Tea cakes seem to remind everybody of a certain old lady. These simple round cookies get grown men to speak longingly of their grandmothers.
For me, though, these cookies remind me of Miss Lela McMinn, who lives off Campground Road and is the voluntary grandmother to scores of children. She looks the part, too, with a cloud of snow-white hair and china-blue eyes.
Miss Lela runs a nice little cake business (and cupcakes, and tea cakes, and any baked good you might desire) out of her home. Well, not truly out of her home. The government mandates that any baked good (or processed good in general) that is sold must be produced in a commercial certified kitchen.
This is a problem for the folks wanting to run a bake-to-order-business out of their homes. The fundamental definition of a commercial certified kitchen is that it be a freestanding, nonresidential kitchen. When an inspector comes around and tells folks they need to build an entirely separate kitchen, most people throw in the towel.
Not Miss Lela. Instead, her now-deceased husband, Martin, built her one: a pleasant, airy space with scores of stainless-steel tables and over 200 cake molds. So Miss Lela bakes children’s birthday cakes in every shape and size a child might imagine. Or, for that matter, grown men: She showed me the bikini mold with a wicked smile on her sweet face.
Themed cakes are nifty but don’t get my heart pounding. It’s Miss Lela’s old-fashioned cakes make me swoon: round, three-layer classic cakes, standing tall and perfectly even, in flavors from coconut to caramel and many more.
During my time in the Deep South, I have found that the majority of sweet-faced, cheek-pinching, back-patting older women down here have backbones of pure steel. They have weathered vast losses and pains and have come through the storm shining and burnished.
Miss Lela is no exception: She worked in a factory her adult life; she lost her husband too early; she lives with a son who is not all there owing to a birth injury. Yet she shines and continues to bake perfect cakes for not very much money, because it is not about the money; it is about what she chooses to do with her time, and baking cakes is one of Miss Lela’s gifts to the world.
Or she did, anyhow. Miss Lela is going to the Lord fairly quickly now. Every time I hear a grown man mention his grandmother, see a tall shaggy coconut cake, or watch Cora place tea cakes into a shining cookie jar, I know I will think of her.
TEA CAKES RECIPE
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
2 eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1. Preheat the oven toe 350. Spray a baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray.
2. In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar. Add the eggs and vanilla, and stir well.
3. In a separate bowl, combine the flour and baking powder, Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture and stir well. Using your hands, roll the batter into 2-inch balls and put them on the prepared baking sheet.
4. Bake until set and slightly golden on top, 10 to 12 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool completely.
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