Sugar cookies and tea cakes are both baked goods meant to be enjoyed as sweet snacks. Different cultures have different definitions of what constitutes a "tea cake," but in general, they are less sweet than traditional sugar cookies.
History of Sugar Cookies
Sugar cookies date back to Medieval Arab times, when cooks made small sugar cakes with nuts and spices. Europeans latched onto the idea and imported the sweet treats to the New World with 16th century explorers.
Modern Sugar Cookies
While there's a plethora of sugar cookie recipes available, most Americans think of sugar cookies as those made from a basic recipe of flour, white sugar, butter, vanilla and sometimes a secondary flavoring such as lemon or almond extract.
History of Tea Cakes
The term "tea cake" arose from the British tradition of serving small sandwiches and baked goods with afternoon tea. Many cultures, including Irish, British, Mexican and Italian, have their own variation of a tea cake.
Modern Tea Cakes
Tea cakes vary depending on their cultural origins. Variations can range from a biscuit-like cake to a treat similar to what Americans call a coffee cake. Crumpets and scones are also considered tea cakes in England.
In some instances, petit fours are called tea cakes. Petit fours are small, bite-sized frosted cakes, usually comprised of several layers with a filling in between each layer. Likewise, sugar cookies are often cut in shapes and decorated with colored sugar and icing, especially around holidays.