Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Tennessee Tea-Cakes

The Setting: An apartment begging to be baby-proofed. 

The Soundtrack: Oia, really going to town in her bouncer and making sure Mommy is paying attention.

Steaming up the Oven: Nothing...Domino's again tonight!

The Scenario: Out of all the recipes featured in Music City in the Midwest, the tea-cake is nearest and dearest to my heart.

When I was a kid my mom worked for a radio station and occasionally got to bring home goodies from clients.

Sometimes it would be cases of crackers or canned chili, but one time it was a magnificent case of round, white tins containing bite-sized magical treasures.

I blissfully recall tins of "Tennessee T-Cakes" filling every shelf in the freezer...but not for very long.

Dense, chewy, sweet, and dark blonde. The first bite is perhaps unspectacular, but something in it beckons you on to bite two.

By the time you are licking the powdered sugar off your fingers, ready to put the lid back on the tin and call it a day, something lingering on your palate draws you back for more....

Before you know it, your mom's footsteps down the hall call you back to consciousness, as you shuffle to stash the suddenly empty, powdered-sugar-speckled tin and the mountain of muffin liners that surround you.

When my mother learned that a freezer stocked with T-Cakes in the morning was as good as an empty freezer in the afternoon, the T-Cake supply dried up.

For years I craved these delectable confections but had no way of attaining them.

As I entered adulthood, the T-Cake would enter my dreams from time to time, distracting me from my studies and calling me into the kitchen, where I'd be forced to accept wistfully that my attempts at re-creation were sorely lacking.

One day in not-so-distant memory, I caught part of an old episode of Road Tasted with Jamie and Bobby Deen visiting Nashville and tasting...could it be?

Yes! Tennessee T-Cakes!

I only caught a blip of the show, but that was enough to inform me that the T-Cake was alive and well and ready to be shipped to my doorstep. I was elated.

Everyone I knew was getting T-Cakes for Christmas!

But when I went to the web to place the order, the website was nowhere to be found. There were references in cyberspace to the Tennessee T-Cake, theoretical stories of its origins, but none of its demise.

It was a mystery, and I was more determined than ever to either make a version of my own that would suffice, or get to the bottom of it.

Happily, and sadly, I did both.

The recipe came through trial and error and a lot of reflection on what it was that made the T-Cake so addictively unique. The texture was chewy and almost fudgy, like a brownie without the chocolate, and the taste was sweet, of course, but complex, with a twang like a Southern accent.

So I structured the recipe after a fudgy brownie, removed the chocolate, and went from there. The first batch was too cookie-like and the second batch too cakey. What I came out with in the end is not an exact replica--it's been so long since I last had the real thing, it would be like painting a portrait of a ghost--but it certainly fills the void.

Not satisfied with mastering the recipe alone, I searched for information on the original T-Cake almost obsessively.

I learned that I was not alone in loving the T-Cake. Turns out Oprah put them on her "Favorite Things" list in 2006, and sales went through the roof.

So why did they suddenly disappear?

Eventually, I came across an obituary that explained it all.

Frances Ann Barkley, 67, of Nashville, passed away Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011, after an 18-month battle with lung cancer. She was the owner and creator of Tennessee T-Cakes.

The business closed in the wake of her illness. Barkley's daughters, the sole keepers of the recipe, have been sworn to secrecy.

I was crestfallen, sad to have missed the chance to have a T-Cake once more, and sad for Barkley's family and friends.

I learned that Tennessee T-Cakes had been a one-woman show, a single mom trying to make a living doing what she loved--even pawning her diamond earrings in the early days just to get the business through the holidays--and persisting to the point that her success was in the national spotlight.

Inspired, it is with nothing but respect that I offer my imitation, in hopes that the legacy of the Tennessee T-Cake will live on.

Tennessee Tea-Cakes
According to legend, a 17-year-old Southern Belle wanted to impress a confederate major before he went off to war but didn't have enough ingredients to make a cake. Instead she used what she did have on hand to make him tea-cakes, and he loved them so much, he returned safely from the war and made her his wife. Frances Barkley claimed Tennessee T-Cakes followed the very same recipe. The recipe below is my homage to a true Nashville treasure. 

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp baking powder
1 cup dark brown sugar
1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter
1 T pure vanilla extract
1/4 tsp apple cider vinegar
4 oz (1/2 a standard package) Neufchatel or reduced-fat cream cheese, not whipped
1 large egg

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and line a 12-cup standard-size muffin pan with muffin liners.

In a small bowl whisk together flour, salt, and baking powder. Set aside.

In a medium-sized saucepan, melt butter and brown sugar over med-low heat, whisking to combine. Bring just to a boil, remove from heat, and add vanilla, vinegar, and cream cheese, whisking until smooth. Thoroughly whisk in the egg. Whisk in the dry ingredients.

Divide the mixture evenly among the 12 muffin cups in the prepared pan. Cups will be about 1/2 full.

Bake at 350 degrees F for 16 minutes. Cool completely. I cannot stress this enough.

These tea cakes are going to come out of the oven smelling so good that your anticipation is likely to get the better of you. DO NOT GIVE IN.

When you first take the tea cakes out of the oven, the bottom halves will seem too cakey and the top halves will seem too gooey. They need to hang out for a while in order to settle into textural and flavorful perfection.

In fact, they'll be even better after a day or two. . . if you can manage to wait that long.

 Once completely cool, dust with powdered sugar and store tightly covered at room temperature for up to 5 days.

Guest Feedback:
Average Score on a scale of 0-5, 0 being "Never again. Need to set my mouth on fire to extinguish the memory" and 5 being "Woohoo! When can I eat that again?" 4.5
Comments: "Good." "Just love the flavor." "Heavier than expected, different, but nice." "Very moist, I would love to make them or eat them." "Awesome!"

This recipe was featured in a post called Music City in the Midwest for's 24x24 event, for which 24 food bloggers from around the world are selected to host dinner parties within the same 24 hours and blog about them.

Thanks for reading! Here's to Being the Secret Ingredient in your life.


Anonymous said...

As a lover of these delicious little gems, I'll tell you what I think is missing: molasses. Not a lot of molasses, but I truly think they had molasses in them. What a shame to let the recipe die. Becky F.

DMandli said...

Becky, I agree. I made this recipe but added molasses, and it made the difference. I'm going to work with it a bit more, but yum!

Unknown said...

How much molasses?

Anonymous said...

I need to try making these tonight for an elderly gentleman that has asked for "old fashioned tea cakes like his grandma used to make. Most recipes I see are a cookie, these are the first "cake" teacakes I have found. How much molasses and what is the difference in the cake and cookie versions? Which is the real teacake???

Unknown said...

I worked with Frances and her children. I packed and shipped T-cakes before and after Oprah's favorite things show. As far as the recipe goes, I dont recall vinegar or cream cheese in there at all. But I could be wrong since I didn't actually do the mixing. But I did receive trucks and help with stocking supplies and such.

WWJD said...

Hmmm....and if they had cream cheese in them, wouldn't they have to be refrigerated?

Unknown said...

Did you come up with a molasses version? I would love to see it!

Unknown said...

Why doesnt Francis' daughters carry on her legacy of the Tennessee Tea Cakes? Everyone LOVED them SO!

Unknown said...

To Francis'girls: PLEASE bring back the Tennessee Tea Cakes.We miss them SO MUCH!

Anonymous said...

1 1/4 cup Molasses = 1 cup Brown Sugar (firmly packed.

Use Molasses for the sugar.

Anonymous said...

1 cup Brown Sugar (firmly packed) = 1 1/4 cup Molasses

Use Molasses for the sugar.

I think this is actually Blondie bars-with molasses... in cup cake form.
Use your Blondie recipe and substitute Molasses for the Brown Sugar.

Anonymous said...

I think TN Tea Cake is actually a Blondie bar-with cup-cake form.
Use your Blondie recipe and substitute Molasses for the Brown Sugar. sugar to molasses!

As cupcakes 1/2 full Only! try:Baking at 350 degrees F for 16 minutes. COOL COMPLETELY. I cannot stress this enough.

When you first take the tea cake Blondie cup cakes- out of the oven, the bottom halves will seem too cakey and the top halves will seem too gooey. They need to set for a while (2 hrs) in order to settle into textural and flavorful perfection. ***Try a couple of cup cakes first!!!!!*** Otherwise make them as bars in an 8" x 8" pan.

WWJD said...

Do you know if there were pecans or any type of nuts? We used to buy them at the flea market,and one time we purchased the mix, in a red bag. I was surprised that it said to add fine pecans. It seemed the mix was very simple.

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prvn said...

looks delicious .