It took a little bossing from Mama, but I turned out a batch of Mrs. Gracie Sewell's Tea Cakes.
Mrs. Gracie Sewell’s Tea Cakes
Credit: Valerie Fraser Luesse

You should know something before we head into the kitchen: I don't cook without a recipe, and I don't bake, period (not unless you count tiny, soggy cakes from my 1960s Suzy Homemaker Oven or Pillsbury slice 'em and bake 'em chocolate chip cookies).

Challenged to an office cookie swap, I did what any capable adult woman would do—I ran to Mama. She is the baker of many cakes, cookies, pies, and brownies. She also holds in her possession the recipe for Mrs. Gracie Sewell's Tea Cakes, which I figured she could talk me through.

The Sewells were my parents' neighbors long before I came along, and they always let us kids run in and out of their house, garden, and plumb trees as if we owned the place. Anything Mrs. Sewell made was special—from popcorn balls at Halloween to fried pies in the summertime. Tea cakes were a year-round treat.

I took a picture of Mama's recipe card with my iPhone, noting that it contained precious little in the way of instructions—just the order in which you combine the ingredients, and the baking time and temperature. Bakers like Mama and Mrs. Sewell would need nothing more. But I did. I put in a call to She Who Must Be Obeyed.

Should I chill the dough before rolling it out, I wondered?

"You don't roll this dough—you drop it," Mama replied. "And you know to bring all the ingredients to room temperature before adding them, don't you?"

How, I asked, would I know such a thing?

There was an exasperated sigh on the other end of the line. "Well, you can't just pull stuff out of the refrigerator and go to doing," Mama said.

Duly noted. I would not just pull things out of the refrigerator and "go to doing."

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The ingredients of this old-fashioned tea cake are simple: Crisco, sugar, eggs, all-purpose flour, salt, baking powder, vanilla extract, and milk. I used my KitchenAid Stand Mixer (which was shocked to have its cover removed), starting with the whisk attachment to cream the Crisco and sugar, beat in the eggs, and start adding the mixture of flour, salt, and baking powder. When I saw actual dough begin to form, I switched over to the flat beater attachment (I'm not sure why but it felt right at the time) and added the vanilla and milk.

This recipe makes a semi-wet dough, which you can use a tablespoon to drop onto a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. That's important. And not in the recipe. Mama "let me in on a little secret" about the importance of parchment paper, which is on the foil aisle in the grocery store, by the way. Also, holding my dipping spoon in one hand and flouring the other hand made it easier to transfer dough onto the (again, parchment-lined) baking sheet.

Mrs. Sewell's recipe calls for baking the tea cakes 10-12 minutes at 375 degrees, but my oven is quirky, so it took about 13 minutes to get them done and a little golden around the edges. I sprinkled on some sanding sugar, which looked festive until a lot of it fell off because I should've done it when the cookies were warmer (or used an egg wash, but that's way too advanced for me, so I'm happy to let the fallen sugar decorate my cookie plate).

My tea cakes were a little on the irregular side, in terms of shape and color, but they tasted just fine. Better still, they brought back memories of a sweet lady and phenomenal cook who always had a hug and a homemade treat for kids like me.