This Woman Is Putting South LA In This Traditional Southern Sweet
After a full day of work helping to manage Los Angeles's Emergency Services Department, Veronica Hendrix returns to her South L.A. home, pours a glass of champagne and puts on her favorite R&B classics station. This ritual sets the mood -- but not for an evening of romance.
Veronica, 60, is about to bake a batch of her famous tea cakes, a soft, buttery, subtly sweet and phenomenally addictive dessert.
Making them is hard work but it's also a labor of love. Hendrix is carrying on a family tradition passed down from her mother, aunts and grandmothers who learned it from their mothers, aunts and grandmothers before them.
Tea cakes were a common desert in Southern homes for generations, stretching back to colonial times. They've always been harder to get in Southern California and these days, you're lucky if you can find a home baker willing to prepare them. Deceptively simple, they're made with pantry staples. The trick is achieving the right texture.
A proper Southern tea cake is neither biscuit nor cookie although it tastes like the former and has the texture of the latter. They're too sweet and soft to be scones and too firm to be cake. Their closest cousin is the dough in whoopie pies, another East Coast treat that's rare in California.
Veronica's West Coast upbringing has Southern roots. Like so many daughters, she learned to cook by spending time with her mother, Christine Stamps, in the kitchen. About once a month, Christine would bake tea cakes for her husband and four children. Veronica remembers, as a 6-year-old, the heavy smell of nutmeg filling the house and the sense-memory still makes her smile.
"They remind me of my childhood, my mom and growing up on Bromont Avenue in Pacoima," Veronica says.
Food and memories are intertwined in Southern cooking, especially among African Americans. Every dish has a story that connects to a family and its cultural history. The recipes may vary but history lives on through food. Every Southern family seems to have their own tried-and-true tea cake recipe, passed down for generations. When families migrated to the North and West during the middle of the 1900s, they left behind some of their culinary traditions in favor of convenience foods.
Veronica combines flour, sugar, eggs, butter, milk, vanilla extract and nutmeg in a large bowl then mixes the batter with swift yet gentle strokes. She rolls out the dough by hand, just like her mom has done for the last six decades. Like her mother, Veronica won't use a blender.
"My mom has a talent for cooking from her soul," Veronica says. "It was a gut feeling that allowed her to prepare tea cakes without measuring tools." Veronica is a perfectionist who doesn't share her mom's distaste for measuring cups and spoons.
Christine's cooking skills have always been an inspiration for her daughter and at 80, she remains a proud mother. "I admire Veronica's passion for cooking," she says.
Christine hails from Garland, Alabama and moved to Pacoima in 1956 with her husband Olephyeo Stamps for job opportunities and a better life. Olephyeo worked at General Electric as a sheet metal worker for 20 years before he passed in 2011.
According Veronica, Christine was a popular cafeteria cook at Fillmore Elementary School in Pacoima. Students and staff enjoyed her spaghetti, meat loaf, and coffee cakes. Today, she's retired and enjoying her leisure time with her adult children and her church. She doesn't cook much. Instead, Veronica frequently visits Christine and cooks for her mom. Christine still lives in the same house where she raised four children.
Christine admires Veronica's "passion for cooking." As a proud mother she understands the importance of being a role model. Even if they're cooking routines are sometimes dissimilar.
Tea cakes differ in shape and size. They can be as round and as large as your palm or semi-square and as small as a wafer. Christine makes her tea cakes large, circular and very sweet. She knows how Southerners love their sugar. Veronica, more conscious of the treat's caloric footprint, makes tea cakes that are smaller and much less sweet.
Veronica loves working with her hands. The mixing, after the batter has been rolled out, generally takes about 45 minutes. Why so long? Because she's sipping champagne and often distracted by her music.
She shapes each tea cake by hand, places each circle of dough an inch-and-a-half apart on a cookie sheet and places it in a 325-degree oven to bake for 10 to 12 minutes.
Sometimes, Veronica invites her girlfriends to keep her company as she cooks. While the tea cakes bake, they chitchat and consume a glass or two of wine.
"A tea cake is a great way to disarm anybody," she says as she sips her champagne and giggles.
Veronica removes the tea cakes from the oven and places them on a cooling rack for at least 10 minutes or until they're cool to the touch. The scent of nutmeg, vanilla and sometimes lemon wafts from the kitchen and percolates through her house.
Sometimes, Veronica bakes a couple dozen tea cakes for her church and family gatherings -- and there are never any leftovers. She considers cooking the highest form of gratification because of the satisfaction she gets from creating.
"If you are trying to strengthen a relationship, you can do it over a tea cake," Veronica says. Let's not forget the accompanying glass of wine.
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