A New Zealand classic: Ginger Gems

Ginger Gems One of the kitchen items that I regretted having to leave in New Zealand were my gem irons. Gem irons – cast-iron baking tins, divided into a dozen small curved spaces and used to make the light spicy little loaves called Ginger Gems – seem to be indigenous to New Zealand. I had never come across this cooking implement, or the accompanying recipes, in any other country. The first few times I saw the irons at the market I hadn’t a clue what they were, despite the Boyfriend’s mother telling me all about what I thought were called Ginger Jams and jam irons one day. It took me a wee while to get used to the Kiwi accent!

It wasn’t until I came across an article in Catherine Bell’s Dish magazine that everything fell into place. With the help of the photo in the magazine I realised what the old cast iron implements at the market were. It also helped me to make the translation from jam to gem and suddenly everything was clear. So, hearing that these were one of the Boyfriend’s father’s favourites, I set out on a search for the irons – which, at the very time I discovered how to use them, seemed to disappear from the market. I persevered, though, and eventually managed to get my hand on a pair of lighter and more modern aluminium gem irons. Then I had to find a recipe…

While I lived in New Zealand my equipment was limited. I had no food processor, blender or mixer (although I did manage to get my hands on a Breadmaker!) so all recipes were carefully read and assessed to ensure that they were possible to make with what I did have. Dishes which involved beating egg whites to stiff peaks were ignored as were any soups which had to go near a blender. Any recipe which started off “cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy” were similarly skipped over. I’ve never liked developing my upper arm muscles through beating butter and sugar with a wooden spoon. And, I can tell you from experience, it takes AGES for them to get to the appropriate creamed stage. But all the recipes I found for Ginger Gems involved the creaming step so that plan, despite the presence of the gem irons, got put on the long finger for a while.

While on a trip to the Boyfriend’s family bach at Lake Rotoiti, though, I came across a recipe notebook that had belonged to his paternal grandmother, a wonderful cook and baker by all accounts. Her recipe for Ginger Gems was in the notebook and, to my delight, it involved melting rather than creaming. I had fun trying to figure out some of her measurements – she mixed dessertspoons with table and teaspoons – and the method was idiosyncratic to say the least, but a few test cases later I had success.

Although Ginger Gems, served warm with butter, really belong to the era where everyone stopped for afternoon tea at 4pm, they’re still good as a light desert. If you have a gem iron – and if anyone comes across one in Ireland, please do let me know! – they’re something that can be mixed and baked in about half an hour. A couple of warm Gems, placed on either side of a ball of decent vanilla ice-cream and drizzled over with still-hot caramel sauce take them firmly out of the tea time bracket. A New Zealand classic, just slightly updated.

Betty’s Ginger Gems
Butter – 25g
Golden syrup – 2 tablespoons
Flour – 1 cup
Bicarbonate of soda/bread soda – 1 teaspoon
Ground ginger – 1 teaspoon
Salt – a pinch
Brown or raw sugar – ¼ cup
Egg – 1
Milk – ½ cup
Butter – to grease the gem iron

Preheat the oven to 215°C. Put in the gem iron in the oven to heat.
Melt the butter and syrup together until just warm. Sieve the flour, bicarbonate of soda, ginger and salt into a mixing bowl. Add the sugar and stir until blended. Beat egg and milk together in a separate bowl and add to the dry ingredients with the butter and syrup. Mix well.

Taking the gem iron out of the oven, put a little butter into each space and, using a pastry brush, grease well. Put a large spoonful of the batter into each space and place back in the oven for about 12 minutes.

Remove from the oven and leave for five minutes before removing from the tin. Allow to cool on a wire rack.

Makes 12.



Food writer. Broadcaster. Blogger. Author. Married to Eight Degrees Brewing. Member of the Irish Food Writers' Guild, founder of Irish Food Bloggers Association and co-author of Sláinte: The Complete Guide to Irish Craft Beer & Cider (New Island)

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20 Responses

  1. plum says:

    They sound really cute. I’ve had miniature sweet loaves before but I’ve never seen the kind of pans you mention. Intriguing!

  2. Caroline says:

    I’m kicking myself, Plum, that I didn’t take a photo of the actual gem irons! The little loaves have rounded bottoms, as the base of each section is curved (you can see it in the photo above) – perhaps to transfer the heat better? Alongside the recipe I used Betty also had a plain variation but I didn’t bother with that – the ginger being the main thing for me. I’ve finally managed to track down ginger beer at this side of the world. Now to do a taste test…

  3. Mary says:

    These are an icon! And the old cast iron ones are hard to find. Seems though that the Food Science Department here at Otago has several (I’m still trying to see if they will part with one for historical purposes..) although I’m keeping an eye out for them at the local antique shop. I can email a photo if you like.The recipe I have is a little different from the one you posted, but I’m all about improving on a good thing soI’ll give it a go too! Thanks!

  4. Caroline says:

    I did come across several cast iron gem pans in markets and charity shops before I knew what they were but, of course, as soon as I started looking for them they completely disappeared! I’d love a photo of them if you have one handy – it might give people a better idea of what they look like.

    Let me know how you get on if you try out Betty’s Ginger Gems – it was a lot of fun trying to figure out how to make the recipe work! I’ve a few pages from her notebooks copied – must go looking for some more Kiwi recipes to try out.

  5. Helen says:

    Hi,My Mum used to make ginger gems, and had hoped to get the gem irons. Found them in Dad’s garage after he passed away with lead in them so to the dump they went. Had a girlfriend staying at Yulara Ayers Rock with me from Taupo NZ about 20 odd years later and we went onto Ebay and found the irons. We bought and she sent them from Taupo to Ayers Rock (amisdt a hefty postage bill), was so grateful as they are beautiful and something I had always wanted to bake, after baking them at home with Mum and ejoying themMy irons are the real thing, hefty and fantastic, my Edmonds Cookery Book receipe is slightly different so will try yours. Try E.Bay you may find the genuine things, as there were about four lots when we bought mine.The interest in the gems has continued after baking them for morning tea and have passed the receipe around and the irons for people to try here, as most had never heard of them, so thought I would see how many others had heard of them. Lots of Yularaians now enjoy the Ginger Gems.Cheers and good baking. Helen

  6. Caroline says:

    Thanks for that tip, Helen. It’s definitely well worth a try! There seems to be a lot of people that have very sentimental attachments to ginger gems. In the market where I got my gem irons, the woman who sold them to me and her friend were sighing nostalgically over them – I’m sure they wondered why on earth an Irish girl was buying this quintessentially Kiwi piece of kitchen equipment!

  7. Debra says:

    HELP….i love Ginger Gems but i can’t find the cast iron tray anywhere, i live in the US now..would love to know where in NZ i could find them to get them sent…any help would be great. thanks

  8. Caroline says:

    I never saw gem irons in a shop, other than a charity or op shop, while I was in New Zealand, Debra, but I think the best way of tracking one down would be through Trade Me, the very active Kiwi equivalent of ebay. I know that I’ve come across them before and, if you promise enough postage, the vendor might be willing to send them to the US. Best of luck with your search!

  9. catherine says:

    I thought ginger gems were the kind of thing that every child in an english speaking country grew up with. I scored my gem irons from a thrift shop and never thought anything more of it. Just seemed a natural and regular thing to whip up a batch of gems for moring tea. I’m going to give this recipe a go, I usually just use the edmonds one.Aussie ebay had several of the half sphere shaped gem pans. And I found a pan on us ebay that was being sold as an octopus ball iron pan, for making japanese snacks or something. But it would work well for gems. Maybe try asian food markets to see if you can pick one up there?Ebay US does have alot of cast iron fancy pans being sold as muffin pans which would work as gem pans. there’s a cute heart shaped one and xmas tree shapes too, there’s also plenty off cornbread pans which would make decent gems. As far as gems go try to pick pans with depressions that are smallish in volume. And always make sure the pan is up to temperature when you drop your mix inAnyway I’m off, I was actually googling iron on gems for decorating a tshirt when I found this.!

  10. Caroline says:

    Despite my love of old cookbooks and all kinds of baking, I had never come across ginger gems until I arrived in NZ, Catherine. Thanks for the tips for getting the irons overseas – I’ll definitely have to go searching online although I might just pick up my own (currently packed away) ones while in Nelson just after Christmas. I’ll be coming home to Ireland from NZ with more baking equipment than clothes, my list of things that I would love to bring back with me is just getting longer by the day!

  11. eraine says:

    Hi there,Gem Irons are available on Trade Me go to http://www.trademe.co.nz under kitchen bakewareCheers

  12. Karen says:

    Hi,Came across this as a link from Nana Moorhouse’s ginger gems recipe page. I’m a Kiwi currently living in the US and have been wanting to make some gems for awhile. My Mum used to make them all the time and I made them for my kids. I managed to find a cast iron gem iron on US eBay this morning. It looks like the genuine article, if a little rusty. Can’t wait for it to arrive!! They have some others for sale. Try looking under ‘cast iron muffin pans’. Some are incredibly expensive!!

  13. Jan says:

    I bought new gem irons at kitchen shop in Maitland, Australia. I had been looking to buy them for a few years so it looks like they are coming back in fashion. I wanted to make gem scones but am looking forward to meking Ginger Gems.

  14. Susieq - Australia says:

    Gem scones were very common in my childhood. My grandmother & my mother made them. I have 2 gem irons which consist of x2 lots of 12 half spheres. I grew up with gem scones which could either be sweet or savoury-cheese, & when cold were sliced & a little butter spread within. (A little more tender than normal scones, more cakey).When I married in 1969 I bought some smaller-sized ones. I have since been given my mother’s which could have been my grandmothers. I still see them in antique or old ware shops from time to time & I have seen them hung on kitchen walls with a country style theme. I also make jelly cakes in them. As the mixture rises above the container they become round. Once cooled, jellied with strawberry, raspberry &/or chocolate icing, covered with dessicated coconut, sliced & filled with beaten cream, they are perfect for little girls parties or big girls for that matter!

  15. Brigit says:

    I too have fond memories of them as a child and at a local cafe in Hamilton, NZ they are permanently on the menu. I have just bought a set in Moore Wilsons in Wellington, NZ. They were NZ $39.90 which I am told is a very good price unless you can find them second hand. I will now try your recipe.

  16. Caroline says:

    It’s lovely to see that so many people have such lovely memories of Ginger Gems – next time I’m back in NZ I’m going to have to go searching through my boxes and bring my ones back to Ireland!

  17. Craig Dixon says:

    I found my cast iron gem irons in an antique store in Hobart Tasmania priced at $30. The dealer bloke reckoned they were the coin drawer from an antique cash register. When I explained to him just exactly what they were he was a bit skeptical. However after regaling him about all the lovely Ginger Gems my mother used to bake he let me have the irons for half price. I still can’t get my gems to taste as good as mums after a hard days schooling. Ah well practice makes perfect.

    • Caroline Caroline says:

      That’s great, Craig, not only that you managed to find them, but that you got them at a good price! I’m in NZ at the moment and just this morning I rediscovered my own gem irons. I bought a pair of second hand ones while I lived in New Zealand so one is going to stay here at the family bach and the other will have to be secreted into our luggage for experiments in Ireland.

  18. Andrew says:

    You can see pictures of ‘gem irons’ by searching in google.co.uk

    As ex-pat Kiwis living in the UK we have scoured the world for a gem iron and finally picked one up on a trip home earlier this year (Nelson) and brought it back to England in our luggage. I have been supplying work collegues with ginger gems for morning tea which have been going down a storm.

    • Caroline Caroline says:

      That’s fantastic, Andrew! Did you find it at the Nelson flea market? Everytime I’m in NZ, I love browsing there. In the sunshine. Sigh…

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