Unassuming though they might look, Southern Tea Cakes are special cookies. It’s said that these sweet little cake-like cookies were served at tea parties hosted by Juliette Gordon Low in her efforts to form the Girl Scouts of America. Leave it to Southerners to create an empire out of butter and sugar. Make a pot of tea for two and nibble on these soft, cakey cookies lightly scented with nutmeg.
What is a Tea Cake in America?
If you've never heard of tea cakes, you should know exactly what you're dealing with. Tea cakes are soft roll-out cookies that are tender, chewy and pleasantly dense. They are a cookie with a cake-like texture. The ingredients are very simple (flour, sugar, butter, milk, nutmeg, and eggs), and the gentle flavor of nutmeg is what makes these so special.
I first came across tea cakes in Southern Living magazine, and gave them a try one holiday season. I'm happy to report that we make these year after year, because they're simplicity makes them so approachable yet still delicious.
Favorite way to serve Tea Cakes
We typically make these around Christmas time, because they're so great with hot cocoa or a warm mug of tea. My gingerbread latte and a chai hot chocolate are some of our favorite drinks to serve alongside.
What you'll need for this Tea Cake Recipe
Southern tea cakes have simple ingredients, so be sure to use high-quality butter and ensure your nutmeg is freshly grated.
- Butter. When baking, I reach for European-style butter, because it has less water and slightly more fat. I explain this in my puff pastry recipe post very well.
- Sugar. Plain, white granulated sugar is all we need.
- Vanilla. Always bake with pure vanilla extract, not imitation vanilla. In simple recipes with very few ingredients, the flavor of the vanilla really shines. Also, vanilla extract makes things taste sweeter without any additional sugar.
- Egg Yolks. We only need the egg yolks, not the egg whites. Separate two eggs, and save the egg whites for other things, like my baked Pumpkin Donut Holes.
- Milk. A very small amount of milk (just one teaspoon) makes this dough soft and cake-like, rather than crisp like a cookie. The extra egg yolk does the same thing.
- Flour. The best way to measure all-purpose flour for baking is to fluff it with a spoon, scoop the cup into the flour, and then scrape off the surface with a butter knife.
- Baking Soda.
- Nutmeg. These tea cakes have a sprinkling of sugar and freshly grated nutmeg on top before baking, and it is the key to their incredible flavor. If possible, try to use fresh whole nutmeg that you grate fresh on a microplane.
Equipment needed for making Tea Cookies
This Southern tea cakes cookie recipe requires a few standard baking tools.
- Hand Mixer for bringing the cookie dough together.
- Microplane for grating the fresh nutmeg on top.
- Small Rolling Pin for rolling out the dough before cutting out the circle shapes.
- Circle cookie cutter set, though you can always use a water glass to keep things super simple! For the tea cakes in the photos, I use the 2.5-inch size circle cutter.
How to make Tea Cakes
This dough comes together quickly in one bowl using a hand-held mixer, and then it is rolled out and cut into perfect circles. The cookie cutter is the key to the iconic perfect circle shape of the tea cake.
1. In a medium bowl, combine the butter and sugar together, and beat, using a handheld electric mixer, until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes.
2. Next, add the vanilla, egg yolks and milk. Beat well. Remember that you're only using the egg yolks, not the whole egg!
3. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, salt and baking soda in a small bowl.
4. Pour one-third of the flour mixture into the butter and beat until just combined. Add another ⅓ of the flour and continue beating lightly. Finally, add the last flour and beat until just combined—do not overmix.
5. Shape the dough into a square disk that roughly measures 6 inches, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for 15 minutes. When you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350-degrees Fahrenheit.
6. Lightly flour a work surface and dump the dough out onto it. Using a rolling pin, roll the dough into a ¼” rectangle and cut out 8 circles with a 2 ½” round cookie or biscuit cutter. Then, gather and re-roll the scraps to get 4 more cookies, for a total of 12 cookies.
7. Place cookies a greased baking sheet, sprinkle lightly with sugar and freshly grated nutmeg, and bake for 9 minutes. The cookies should not have any brownness around the edges; they will be puffed in the middle.
8. Cool on the sheet for 5 minutes before moving to wire rack to cool completely. Enjoy immediately, or keep in an air-tight container for up to 5 days.
Tea Cookies storage
Since these are holiday cookies, you should know that they are great when made in advance! However, they need to be stored in an airtight container so that they can stay fresh for up to 5 days. You can make and freeze the dough in advance at the dough chill step, but let it rest at room temperature until it's soft enough to roll out and cut circles. You can freeze already baked cookies months in advance, and then let them thaw at room temperature before serving.
Tea Cakes Recipe FAQs
While I wish we still had the tradition of pausing every afternoon for tea and a sweet treat, we simply do not anymore. I believe the name 'tea cake' comes from their affinity for afternoon tea parties.
Tea cakes are simple roll-out sugar cookies with a slightly dense, cake-like texture sprinkled with nutmeg and sugar. They are elegant cookies that are always perfectly shaped in circles.
A tea cake in America is what you see here: a soft sugar cookie with a light dusting of nutmeg on top before baking. In England, a tea cake is similar to a soft sweet bun but it can even be a scone!
If you look closely in the photos, I think you'll see that these cookies are a much brighter yellow than regular sugar cookies. This is because the dough contains only egg yolks. The egg yolks along with the small splash of milk make these cookies, soft, dense and cake-like. In contract, a sugar cookie is typically crisp around the edges and soft maybe in the center only. It often contains cracks, like my Easy Sugar Cookie Recipe.
The best types of cookies to eat with tea are simple cookies that don’t overpower the taste of the delicate fragrant tea. Anything small, pretty and buttery is always a safe bet. I like to serve an assortment of shortbread (like my lemon shortbread), these tea cakes, and strawberry jam cookies.
Perfect tea time sweet cookies to enjoy with a cup of tea! They're Southern tea cakes!
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
- ½ cup sugar
- ½ teaspoon vanilla
- 2 large egg yolks
- 1 teaspoon milk
- 1 cup flour
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon baking soda
- Sugar & freshly grated nutmeg for sprinkling on top
- In a medium bowl, beat the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes.
- Add the vanilla, egg yolks and milk; beat well.
- Whisk together the flour, salt and baking soda in a separate small bowl. Pour ⅓ of the flour mixture into the butter and beat until just combined. Add another ⅓ of the flour and continue beating lightly. Finally, add the last flour and beat until just combined—do not overmix.
- Shape the dough into a disk, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for 15 minutes.
- When you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350°.
- Lightly flour a work surface and dump the dough out onto it. Then, using a small rolling pin, roll the dough into a ¼” rectangle and cut out 8 circles with a 2 ½” round cookie or biscuit cutter.
- Reroll the scraps to get 4 more cookies. Place cookies a greased (or parchment paper lined) baking sheet, sprinkle lightly with sugar and freshly grated nutmeg, and bake for 9 minutes. The cookies should not have any brownness around the edges, however, they will be puffed in the middle. Cool on the sheet for 5 minutes before moving to wire rack to cool completely. Enjoy with tea.
Storage/ Make-Ahead: Since these are holiday cookies, you should know that they are great when made in advance! However, they need to be stored in an airtight container so that they can stay fresh for up to 5 days. You can make and freeze the dough in advance at the dough chill step, but let it rest at room temperature until its soft enough to roll out and cut circles. You can freeze already baked cookies months in advance, and then let them thaw at room temperature before serving.
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 124Total Fat: 5gSaturated Fat: 3gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 2gCholesterol: 57mgSodium: 84mgCarbohydrates: 17gFiber: 0gSugar: 9gProtein: 2g
Maris (In Good taste) says
As a former Girl Scout myself, i will definitely bake these delicious cookies. Wonderful cause.
These cookies looks lovely, and what a great cause.
Congratulations on being the TastyKitchen featured member this week! It's well deserved. I was happy to log in this morning and see your smiling face on the home page. =)
What lovely little cookies, and for a wonderful cause!!
I adore tea cakes, perfect for having the ladies over, great casue!1
Christy Spurlock says
I make at least two batches a week. My husband and I enjoy them in the evenings with a cup of green tea! Excellent recipe!
I had just one yolk so halved the recipe even further. Instead of rolling out the dough and cutting out cookies, I rolled the dough into a 2.5 inch diameter log, wrapped it in plastic wrap, and placed it in the fridge overnight. Next day, I simply cut the log into 1/4 inch slices and baked per instructions. The recipe is perfect! This will definitely be in my regular cookie rotation. This is my first visit to your website and I’ll be back for more recipes. So excited for small-batches!
I specifically came here to the comments to see if anyone had rolled the dough into a log and then sliced and baked. Glad to see it can be done.