A couple of the tea houses I’ve reviewed serve a slice of tea cake with their scone course, and it got me thinking (as so many things do) about what exactly is a tea cake. Since it’s a cake and a lot of the mini desserts served at tearooms are little cakes, why is it served in the scone course and not the dessert course? Burning questions!
Well I did some digging. Turns out the answer is as simple as you’d think!
Are they cakes?
Tea cake as a cake (no it’s not the scone or the muffin)
In some parts of the world, yes. When a tea cake is literally a small slice of cake (typical of Australian, North America, and India), it is usually a pound, heavy sponge, or spice cake. Only a single layer, these tea cakes are not frosted, but instead are topped with a dusting of powdered sugar or a light glaze. The spice cake is more common in North America, while the heavy sponge variety is found in Australia or India. When a tea cake is basically a pound cake, it’s just a tearoom’s variation on the slightly more traditional cake served. Tea cakes—when they are cakes—can also contain fruits such as cranberries, blueberries, or apricots.
Are they bread?
In some parts of the world, yes. A tea cake is more akin to a bread when served in the United Kingdom. A small, sweet, yeast-based bun often containing dried fruit, a tea cake is typically split, toasted, and buttered to be served with tea. The most famous tea cake is served in Bath, England and is known as a Sally Lunn. Top it with cinnamon butter and be prepared to die from deliciousness overdose.
Bread-like tea cakes are also served in Sweden where they are a sweetened wheat soda bread served with butter and jam.
Are they cookies?
Tea cakes as a cookie (photo credit foodsofourlives.com)
In some parts of the world, yes. Cookie tea cakes are dense cookies made with sugar, butter, eggs, flour, milk, and additional flavorings. Common flavors are nut-based like almond or hazelnut. They are very dense and crumbly, and can be quite messy as they are usually coated in a layer of powdered sugar. When they first crumbed into the world, they were an accompaniment to bitter teas; the sugar both in the cookie and the coating were meant to balance the astringency from black tea.
Now a cookie tea cake by any other name is still a cookie tea cake, but they are also commonly known as Russian tea cakes, Mexican wedding cakes/cookies, polvornes, or butterballs.
Hmmm…with all these different answers for “what is a tea cake” I may have to do a recipe series for you so you can try them all!