At this moment, I am looking at a yellowed paper with the only recipe I have that my mother ever wrote down for me in her own handwriting: Jean Walker's Sugar Tree Tea Cakes.
That's her title at the top of the page followed by the date, 9/21/93. Sugar Tree is the little town in West Tennessee where my mother grew up.
What are tea cakes? Well, really they're just simple cookies.... except for one VERY important function: they are vehicles for the most delicious, rich, buttery concoction you will ever put in your mouth, TEA CAKE ICING!
Every one in my small town loved my mother's tea cakes. She always kept a tin of them in the freezer ready to pop out at any time. She never went anywhere without bringing a little gift of tea cakes to people: bank tellers, shop cashiers, beauticians, doctors, etc. Mommy Jean (that's what we called her) was known all over Oak Ridge as the cookie lady.
Now I will tell you out right that my tea cakes are never as good as my mother's were. I do fine with the cookie part, but I'm often flummoxed by the icing. It's a cooked icing and although Mommy Jean could tell when the icing was ready just by looking at it (and she tried to teach me) I've never completely mastered the icing.
To tell the truth, my icing is hit or miss. Sometimes I don't cook it quite enough and it's too thin and other times, I over cook it and let it get too hard. BUT....even when I mess it up, it STILL always tastes good. It just doesn't look as pretty as Mommy Jean's did.
Oh, and one more very important thing. My mother was very GENEROUS with the icing! Each cookie should get a BIG dollop of icing, not just a little dot in the center.
Now, here's the recipe, exactly as she wrote it.
2 sticks butter at room temperature (may use half margarine)
2 jumbo eggs, or 3 medium or large
1/8th teaspoon salt
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
4 tablespoons buttermilk
3 1/2 cups flour, will need a little more on waxed paper for kneading
1/4th plus 1/8th teaspoon soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon vanilla
Cream butter and sugar, beat until smooth and fluffy. Add eggs, beat well. Stir in vanilla and buttermilk, then add flour, baking powder, soda and salt. Pour out on waxed paper for kneading, using flour on waxed paper. Chill dough.
After chilled, role out dough and cut rounds. Bake on ungreased cookie sheets at 300 degrees. You must not over bake; keep them white.
(My mother doesn't specify how thickly the dough should be rolled out. They're not a real thin cookie. They should be like a thick sugar cookie. They won't be crisp, they have more of a soft texture.)
2 1/2 cups sugar
1 stick butter
1 cup evaporated milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
Boil as you would any icing.
That's it. 'Boil as you would any icing' is the extent of my mother's written instructions. You can see why I'm frequently flummoxed about when it's ready.
So I did a little research in my Joy of Cooking cook book. No, there's no recipe for Tea Cake Icing in there. But, the closest icing recipe I can find instructs the reader to 'Cover and cook (the icing) about 3 minutes until steam has washed down any crystals that may have formed on the sides of the pan. Then uncover and cook to 238 to 240 degrees.
So, if you're not an expert at boiled icing either, you might want to use a candy thermometer.
Christmas Eve would have been unthinkable in our house without tea cakes and my mother's home made boiled custard. But she never made special shapes or colored icing for Christmas tea cakes. No, Mommy Jean was a purist. Her tea cakes were ALWAYS round and her icing was ALWAYS white.
Mommy Jean died in the early evening of the Winter Solstice, December 21, 2008. It was snowing.
Be Well, Good Luck and Merry Christmas!