Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark.
I don’t remember how I came to taste these delicate cookies for the first time. I only remember the people.
We met at the end of a football game in high school, and it was the kind of friendship that’s immediate and rare. I soon learned that his mom was known for a peculiar sugar cookie—soft as air, delicately sweet, a subtle bit of cloud baked into rounds. I fell in love, and good thing, too, because she sent them to me all the time after that. St. Patrick’s Day meant a bag of sugar cookies dyed green, Easter meant a chocolate variety. College finals were met with a package mailed to my dorm room, a long-distance love letter. Hello, how are you? Just wanted to make sure you had a little treat.
Over time, I realized the cookies were like the family: unassuming on the outside; beautiful, tender, and sweet on the inside. But it wasn’t until over 10 years had passed, until I’d married the boy I met at the end of the football game, that she said one day as we got out of the car, “When we were little, we called them sugar cookies. But before that, they were tea cakes.”
We’d called the cookies many things over the years. Sugar cookies, pound cake cookies, cloud cookies. I was fond of cloud cookies because that’s what they tasted like to me and I’d fallen in love with the little treats and how they punctuated our holidays and special events. I spent most of my college years hoarding them in my desk, rationing out the care packages she’d sent me so I could savor them as long as possible. But the mention of the mysterious origin of the cookies got me thinking. I’d never considered where the cookies had come from, but now that I knew they had a history, the genealogy nerd in me became intrigued. I had to know more.
A Wee Bit of History
Tea cake recipes abound (you can even spot them on YouTube!), but what I really wanted to know was how old the recipe was.
“Early English and Dutch immigrants first introduced the cookie to America in the 1600s. While the English primarily referred to cookies as small cakes, seed biscuits, or tea cakes, or by specific names, such as jumbal or macaroon, the Dutch called the koekjes, a diminutive of koek (cake)…Etymologists note that by the early 1700s, koekje had been Anglicized into “cookie” or “cookey,” and the word clearly had become part of the American vernacular.”
– Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, Andrew F. Smith editor [Oxford University Press:New York] 2004, Volume 1 (p. 317)
One early reference is in American Frugal Housewife, published in 1829, in which Lydia Maria Child writes, “There is a kind of tea cake still cheaper. Three cups of sugar, three eggs, one cup of butter, one cup of milk, a spoonful of dissolved pearlash [a type of leavening], and four cups of flour, well beat up. If it is so stiff it will not stir easily, add a little more milk.” (Lydia is a fascinating person. She was “a controversial author who used her pen to eloquently and fearlessly fight for the abolition of slavery and defend the rights of African-Americans, Native Americans and women,” [source] and you have her to thank for your pumpkin pie every Thanksgiving.) Lyda believed not every American had the means to afford household help (or desire), and those who didn’t—who were moving as the country expanded west or starting out on their own—deserved a guide. So, she wrote American Frugal Housewife. Her mention of tea cakes as “still cheaper” compared to other recipes wasn’t a negative. Child dedicated the book to those “who are not ashamed of Economy,” and she meant it.
Another mention comes in 1877-78. Marion Cabell Tyree published Housekeeping In Old Virginia (you can read it online here). Sourced from 250 ladies from “famous homes” in Virginia and surrounding states, including recipes from Mrs. Gen. Robert E. Lee, the recipes are meant, as Ms. Tyree explains in the opening chapter on breadmaking, to educate housewives on the ways in which famous households of the day were run and the recipes prepared. Educating oneself on these matters didn’t mean the housewife was meant to be in the kitchen with dough all over her hands every day, but that she could better spot “blemishes” and correct her cook when necessary. (The language Tyree wrote this with made me cringe, but it did answer a question I’d had: why wealthy white women at that time who wouldn’t be cooking for themselves would need a cookbook.) Between the yellowed, crumbling pages of the cake chapter are a number of recipes for tea cakes.
Above: an original 1877 copy of Housekeeping In Old Virginia
Recipes for tea cakes vary quite a bit. Some have citrus or spices, some cream or buttermilk. Like a lot of Southern cuisine, there’s a strong tie to the African-American community, and many source the cakes to slaves, who made tea cakes as their own simpler versions of the cakes served to white visitors in the big house. Our family’s recipe can be traced back three generations, but after that, the trail disappears. (Perhaps they originated in a book like American Frugal Housewife?) I like to imagine every household had its signature tea cake, and when you’d visit, you’d sit with a plate between you on the front porch and let the delicate cakes melt slow and sweet onto your tongue as the hot summer air mellowed into dusk.
Knowing the history of the cakes, even without full clarity, has added to their legend for me. Now when I make them, I think of the women who made them before me, a dough passed down through generations, rolled through palm after palm, imprinted with the history of my husband’s family. They say that palms contain our pasts, presents, and futures in their lines, begging to be read. Didn’t they know all three already exist, rolled right into this soft, delicately sweet dough?
I make them now whenever I need something comforting, with little flourishes: lavender sometimes, almond paste others. They’re lovely dipped in dark chocolate. But always, they’re a comfort.
Dante writes, “midway upon the journey of our life/I found myself within a forest dark/For the straightforward pathway had been lost.” If Picasso had his blue period, then can we say I’m in my forest dark period? This isn’t to say it’s all crumbling stone and sand right now. But it is to say I feel as if I’m entering the beginning of a Change. My father died in March, and though it feels like stripping naked in a crowded room to admit it, I’m grieving. (Why does speaking/writing that word feel like such an exposing admission? Perhaps that’s a post for another day, with a recipe steeped in bourbon or sugar.) I cry in a blink over a sudden rush of memory. I hate and love the songs of Frank Sinatra. I both want to escape it and conquer it at the same time. I find myself baking lots and lots of cookies.
I’m also simultaneously struggling with one of the most devoted pastimes of my adult life: my habit of daily reading the news. It’s a difficult thing, admitting to yourself that one of your great loves might currently be toxic to your mental wellbeing. How does one break up with such a thing when one is addicted to knowledge? Ack. TBD? I really don’t know.
In the midst of these two all-encompassing things, I was diagnosed with a manageable heart condition. It’s not life-threatening as long as I handle it/myself with some attention and, frankly, the care I should’ve always handled myself with. (It also means I shouldn’t be eating all these cookies.)
It’s upon the doorstep of this moment in my life when a book by one of my favorite authors was released into the world, coincidentally titled Forest Dark. Oh, good, I thought when I saw it, the same way one might breathe again when you see a dear friend who lives five states away. This is where I am too. I haven’t yet started to read it. I’m picking the right time and place. You know the one. Some things deserve to be savored. When I do finally grab a moment to read, here’s what I predict it’ll look like. A quiet morning with a chill in the air and a breeze letting itself in through the open porch door. The sound of the wind chimes, a favorite of my dad’s. A cup of steaming decaf balanced precariously on the arm of my chair, because why make it all easy when I could also court a mess?
History has a shy way of slipping into the cracks of the past if we let it. It’s up to us to introduce ourselves to it, slow and kind, over a mixing bowl and bar of softened butter, coaxing it from the shadows of the past into the airy cocoon of a hot kitchen. Let’s not wait for things to cool. Let’s be in a rush to remember. Let’s taste them right from the cooling rack, and let them melt their memories all over our tongues. Let’s do it over again at the holidays, and then let’s do it for no reason at all. Every taste is an heirloom from the past to the present. Every taste is a memory revived.
If you’re having trouble finding almond paste at your local grocery stores, try online here.
Classic Almond Tea Cakes
about 3 1/2 dozen
1/2 (7-oz.) log almond paste (do not use marzipan)
1 cup (8 oz.) good-quality salted butter, softened (I use Kerrygold)
1 cup plus 1/4 cup granulated sugar, divided
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1 tsp. vanilla extract
3 cups (13.5 oz.) all-purpose flour
4 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
Beat together almond paste, butter, and 1 cup sugar at medium speed with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs and vanilla until blended.
Sift together flour, baking powder, and salt. Gradually add to butter mixture, beating until just blended after each addition. Cover and chill dough 3 hours or overnight. (For best results, it should be very cold.)
Preheat oven to 350°F. Scoop dough into small balls using a 1 Tablespoon-size measuring spoon, and roll between your hands into a ball. Roll in 1/4 cup sugar to coat, and place on ungreased baking sheets. Flatten slightly using the bottom of a cup.
Bake 8 to 10 minutes or until puffed, centers are set, and edges are barely golden. Cool on baking sheets 1 minute, and transfer to wire racks. Store in airtight containers at room temperature up to a week.
I like to chill the dough overnight for the best results. Though it’s unusual to chill a dough with baking powder, it works well in this recipe. You can also substitute self-rising flour for all-purpose; just omit the salt and baking powder.
Lavender Tea Cakes: Omit almond paste. Sift 1 to 2 tsp. dried lavender into flour mixture before adding to the dough.
Photos by Beth Branch.