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Soft sugar cookies are the best thing to make for any holiday celebration. These traditional Southern Tea Cakes are the perfect not-too-sweet-but-so-delicious cookies. The lightly sweetened dough puffs up in the oven and holds its shape beautifully, so these cookies are perfect to pair with sweet Easy Sugar Cookie Icing. Whether you’re hosting a cookie decorating party or baking for July 4th, All-Butter Tea Cake Cookies are a family favorite. (Read on to learn about this simple-as-pie icing recipe, as well as our fundraising efforts in support of Cookies for Kids’ Cancer.)
The photos and recipe for these Tea Cake Cookies were originally published on December 19, 2011. The photographs, along with the text and recipe, were updated on November 27, 2018. It was republished on November 29, 2018.
When I was a child, a family friend used to make the most wonderful cookies called Tea Cakes. At one point, she passed along her recipe, and we began baking Tea Cakes for holidays, specifically July 4th and Christmas.
After baking, we would take plates of decorated cookies to friends, family members and neighbors, spreading the love with all the people we loved.
When I was in college, I rediscovered these cookies during finals week. Since I was an art major, my final projects were due the week before finals, so I never ended up having exams during the finals week.
While my friends fretted, I baked.
Baking these Tea Cake Cookies became A Thing that I continued throughout my five years of undergrad and into adulthood, and I’ve been tinkering with the recipe ever since.
In Mississippi, two of my friends joined me for baking. When we hunkered down in my tiny galley kitchen, I was shocked to learn neither had ever made cookies before.
So I shared with them my tips and tricks for these lovely cookies, and we had a ball.
Whenever I bake these cookies, I think of those friends, Heather and Jason.
I think of my family and the memories we made baking for the people we loved when I was a kid.
And I always think about Ms. Debbie, the woman who originally passed along this delightful recipe; the same one who baked at least twenty dozen Tea Cakes for my wedding reception cookie table.
As I’ve been talking about all week, we’re raising money for Cookies for Kids’ Cancer this month and next. We’d love if you could join us in supporting a worthy cause this holiday season.
Cookies for Kids’ Cancer has inspired more than 8,000 fundraising events in all 50 states and 16 countries and has granted $15 million, funding 100 research projects, including 37 that are now treatments available for children battling cancer today.
And since it’s the season of giving and giving back, I’m thrilled to be supporting an organization that’s actively funding treatments for kids and their families going through the unthinkable.
What are Tea Cakes?
Fluffy, super light, lightly sweetened cookies! They’re similar to sugar cookies, but they’re softer and less sweet. And—surprise, surprise—they pair nicely with a cup of tea because they’re a very mild and simple cookie.
According to Southern Living, they most likely hail from the rural South and date back to times when rations were meager. If pantries were stocked, they just included basics like flour, salt, etc., if that. (In fact, our family’s original recipe calls for vegetable shortening and water.)
These cookies are pretty simple on their own, but I love them all the same because they remind me of my childhood. And when iced, they’re lovely for any holiday gathering or cookie party.
How do I make these Southern Tea Cake Cookies?
Combine the softened butter, sugar, vanilla, egg, milk and vinegar in a large bowl. Using a hand mixer, stand mixer or a whisk, mix until smooth.
In another large bowl, sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt together. Whisk until combined.
Fold dry ingredients into the wet ingredients and continue mixing with the hand or stand mixer until just combined.
Stretch a long piece of plastic wrap out on the countertop. Dollop the cookie dough into it, and carefully wrap the plastic around it. Press into a round shape. (This will help you in rolling it out later—trust me!)
Chill the dough in refrigerator for 1-2 hours. You can refrigerate the dough overnight, as well, but you’ll need to take it out 30-45 minutes before rolling because the dough is challenging to roll out when it’s super cold.
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a nonstick baking mat, and set aside.
Flour a flat surface. Using a rolling pin, roll the dough into a 1/2″ thick round, then cut into shapes using cookie cutters. Transfer the cookies to the prepared baking sheet, and bake.
Let the cookies cool on a wire cooling rack. Once completely cool, ice, sprinkle with your favorite sprinkles (and other decorations!) and enjoy!
Can I make this recipe dairy free?
Our original recipe doesn’t call for dairy, but I’ve changed it over the years to include dairy. (I love butter. What can I say?) So yes, you can make it dairy free.
Instead of using butter, substitute in vegetable shortening. Instead of dairy milk, use your favorite non-dairy milk from the refrigerated section of the grocery store. I’m partial to unsweetened cashew and almond milks, but coconut milk or rice milk will work, too!
Do you have to chill the dough? If so, why?
YES, you must chill the dough. (Sorry if you were looking for a Tea Cake recipe that requires no chilling—this is not what you’re looking for.)
When you chill the dough, you’re giving the flour and gluten a time to rest, as well as time to firm up before baking.
While you could probably roll these out immediately after making the dough, the cookies wouldn’t hold their shape, and that would be sad since you’re putting in the effort to roll ‘em out and cut them into individual cookies.
Is there a faster way to make these All-Butter Tea Cake Cookies?
Unfortunately, there’s not a faster way to make these. While the cookie dough comes together easily and quickly, it will still need that chilling time. And then once it’s chilled, it will take a while to roll out the dough and cut the cookies.
Sugar cookies, in general, are pretty time intensive compared to a drop cookie, but they’re certainly worth it if you have the time on hand (or helpers to assist and make the time go by faster!)
How do you keep the dough from being too sticky?
Short answer: Flour.
Long answer: The dough will be kind of sticky when you turn it out onto the countertop. Combat this by sprinkling flour on the counter beforehand, as well as sprinkling some on top of the dough. Rub some on your rolling pin, too, just to ensure the dough doesn’t stick to the rolling pin.
I’ve found that I have to add more flour as I roll more, and that’s OK.
In related news, my 3-year-old would like you to know that handfuls of flour on top of the cookie dough works before and after rolling it out.
Can I make the dough ahead of time?
Yes! The dough is actually better this way because it has enough time to firm up in the fridge.
You can make this a few days in advance, too, but plan to take your dough out of the refrigerator 30(ish) minutes before you want to roll it because it’ll be hard as a rock. And while that’s good, it makes the dough almost impossible to roll. Let it warm up just a little bit at room temperature before rolling, then follow the instructions in the recipe card below.
How do I make icing for cookies?
Oh, friend. This is easy peasy!
I recently shared my recipe for Easy Sugar Cookie Icing to help you out. It pairs perfectly with Tea Cakes because the icing is very sweet, and the cookies aren’t.
How do I box these Tea Cakes up and store them?
We store our Tea Cake Cookies at room temperature in an airtight container and have done this for years without fail.
What tools do I need to make Tea Cakes?
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- Glass bowls
- Hand mixer or stand mixer
- Plastic wrap
- Sheet pan
- Parchment paper or nonstick baking mat
- Wire cooling rack
- Rolling Pin
- Snowflake cookie cutters (or your favorite seasonally appropriate cookie cutters!)
- Sprinkles and colored sugar, for decorating
I’m not sure if I like the simplicity of these Tea Cakes. What are some other cookie recipes I might like better?
- Lemon Tea Cakes
- Mississippi Mud Cookies
- Buckeye Brownie Bites
- Gluten Free Peppermint Brownie Cookies
- Candy Cane Oreo Cookies
- Lemon Drop Cookies
- M&M Christmas Cookie Bars
- Cranberry Chocolate Potato Chip Cookies
Ready to make these beauties? They’re easier than you think!
Soft sugar cookies are the best thing to make for any holiday celebration. These traditional Southern Tea Cakes are the perfect not-too-sweet-but-so-delicious cookies. The lightly sweetened dough puffs up in the oven and holds its shape beautifully, so these cookies are perfect to pair with sweet Easy Sugar Cookie Icing. Whether you're hosting a cookie decorating party or baking for July 4th, All-Butter Tea Cake Cookies are a family favorite.
In a large glass bowl, combine the softened butter, sugar, vanilla, egg, milk and vinegar.
Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt together into another large bowl. Whisk until combined.
Fold dry ingredients into the wet ingredients, all the while mixing with the hand or stand mixer, and stirring until just combined.
Stretch a long piece of plastic wrap out on the countertop. Dollop the cookie dough into it, and carefully wrap the plastic around it. Press into a round shape.
Chill the dough in refrigerator for 1-2 hours. (You can refrigerate the dough overnight, as well, but you'll need to take it out 30-45 minutes before rolling because the dough is challenging to roll out when it's super cold.)
Flour a flat surface.
Bake for 8-10 minutes, or until cookies have firmed up. You do not want them to brown.
Transfer to a wire cooling rack.
Once the cookies have completely cooled, ice with Easy Sugar Cookie Icing, sprinkle with your favorite sprinkles (and other decorations!) and enjoy!
Be sure to follow along and see all the recipes being shared for this year’s Sweetest Season Cookie Exchange!