A New Zealand classic: 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.
They sound really cute. I’ve had miniature sweet loaves before but I’ve never seen the kind of pans you mention. Intriguing!
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…
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!
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.
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
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!
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
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!
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.!
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!
Hi there,Gem Irons are available on Trade Me go to http://www.trademe.co.nz under kitchen bakewareCheers
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!!
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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…
I have both kinds of irons – the loaf ones and the round ones. Inherited from my great grandmother. Make Ginger Gems all the time – but with thin-sliced slivers of preserved ginger added: makes all the difference! (Two knobs of ginger is about right).
My Mum used to make Marmalade gems – the basic NZ Edmunds recipe, with a tablespoonful of marmalade added. Delicious!
You can do all sorts of modifications to gems. Mashed banana works – also feijoa, or chopped apricot. It’s a good way to use up over-ripe fruit.
Love these ideas, Jackie! Marmalade gems sound right up my street. I think I might have to bring out the irons this weekend – we’re just back from NZ into the Irish winter and will need a boost.
You could also use a proffetjer or aebelskiver pan – which you can also use for takoyaki. I was lucky enough to inherit my great – grandmother’s. Australia has the jelly cake – a gem version of a lamington.
Ooh! I love this idea. And your comment reminds me of the ginger gems. Must give them a morning tea outing this week.
I bought my gem irons brand new in 1968 and as a farmer’s wife (NZ) I made ginger gems to serve with the obligatory cuppa when stock agents visited. Such a handy recipe because very quick to make which meant as soon as I could see the men approaching the house for their cup of tea and with the batter already mixed, I would fill the irons then into the oven and 15 minutes later the gems would be ready to serve warm just as the tea was being poured So convenient to quickly whip up especially the times when there was no other home baking in the tins. I had not not made ginger gems for many years until this year when I made some for my family which they enjoyed. Have been making them regularly again for various visitors. So pleased I kept my irons all these 52 years.
That’s a lovely memory, Margaret. They’re such a treat and, as you say, really quick to whip up at the arrival of visitors. The Kiwi’s step-grandmother, who was also a farmer’s wife, told me about all the baking that had to be done on the farm to feed the family and the workers. She got away from the farm, some 30+ years ago, and has never baked since – I can understand why. She might make an exception for these gems, though.
Gem irons are also Australian. I have two that my mother and grandmother had.
So lovely to have your family gem irons. You’ve inspired me to make these this weekend, Kate! We won’t even get into the NZ vs Australian food debate…
I love the fact that this trail goes back 15yrs! Im a Kiwi in Auckland who discovered Mums old gem irons in the garage a few weeks back and cleaned them up ready to use again. I have made a few batches using the Edmonds recipe but not as good as Mum’s used to be so will give your recipe a try (may be the Chef)
This brings back memories of Sunday afternoons with visitors & family scoffing down gems with lots of melting butter!
Now I’m scoffing them in Lock Down.
Ginger gems are the ideal comfort food in a lockdown. I made batches during our winter lockdowns here in Ireland for the Kiwi, and as a way to renew our ties to his family and homeland when you all seemed so far away. We are so looking forward to having things get back to someway normal again so that we can come visit and see our family in person. Thinking of you all over there and hope that you’re able to stay safe.
Re your feeling that your gems aren’t as good as your Mum’s, I think that it’s a matter of practice makes perfect! Good luck with it.
Hi Caroline thanks for your best wishes
I will keep practicing
Say Gidday to “The Kiwi” for me and hope you can make it back to EnZed sometime soon
the best ginger gem cooking rays are made from cast iron! the later lighter! aluminium trays were developed being much lighter, because so many cooks got badly burned lifting the hot, heavy cast iron trays out of the ovens.
note, in earlier times, the lady of the house , was a strong pioneer lady, equally able behind a team of horses or in a basic pioneer kitchen. cooking involved the original coal fired ”range” or wood fired ”range” made from cast iron.my paternal grand ma cooked on several of these for most of her life. those cast iron ranges produced a ”softer” all round heating! i can still remember those sunday lunch time delicious roast meals .beef, pork as well home grown poultry acompanied by a fresh home cooked loaf of bread, not in a bread tin, but a low round loaf posible in a round cake baking dish?
grand said grace then out came 1st that delicious smelling hot loaf, grand pa would put a fresh tea towel across his knees with the ”bread board” on top, cut across that loaf in slices, passing them to eager grand children to butter those hot slices with lots of home made farm butter!
mean time in the kitchen grand ma was plating up on warm plates, put in oven after bread and roast taken out, home grown vegies, spuds , kumura, pumpkin, parsnip mostly freshly dug that morning! g/children were coopted in to picking up same! meantime bread cut up g.pa proceeded to carve up the roast those slices placed on our plates full of roast veggies.g.ma sat down, g,pa said grace, then we all had to wait while hard working g.ma began her meal!
she had begun working at day break, ”raising” the bread after the 1st ”kneading” the hand mixing of bread ingredients, flour, milk, yeast, salt , bicarb of soda, in the big mixing bowl , put the bowl under the blankets of the warm double bed she and g.pa had just got up from, made he 1st cuppa of the day, sat down , soon to retrieve the mixing bowl for the second kneading, back under blankets for second raising then into cake tin to be baked in the coal range,(Shackelton, still in business building new ones , repairing older ones! for life stylers on life style blocks) then finally Sunday dinner! i forgot to mention, we had to out and pick the fresh green peas and shell them , and help g.ma peel the spuds! and when did all this happen? im 87, so about 74 yrs, ago! those were the days!
What a wonderful depiction of your childhood Sundays! I agree that the cast iron ginger gem trays are great for cooking with. One regret that I do have from my time in NZ is that I didn’t pick up a set at the Saturdday morning market in St Albans. One of the traders had some to sell but, at the time, I didn’t realise what they were so passed them by. Still, the aluminium set – and I have two – were much easier to bring back to Ireland with me. It’s lovely to have ginger gems for morning tea and think of all our family in New Zealand.
The bread you mention I find very interesting, with the combination of yeast and bread soda. Bread soda would have been used to raise loaves of soda bread in Ireland but on its own, rather than in conjunction with yeast. It sounds like the bread was so good, appetite whetted by some vegetable gardening, that you’ve never forgotten it. What a gorgeous testament to your grandparents!