We were looking for something to make to celebrate Juneteenth, and found a recipe for Southern Tea Cakes to be the perfect thing. A wonderful butter cookie that is a tradition for the day.
Table of contents
TRADITIONAL SOUTHERN TEA CAKES FOR JUNETEENTH
Juneteenth is a holiday that began in Texas in 1865, and celebrates the emancipation of slaves. The holiday is celebrated on June 19th and is especially important for African Americans, as it commemorates the abolition of slavery.
Southern tea cakes, or “soul cakes”, are a classic and popular treat associated with the occasion. One of the most common traditions associated with Juneteenth is the making and eating of these southern tea cakes. These small, sweet treats are a way of honoring the African American culture and celebrating freedom. The cakes are usually sweet, crunchy, and buttery, made from simple ingredients like sugar, butter, and flour and sometimes flavored with nutmeg or decorated with icing.
Southern tea cakes are a tradition in the South and, according to Etha Robinson, educator and founder of Mrs. Robinson’s Tea Cakes, they were often part of the celebration for Juneteenth – “A rustic approximation of the delicate pastries consumed in front parlors when white women entertained visitors”. The slaves made tea cakes with whatever ingredients they had, sometimes substituting molasses or lard.
A traditional recipe is often passed down through generations. Many families will get together to share soul cakes on this special day as a way to honor their ancestors and celebrate the freedom they now enjoy. This recipe is similar to a very old recipe for French Tea Cakes “Fours A The”, a type of Sable cookie.
The southern tea cake is an important part of Juneteenth celebrations, carrying on a tradition that honors African American culture and recognizes a momentous victory in the fight for civil rights. A perfect addition to any Juneteenth celebration. Tea cakes are a true southern classic and a tasty way to remember this holiday.
INGREDIENTS FOR THE SOUTHERN TEA CAKES FOR JUNETEENTH
Use the best ingredients. We have listed the brands for some of the ingredients because ingredients are everything. We have found that these brands give superior results. And by using brands like Horizon dairy products and organic sugar we cut our carbon footprint in half and are helping to control climate change. We use sugar that we grind to make superfine sugar. Using the brands listed in the recipe is key, because brands sometimes vary immensely. For more information on why we use these brands, check out our explanation on our page about eating better.
Gold Medal Unbleached All Purpose Flour has a lower protein amount than some all purpose flours – 10.5 percent protein. This is a good flour for baking cookies, since it makes them more tender. In addition, the company ensures that the protein content is carefully calibrated, so you get consistent results. Also, it is important to use the unbleached flour.
We use Wholesome organic sugar, because it is produced from sugar cane fields that are green cut and are not burned or treated with herbicides or synthetic fertilizers. Burning sugar cane fields contributes to air pollution and climate change, and is a major cause of the destruction of the rain forest. Buying sugar from fields that are green cut helps prevent this destruction. The sugar also has a better taste because of how it is produced, but mostly we use it because it is a sustainable choice. It is more expensive than buying the standard brands, but the difference is only a few cents per recipe, so it’s worth it. We also save money by buying this in bulk direct from the company and storing it in jars in the pantry.
Heilala produces the best tasting vanilla we have ever tried. Plus, it is ethically produced. We double the amount of vanilla usually called for to add extra flavor. Vanilla extract is usually half alcohol and half water, so the extra vanilla can add back some of the liquid that was removed when browning the butter.
We like the quality of Diamond Kosher salt and don’t want the iodine taste. The weight and structure of salt varies between brands so it is important to choose a salt and stick with it to be consistent.
Using browned butter, or buerre noistte as it is known in France, adds a huge amount of flavor to baked goods. We use Horizon Organic butter to make browned butter. We think Horizon products taste better than any other dairy products we have tried. This is probably because the products are organic and from family farming partners. Just as important, Horizon is a certified B corporation that has committed to becoming carbon positive across their entire supply chain by 2025.
HOW TO MAKE GREAT COOKIES EVERY TIME
THE SCIENCE OF MAKING GREAT COOKIES EVERY TIME
To make great cookies, it is important to understand a little of the science of making them. They are small, so there is less room for error, which is why measuring accurately is so necessary. And they have very few ingredients, so each ingredient has a key roll, and using the best of each ingredient will make a big difference.
CHOOSE THE BEST INGREDIENTS
Using the brands we have listed will ensure that you make great cookies every time. These brands not only taste better, but production of each is tightly controlled so the product is consistent. The size of the sugar crystal, the amount of protein in the flour, the shape of the salt – all these things will affect the way the cookies bake. Cookies are so small that little differences in the ingredients can lead to a big difference in the cookies. Some of these brands cost more than other available products, but it’s worth it. For some, we include a link to their official websites so you can buy direct and in bulk and often reduce the price.
Sunflower oil is a great substitute for butter. The flavor works well in cookies, and the oil gives the cookies a fudgy center and crisp edges. It is healthier and less expensive than butter, as well as better for the environment. Oil contains no water, and butter does, so a substitution would be about 3 parts oil for 4 parts butter. Cold pressed or expeller pressed means that chemicals and high heat were not used to produce the oil, so the health benefits of the oil are retained.
GOLD MEDAL UNBLEACHED ALL PURPOSE FLOUR – has a lower protein amount than some all purpose flours – 10.5 percent protein. This is a good flour for baking cookies, since it makes them more tender. In addition, the company ensures that the protein content is carefully calibrated, so you get consistent results. Also, it is important to use the unbleached flour, since bleaching can give cookies an off taste or have unpredictable results.
KING ARTHUR UNBLEACHED ALL-PURPOSE FLOUR – has a slightly higher protein amount than Gold Medal – 11.7 percent protein. It is good for baking cookies, especially those that are a little more hearty and need some substance. King Arthur is an employee-owned company that responsibly sources the wheat for their flours, and it pays off in the taste and quality. They have a “never bleached” guarantee, which means their flours don’t have an off taste or unpredictable results that can be caused by bleaching. They also carefully calibrate the protein content, which means the flour gives you the same results, every time you bake.
WHOLESOME ORGANIC SUGAR – produced from sugar cane fields that are green cut and are not burned or treated with herbicides or synthetic fertilizers. Burning sugar cane fields contributes to air pollution and climate change, and is a major cause of the destruction of the rainforest. Buying sugar from fields that are green cut helps prevent this destruction. The sugar also has a better taste because of how it is produced. It is more expensive than buying the standard brands, but the difference is only a few cents per recipe, so it’s worth it. We also save money by buying this in bulk direct from the company and storing it in jars in the pantry.
HOMEMADE BROWN SUGAR
If a recipe calls for brown sugar, we use white, granulated Wholesome Organic sugar and add a small amount of sorghum syrup instead. Brown sugar is just white, granulated sugar with molasses added. Sorghum syrup tastes very similar to molasses. We actually prefer the milder taste of the sorghum syrup. This saves money, since brown sugar is usually more expensive than white sugar, and it saves storage. We don’t make brown sugar by mixing the sorghum syrup and sugar because they don’t mix well, and the syrup is easy to add to a recipe. Also important, sorghum does not come from sugar cane. It is grown more sustainably in colder climates without burning and without cutting down tropical rain forests.
HOMEMADE SUPERFINE SUGAR
Superfine sugar, also known as caster sugar or baker’s sugar, is just white, granulated sugar that has been ground fine so that it dissolves quickly. It is often much more expensive than granulated sugar, so instead of buying super fine sugar, we make it ourselves and save money. We put the Wholesome organic sugar in the food processor and grind it fine, which takes about a minute, and store it in jars in the pantry.
Powdered sugar, or confectioner’s sugar is just white, granulated sugar ground to a fine powder with some cornstarch added to keep it from clumping. We tried to make it ourselves, but could not grind it fine enough or evenly, so we buy Wholesome Organic Powdered Sugar in bulk and store it in jars. Buying in bulk saves money and it stores well in a jar with a lid.
HEILALA VANILLA – the best tasting vanilla we have ever tried. Plus, it is ethically produced. We double the amount of vanilla usually called for to add extra flavor. Vanilla extract is usually half alcohol and half water, so the extra vanilla will add some liquid. Heilala makes an alcohol free vanilla that can be used in a recipe to make it halal.
VALRHONA CHOCOLATE – Using a high quality chocolate makes a really big difference. We use Valrhona because of the quality and because it’s an ethical choice. Most of Valrhona’s products are also gluten free and kosher.
DIAMOND CRYSTAL KOSHER SALT – pure salt without additives or iodine taste. The weight and structure of salt varies between brands so it is important to choose a salt and stick with it to be consistent.
USING THE BEST EQUIPMENT
- Oven Thermometer
- Instant read thermometer
- Accurate measuring spoons
- Medium to heavy-weight, light-colored aluminum cookie sheets – dark or thin sheets may burn the bottom of the cookies
- stand mixer
- food processor
- silicone baking mat – much less expensive than parchment paper in the long run
- silicone heat resistant spatula for scraping the bowl. All one piece is easier to clean and doesn’t come apart
- thin metal spatula for moving the hot cookies – the thin metal won’t break the cookies
- cooling rack with a gridded frame – the grid prevents the cookies from falli
- digital kitchen scale
- medium wire whisk
- microplane zester and grater
- cookie scoops with squeeze release handles
- fine mesh strainer for sifting
METHODS FOR MAKING COOKIES
UNDERSTAND THE METHOD – our cookie recipes are made with one of three methods:
- BATTER – used for drop, rolled, cut out or formed cookies. Create a batter by stirring the wet ingredients together (nut oil, sugar, eggs, flavorings), then adding the dry ingredients (flour, baking soda). This is easiest method for making cookies and works best in a bowl, stirring by hand.
- IRON – creating a thin batter that is stirred together and then fried or baked in an iron. This requires special equipment such as a waffle iron, rosette iron, pizzelle maker, or krumkake iron.
- MERINGUE – creating a meringue with egg whites and sugar, sometimes with a flour made of ground nuts. The cookies made this way are often gluten free. This is easiest and works best in a stand mixer, but a food processor is the easiest way to make the nut flour. It can also be done with a hand mixer or whisking by hand, but it would take much longer. There are three types of meringues – French, Italian, and Swiss.
- French meringue is the easiest and most common type of meringue and is often used in baked goods, since the egg whites are not cooked. It is made with egg whites and sugar that are whipped together until they form stiff peaks. The mixture is can be baked at a low temperature until it dries out and becomes crispy, or it can be mixed with other ingredients to make various types of cookies.
- Italian meringue is a more complex type of meringue that requires a bit more skill to make. It is made by whipping egg whites and adding a hot sugar syrup then whipping them together until they form a glossy, stable mixture. The hot sugar syrup cooks the egg whites, making the meringue safe to eat. Italian meringue is commonly used in recipes such as buttercream frosting and French macarons. It is denser than French meringue and has a slight sweetness to it.
- Swiss meringue is made by whisking egg whites and sugar together over a double boiler until the sugar dissolves. It is then whipped until stiff peaks form, resulting in a glossy, shiny meringue. Swiss meringue is often used in recipes such as mousses and buttercream frosting. It has a silky texture and a buttery flavor that is perfect for a variety of desserts. Swiss meringue is also more stable than French meringue, making it a great option for decorating cakes and pastries.
TIPS FOR MAKING COOKIES
USE A SCALE AND MEASURE IN GRAMS – Use a scale to measure most of the ingredients by weight. This is absolutely essential. The inaccuracies from using measuring cups can easily lead to failure when baking. Different brands of flour and sugar will be different when measured with measuring cups, and not all measuring cups are accurate. Measuring by weight is the same every time. It is also much easier – just put the mixing bowl on the scale, zero the scale, add an ingredient, zero the scale again, add the next ingredient, and so on. Measuring in grams is more accurate, and easier, than pounds and ounces. Since it is a smaller measurement, it is more precise. Also, grams are often easy numbers to remember, making it possible to make the cookies without looking at the written recipe and easy to compare recipes. Clean up is easier, since there will be fewer bowls and no measuring cups to wash. And cooking with children is easier because they quickly learn how to add ingredients until the scale reads the correct amount.
USE A SCALE TO MEASURE OUT EACH COOKIE – Use the scale to make sure the cookies are exactly the same size. Using a scoop for some cookies makes forming the cookies fast and easy and will also help maintain the same shape, but the scale will make them the same size.
REFRIGERATE THE DOUGH AT LEAST THREE HOURS OR OVERNIGHT – This allows the flour to absorb the liquid in the dough, making the cookies bake better. You can refrigerate the dough in the bowl covered with plastic wrap, measured out for drop cookies, as a flat square for rolled cookies, or as a log for sliced cookies.
VACUUM PACK AND FREEZE EXTRA DOUGH – After refrigerating the dough overnight, extra cookie dough can be frozen. Vacuum sealing keeps the dough fresher.
USE AN OVEN THERMOMETER – Use an accurate oven thermometer to check the oven temperature before putting the cookies in. The temperature of ovens vary, and may not be the temperature on the dial.
ALLOW THE COOKIES TO COOL ON A RACK – Allow the cookies to cool for a minute on the pan, then transfer them to a rack to keep them from getting too dark on the bottom. The cookies will become more crisp as they cool on the rack, though we realize allowing them to cool before eating them is almost impossible.
This is one of the cookies we discovered while traveling in the States and recreated when we got back home. We researched the science and techniques behind the recipe and used tips from exceptional chefs. Then we used the best ingredients we could find to create this recipe. For more ideas, see our other posts about recipes inspired by travel.
HOW THESE COOKIES FIT INTO OUR PLAN TO EAT BETTER:
While looking for the best ingredients to make the cookies, we discovered that many companies that care about quality also care about sustainability. This made a huge dent in our carbon footprint. We have listed the brands for some of the ingredients because ingredients are everything. These brands give superior results. If we are going to spend time making the cookies we want them to be the best. And by using brands like Horizon butter and Wholesome sugar we cut our carbon footprint (see: we cut our carbon footprint in half ) and are helping to control climate change.
Photos by Tony Fitzgerald Photography