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.