Old Fashioned Tea Cake

Fluffy, buttery, and shockingly tender, old fashioned tea cakes are more akin to a crossover between a biscuit and a cookie than they are to a cake. Like many of our oldest recipes, tea cakes were created out of scarcity—both in ingredients and time. Rather than the time consuming yeasted breads made for holidays or the intricate (and expensive) pastries made for celebrations like weddings and birthdays, tea cakes were more of an everyday treat to be enjoyed with a cup of tea. But seventy years ago, treats regularly baked to stock the cupboard for a surprise visit had to be made without requiring a great deal of time and without depleting the pantry of its resources. The tea cake took very little time to make and called for ingredients already laying around the kitchens of our great grandparents. While they may look like cookies, they certainly don't taste like them. Tea cakes contain much less sugar than a conventional cookie, and the main liquid ingredient is buttermilk, giving a slightly savory edge to an already mildly sweet pastry. At their most basic, tea cakes are simply flour and sugar combined with butter and buttermilk. Flavors like vanilla, cinnamon, or lemon are regularly used to add a touch of flair to the otherwise simple cakes. Our recipe calls for the zest of one lemon, adding just the right hint of citrus to the buttery tea cake.

Active Time:
20 mins
Total Time:
1 hrs 35 mins
12 tea cakes


  • 1 1/3 cup all-purpose flour

  • 1/3 cup granulated sugar

  • 2 teaspoons fresh lemon zest (from 1 lemon)

  • 1/4 teaspoon baking powder

  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda

  • 1/8 teaspoon salt

  • 8 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cubed

  • 1/4 cup buttermilk


  1. Combine flour, sugar, lemon zest, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse to mix.

  2. Scatter butter across surface. Pulse until butter is completely incorporated into dry ingredients. Add buttermilk and pulse a few times until the dough clumps together. Gather dough, barely kneading until you can shape the dough into a ball. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate 1 hour.

  3. Preheat oven to 350°F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper; set aside. On a well floured surface, use a floured rolling pin to roll dough into a 1/4-inch thick circle. Use a 3-inch round cutter to punch out circles from the dough; transfer circles to prepared baking sheet. Reroll scraps and cut out additional circles.

  4. Bake until tea cakes have puffed slightly and barely take on color, 12-14 minutes. Allow to cool slightly before removing from baking sheet.

    Old-Fashioned Tea Cakes
    Micah Leal
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