Tea Party Plans & Tea Cakes
First a bit about the books: American Cookery is set up like many historic and modern cookbooks with related recipes together. That is grouped by main ingredient (meat/beef/pork/lamb/chicken or type of dish pies/cakes/bread)
The Historical Cook of the American Negro however is designed along a category system based on months of the year. Each month features in calendar order, a variety of recipe selections to go along with a significant historical person, location, or events. It is, “a culinary approach to Negro history.”* I love it!
The Tea Party – What type shall it be?
To create the tea tables with all their bits, I’ve got to start with what type of tea party shall I create? After some thought I’ll host an At Home Tea for 6-8 people. But not an everyday tea party. That’s all rather boring isn’t it?
Thumbing through the Historical Cookbook of the American Negro I found a perfect starting point, on a date not to far from now, April 13, Honoring Pioneer Principals with “Afternoon Tea.” Education and Educators were important in both periods and are very much underappreciated today. Using this as my starting point I’ll put together two different tea tables that have more in common than one would think.
1796 – American Cookery – New Nation Tea Table reflective of the Upper Class in New York.
1958 – The Historical Cookbook of the American Negro – 20th century table reflective of the Black elite culture of the women members of the NCNW
Okay…now, the menu…
The menu listed on April 13 has two recipes, one for Old Fashioned Tea Cakes and another for Spiced Tea. The rest is up for grabs.
In their respective historical periods, both tea tables would have begun with a simple cake or two. A plain and a fancy. Plain is a tea cake, tea biscuit or pound cake. Cakes that are deceiving in their simple looks. When done well, they are a luscious compliments to a finely brewed cup of tea. When they’re off, the tea is used to wet them enough to make swallowing easy. A fancy cake in either period for tea leans towards a fruit studded cake. Chocolate cake is not the list. It clashes with tea more often than not, a bit too heavy.
In the plain cake category American Cookery has receipts for Tea Cakes, Tea Biscuit, A Plain cake, Another Plain Cake, Loaf Cakes Nos. 1, 2, 3 & 4, A Pound Cake, Another (called) Pound Cake, and several more options.
The Historical Cookbook of the American Negro offers Old Fashioned Tea Cakes, and several variations of pound cake, Arkansas Rice Pound Cake, Pound (Heartford Specialty), Pound (Philadelphia Specialty).
Yum…Choices! But I think I’ll begin the baking with a family memory that is not my own.
I grew up hearing about tea cakes. Not just anyone’s tea cakes, but my paternal great-grand mother’s tea cakes. How she always had a tin of them on hand when my siblings went to visit. She died before I got to enjoy her tea cakes, and no one had written down the recipe. But as a pastry, they’ve always been a mystery to me. Something I’ve known about but actually have never made. I was watching a video recently and the tennis star, Venus Williams was talking about her love of her mother’s tea cakes, but how her oldest sister did them better. Tea cakes are alive and well for many, how about for you?
Both books have recipes for tea cakes so that is where I shall begin. Tea cakes aren’t flat cookies nor are they a highly risen cake. Their texture, as far as I can tell should be a soft cake like cookie. I’ve been told they can be delicious or they can be bricks. They can be glazed or iced, topped with sugar or left plain. I have always wanted to have been able to enjoy my great-grandmother’s. And I must admit to be truly surprised that I’ve never made them. I have looked at countless recipes over the years intrigued. So here we go…off to discover the world of tea cakes.
We’ll start with the receipt found in American Cookery, it’s a bit more challenging as many 18th century receipts are. As we move into the 20th century, recipes will continue to evolve, but more often than not the measurements are given for all of the ingredients. The 18th century leaves a lot up to personal taste and what you happen to have on hand. Here is a copy of the original wording from Amelia Simmons.
Tea Cakes. One pound sugar, half pound butter, two pound flour, three eggs, one gill yeast, a little cinnamon and orange peel; bake fifteen minutes.
American Cookery, Amelia Simmons, 2nd edition, 1796.
That’s pretty straight forward. When adapting a receipt that has no instructions there is much to consider. First, are we creaming the butter, adding the sugar, then eggs, flour, yeast, cinnamon and orange peel or are we rubbing the butter into the rest of the ingredients, then adding the eggs to pull it all together. Does it matter? Well… we’ll soon find out.
Do you make tea cakes? Did someone in your family make them? Please feel free to share your thoughts, memories, recipes, whatever, I’d love to hear from you!