Juneteenth Tea Cakes

An easy cookie made with simple pantry ingredients, Juneteenth Tea Cakes are a traditional cookie to celebrate the Juneteenth holiday and satisfy your sweet tooth all at the same time.

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Plate of Juneteenth Tea Cakes - a traditional Juneteenth dessert

This very Southern cookie goes beautifully with a tall glass of lemonade and evokes memories of rocking in a chair on a wrap-around porch on a warm summer’s evening.


If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time, you’ve experienced my memories of how I learned to make Southern food and the wonderful lady who shared her skills with me.

While learning how to make Decadent Southern-style Cheese Grits, Miss Roberta laid out a plate of what I thought to be sugar cookies to munch on while we chatted.  One bite and I was begging her for the recipe.  She shared that I could find the recipe she used by Googling ‘Edna Lewis’ tea cakes and then add some nutmeg to it.

I went home and did as Miss Robert suggested and found Edna Lewis. Reading about her lead me to purchase each of her cookbooks.  These lovely women, Miss Roberta and Edna Lewis were the catalysts of my Southern food obsession.

Portrait of Edna Lewis, a black Southern chef and cookbook author

I’ve learned that Miss Roberta has since passed on, but I hope she knows what a gift she gave to me that day by being kind enough to share her skills, and how often I think of her fondly, and my gratitude to her for making me a better cook.


Juneteenth, also known as Freedom Day, Jubilee Day, Liberation Day, or Emancipation Day, is recognized on the third Saturday of June and celebrates the emancipation of the slaves.

Although the Emancipation Proclamation was declared in 1863, slaves in Texas were not freed until June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers arrived in Galveston, Texas to enforce the proclamation and free more than 250,000 enslaved black people in the area.  This day became known as “Juneteenth”.

Celebrations on Juneteenth began the following year, 1866, with church gatherings to pray, recognize, and celebrate the end of slavery.  By the 1920s, this day was celebrated in most of the southern states with food festivals, church gatherings, and family parties.

Juneteenth was overshadowed during the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘60s but grew in popularity again by the late ‘70s.

To date, Congress has not declared Juneteenth as a National Holiday even though every state except Hawaii and South Dakota recognize the holiday.

To learn more about the holiday, visit www.juneteenth.com


Often the holiday is observed with readings of ‘The Emancipation Proclamation, singing of traditional songs and hymns, and recitations of poetry and writings of notable black writers and poets.

Family picnics and barbecues are popular with a focus on soul food recipes that have been passed down for generations.

Collage of Juneteenth red foods-strawberries, watermelon, strawberry pie, hibiscus tea, red sausage links, Big Red Soda

Red food is often the focus of the menu as it symbolizes the bloodshed and the resilience of those who were enslaved.

It’s also thought to represent the hibiscus flowers and kola nuts that came to America through the slave trade.

Foods of the day often include hibiscus iced tea, red velvet cake, and anything strawberry, and spicy hot links, which are spicy red ground beef sausages.

Popular soul food options include macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, sweet potatoes, collard greens, and black-eyed peas.


The recipe for tea cake originated approximately 200 years ago and has become a staple of African-American cuisine.  Using simple pantry ingredients, enslaved women created it to mimic European tea cakes they made in their masters’ kitchens.  

In the original recipe, molasses and lard were used instead of butter and sugar, which were not provided to slaves along with flour and nutmeg.  This cookie was a cross between a sugar cookie, a  snickerdoodle, and a Madeline.

There is nothing fancy and pretty about tea cakes.  Their simple flavor and humble appearance is considered a cultural experience.  The recipes vary greatly from one family to another and from one state to another.


This recipe is from Mrs. Edna Lewis, the James Beard awarded author and chef.  I highly suggest the cookbook Mrs. Lewis co-wrote with Alabama chef, Scott Peacock, “The Gift Of Southern Cooking”.  I don’t think there is a bad recipe in the entire book!

If you aren’t familiar with her abundant talents, Edna Lewis was known as the ‘Godmother of Southern Cooking’. She was also an ambassador for the preservation of authentic Southern cooking.

The granddaughter of enslaved people in Freetown, Virginia, Mrs. Lewis went on to become the head chef at Cafe Nicholson in New York City.  Her cooking drew celebrities from William Faulker, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, and Gloria Vanderbilt to the cafe.

In addition to her writings on Southern cooking, she also authored several cookbooks, like ‘The Edna Lewis Cookbook’ and ‘The Taste of Country Cooking,’ which have re-established Southern cooking in the popular imagination and are essential reading for any aspiring cook.


  • Butter – room temperature.  I used salted butter, but if you’re using unsalted or sweet butter, increase the salt in the recipe by ½ teaspoon.
  • Granulated sugar – both in the recipe and for sprinkling on top of the cookies
  • Eggs – large and at room temperature
  • Buttermilk – full or low fat will work and at room temperature
  • Lemon zest
  • Flour, baking powder, salt
  • Nutmeg – freshly ground for the best flavor


First, you are going to cream together the butter and sugar, then add in the eggs, buttermilk, and lemon zest.

Next, incorporate the dry ingredients until you form a dough.

Roll the dough out and cut it into rounds.

Sprinkle it with sugar and bake.

It’s just that easy to make a taste of culinary history.


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Plate of Juneteenth Tea Cakes - a traditional cookie served on the Juneteenth holiday.



Juneteenth tea cakes are an easy and delicious, traditional cookie served on the Juneteenth Holiday.



½ cup butter, room temperature

2 cups granulated sugar

2 large eggs, room temperature and beaten

½ cup buttermilk, room temperature

1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest

4 cups all-purpose flour

4 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon Kosher salt

¼ teaspoon nutmeg

Granulated sugar for sprinkling


Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Line two baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone mats.  Set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy – about 3 minutes.

Add the eggs and mix until incorporated.

Pour in the buttermilk and lemon zest and mix until combined with the butter and egg mixture.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, and nutmeg.

Add the flour mixture to the wet ingredients and mix just until combined.  You may need to mix the last of the flour in by hand because the dough will be quite thick.

Divide the dough into four portions.

Roll each portion on a lightly floured surface to ⅛-inch thickness.

Use a biscuit cutter to cut the dough into 2 ½-inch thick rounds.

Lightly sprinkle the top with granulated sugar.

Place on the prepared baking sheets ½-inch apart.

Bake in the preheated oven for 8-10 minutes or until the edges begin to turn golden.

Remove the cookies to a rack to cool completely.

Store in a tightly covered container for up to 1 week.

  • Prep Time: 25 minutes
  • Cook Time: 10 minutes
  • Category: Dessert
  • Method: Bake
  • Cuisine: Southern

Keywords: Juneteenth tea cakes, Juneteenth, Southern food, cookie recipes, sugar cookies, tea cakes, Soulfood, easy cookie recipes

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