Baking for Bookworms: Tea Cookies from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

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Sorry this post is late–we had company staying with us and there wasn’t time to sit down and write out a post!

As a child, your worldview is largely based on sensory input. Reality is what you taste, hear, smell, touch, and see. Looking back on these experiences, we can interpret these sensations and try to make them fit in a larger worldview. As she writes her extremely descriptive memoir, Maya Angelou largely leaves out her older interpretations of things that happen to her to focus on the experience of being a child. Part of that experience is, of course, related to food, which has the power to draw out many of our deepest memories.

I chose the tea cookies specifically because they’re consumed in an interaction that would later have an influence on Angelou’s career as a reader and a writer. She’s brought into a neighbor’s, Mrs. Flowers’, home and encouraged to read after a traumatizing incident of rape sends her back from her mother’s home in St Louis to her grandmother in the country.

Sometimes it is kindness that most leaves an impression on us later, and the sweetness in this moment is as much due to the sugar in the cookies as it is to the actions of those who find us at our most vulnerable and make us feel human again.

“She carried a platter covered with a tea towel. Although she warned that she hadn’t tried her hand at baking sweets for some time, I was certain that like everything else about her the cookies would be perfect.

They were flat round wafers, slightly browned on the edges and butter-yellow in the center. With the cold lemonade they were sufficient for childhood’s lifelong diet. Remembering my manners, I took nice little ladylike bites off the edges. She said she had made them expressly for me and that she had a few in the kitchen that I could take home to my brother. So I jammed one whole cake in my mouth and the rough crumbs scratched the insides of my jaws, and if I hadn’t had to swallow, it would have been a dream come true.”                                                           99

One of the interesting things about this passage is the way that perfection is attributed to the cookies. Perfection in childhood seems attainable, if only certain things were different about ourselves and certain things remain unknown about others. But in reality, even happy memories are bookmarked by moments of pain and imperfection, roughness with sweetness. It is Angelou’s ability to deftly juxtapose and bring together such seeming opposites that makes her book truly remarkable.

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Tea cookies (also called tea cakes) are a round, simple sugar cookie that can be served with tea or lemonade. You can also spread things on top of the cookies, like jam or lemon curd, make icing or frosting, or sandwich them together.

Adapted from Southern Living‘s recipe.

  • 1 cup softened butter
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 3 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon lemon zest (optional) –if you’re not partial to lemon, you could also use 1/4 nutmeg for more flavor

Beat butter for several minutes until creamy. Add sugar and beat until fluffy, 2-3 more minutes. Add eggs one at a time, until blended. Add in vanilla, salt, and lemon zest.

In 1/2 cup- 1 cup increments, add flour and baking soda until well mixed.

Divide dough in half and chill one hour, until firm. If you don’t want to wait that long, you can roll the dough into balls and press them down so you don’t have to roll the cookies.

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Preheat the oven to 350F. Roll dough on a well floured surface to 1/4 inch thickness for a thinner cookie, or 1/3-1/2 an inch for a thicker, chewier cookie. Try not to handle the dough too much as you do this as this will result in tougher cookies.

Cut out cookies with a round cutter and place on parchment paper or a silpat. Bake for 8-11 minutes or until slightly brown at the edges. Cool on a cooling rack.

You can then repeat the process with the remaining dough or save it in the fridge for several days or in the freezer.

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Is there a memory you credit with inspiring your love of reading? I’ve always loved books, but after second grade my family moved. My teacher gave me a copy of The Emerald City of Oz by L. Frank Baum, which she was going to finish reading next year. I sat at our cabin and read this book in one sitting on the porch and I remember looking out and thinking that I was meant to read books.

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