to use buttermilk, I make a mixture of 1/4 cup of milk to 3/4 teaspoon of vinegar.
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