How is it that a cookie can evoke such feelings of comfort and love? One bite brings up memories, security and home, no matter where I am.
My first year of college was my first extended time being away from home, and to say I was homesick was an understatement. I was lonely, wanting to be with my family and exhausted by all the newness in my life. About a month in, a care package from my Uncle Murray showed up. Inside the box was a variety of treats, including my favorite Russian tea biscuits — my great-grandma’s special recipe. The tea biscuits soothed my homesickness. I could taste the sweetness of each flavor, a wonderful mix of coconut, raisins, nuts, chocolate chips and jelly, with love and memories sprinkled in. It took me a week or so to get through the whole box, trying to savor them as much as I could. In the wake of so much change and uncertainty, I finally had something to anchor me. Each tea biscuit was its own tiny package of love. It almost felt like my family was there.
As a Jewish girl from Cleveland, I can tell you that Russian tea biscuits are so ingrained in Cleveland’s extensive Jewish community that we do not realize they are unique to us. These cookies are most comparable to a rugelach-scone crossover, but larger in size, filled with jellies and love, and then rolled in logs and cut into pieces. But Russian tea biscuits are not exactly Russian; rather, they were created in the early 1900s by Jewish immigrants in Cleveland, deemed Russian probably due to the large population of Russian Jews and the association of raspberry jelly, the traditional filling, with Russia. Tea biscuits are found in nearly every Jewish deli and bakery in Cleveland, and many obituaries of Eastern European Jewish women who grew up in the early-mid 1900s cite that they were famous for their recipe. My great-grandma is one of the distinguished tea biscuit women.
We call her Mama Lee (by “we,” I mean what seems like the entirety of Cleveland’s Jewish community). My great-grandma Leona was an amazing woman and an extraordinary chef. She was a first generation American, mother to three children and many foster daughters, active volunteer and World War II veteran’s wife, and one of the few people to live through a championship for all three Cleveland men’s professional sports teams. She was everyone’s great-grandma and simply beautiful inside and out: hair always styled perfectly from that weeks’ beauty shop appointment, gorgeous jewelry, the kindest kisses, and a million stories about our family. And she became bat mitzvah at age 91.
Mama Lee and her younger sister, my Aunt Goldie, were well known for their cooking. Their recipes and photos graced the cover of the Cleveland Jewish News. They made traditional Ashkenazi food at its finest. By the time I was old enough to truly remember it, they were less physically involved, but you’d better believe they were supervising every move. No holiday or occasion was complete without their cooking, from matzah balls to sweet-and-sour meatballs to plates upon plates of desserts.
The most special of all the desserts was Mama Lee’s tea biscuits. I don’t really remember trying tea biscuits, or even seeing them, while Mama Lee was alive — though everyone in my dad’s generation remembers them as a staple from Mama Lee’s family meals. But soon after her passing in 2018, a few months shy of her one hundredth birthday, there they were. We were probably at her shiva, and I remember a cousin telling me, in my deep state of grief, to try one, saying something along the lines of “they are her recipe, having one might make you feel better.” Suddenly they were my favorite. And everyone’s favorite. There were never not tea biscuits at a family event again.
After Mama Lee’s death, her tea biscuits seemed to slowly take over my family. There are so many ways to remember someone, but this is what we inadvertently chose. Uncle Murray, her son, has become the keeper of the tea biscuits’ legacy: their recipe, their baking, and their centrality in our family celebrations. The recipe is no secret and has been shared far and wide, but when he makes them, they always taste a million times better. It feels like Mama Lee is making them with him. They have become an unspoken necessity and the center of all holidays and gatherings. We all congregate around these tea biscuits, whether fresh on the table or pulled from the stash in the freezer. As we share the opinion that they’re the best dessert, we also, by extension, share memories of Mama Lee. Uncle Murray’s daughters bought him a custom serving tray for his birthday with the recipe in Mama Lee’s original handwriting etched into the surface. My little sister baked all the desserts for her recent bat mitzvah and there were tea biscuits galore, the leftovers sent home with relatives across the country.
My cousin describes tea biscuits as a little package of joy, and in a sense, the tea biscuits embody the best of Mama Lee. The folded layers are like all the generations of my family, pleated together closely and surrounded by sweetness. When I make tea biscuits for friends and they ask where they came from, it sparks the opportunity to say, “It’s my great-grandma’s recipe!” and talk about her. I tell them about the special matriarch who always had to repeat all nine of her grandchildren’s names until she got to the right one, her apartment window that made orchids bloom twice as big, and how she responded to every “I love you” with “I know you do.”
On her last birthday, we asked Mama Lee what her favorite memory was. Her response? Having all her family together at the same time. Mama Lee kept both the nearby and the faraway relatives returning home, and always reminded us that the best part of family is love. The small act of making and sharing tea biscuits has kept her ever-present in our hearts, her legacy shining in the fact that we’re all together — and will continue to be for years to come.
Mama Lee’s Cleveland-Style Tea Biscuits
Prep time: 20 minutes plus chilling time
Bake time: 25-30 minutes
Approximately 40 tea biscuits
For the dough:
- 4 cups all-purpose flour
- 3 teaspoons baking powder
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ¾ cup granulated sugar
- ¾ cup oil
- ¼ cup orange juice
- 3 large eggs
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
For the filling:
- 1 cup chopped nuts
- 1 ½ cups combination of chocolate chips and raisins (can also add coconut flakes)
- ¼ cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- Raspberry or apricot jam
For the topping: (optional)
- 1 large egg white
- ¼ cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- Preheat oven to 350°F.
- Mix flour, baking powder, salt, and sugar in a large bowl.
- Make a well in the center and add oil, orange juice, eggs, and vanilla. Knead dough until all ingredients are thoroughly combined and dough is pliable and not sticky.
- Chill in the refrigerator for several hours or overnight.
- Cut dough into 4-5 even-sized pieces.
- Roll one part of dough on floured board or parchment paper into a 6-inch by 14-inch rectangle of even thickness. Add a thin layer of jam (about 3 tablespoons), then sprinkle a light, even dusting of the cinnamon sugar. Next, distribute the nuts, chocolate chips, raisins and coconut evenly on the dough.
- Roll tightly along the long end of the rectangle, jelly roll-style, ending with the seam on the bottom.You can either roll by hand or, if using parchment paper, lift the paper from the outside edge to form the jelly roll.
- (Optional) Brush top with egg white and cinnamon sugar topping mixture.
- Slice into 1½ inch slices and place on a parchment paper-lined cookie sheet a half-inch apart. Repeat process with each remaining pieces of dough.
- Bake for 25-30 minutes until golden brown. The color will change more visibly if brushed with egg white.
- Place on cooling rack and enjoy once cooled.