Gems are little muffin-like cakes that were extremely popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although they were most often made using graham flour, some recipes called for cornmeal, oatmeal, rice, bran, rye or buckwheat (or a combination). Most gem recipes had very few ingredients – some just required graham flour, water and salt, but others included milk, eggs, baking powder, or a buttermilk/baking soda combination for leavening. Sweetening was usually minimal, typically brown sugar, molasses or maple syrup. Some recipes called for beating the eggs separately, adding the egg whites to the batter last to create a lighter gem and help with the rising.
Graham flour is named after Sylvester Graham (1794-1851), a Presbyterian minister who is considered one of America’s earliest and most vocal advocates of dietary reform. Foreshadowing the modern health food movement, he believed that natural foods in the purest form – whole grains, vegetables, fruits and nuts – were the pathway to a healthy life. Graham recommended using coarsely ground, whole-wheat flour to make bread, rather than white flour, which often contained chemical additives such as alum or chlorine. This “Graham bread” became hugely popular, and his flour was incorporated into many baked goods, including graham crackers, which still live on today.
Not surprisingly, gems were often doctor-recommended and endorsed, described as “both light and healthful,” particularly those made with graham flour, which (along with graham griddle cakes), were referred to as “the only warm bread that the doctor allows dyspeptics to eat.” (Dyspepsia was the nineteenth century word for indigestion). The Malone Cook Book (1917) even called them Laxo Gems.
The key to baking them was to place the batter in a hot, well, buttered gem pan. Patented by Nathaniel Waterman of Boston in 1859, gem pans were shallower than today’s muffin pans, and made of cast-iron, which caused the gem to puff up nicely, particularly when the pan was heated in the oven ahead of time. As instructed by one 1895 cookbook, “the gem pans being warm, or hot, and buttered, dip in the batter to half fill them, for, if properly prepared, they will raise to fill the pans.”
The mid-nineteenth century recipe book of Anna Maxwell (often referred to as the first lady of the Ebenezer Maxwell Mansion) features three recipes that call for gem pans. In addition to Graham Gems, it also includes Potato and Corn Muffins and Graham and Corn Muffins. I decided to try to make the gems. But instead of a gem pan (which I do not have), I tried the recipe out using two of my muffin pans (a normal 12-muffin size and a larger 6-muffin size – just to see what worked better). As suggested by many recipes of the time, I placed the pans in the oven ahead of time and then greased them with cooking spray before placing the batter in them. They did look like little gems and were tasty, although I don’t think they puffed up as much as they would have using a cast-iron gem pan. I liked the ones in the bigger muffin pan a bit better, as they were moister. This just goes to show that recreating vintage recipes is definitely not an exact science, particularly when the equipment varies. To make them more like today’s muffins using a typical muffin pan, you could just add more batter in each muffin cup.
Here’s the original recipe from Anna’s recipe book:
1 qt milk, 2 eggs 2 cups graham flour, 2 cups sifted flour + little salt. Mix the flour + milk smoothly together, add the eggs beaten light. Have our pan with deep cups in it hot + greased + drop into every cup a spoonful of the batter bake 20 minutes, include baking powder.
And here’s my modernized version:
Graham Gems ~
- 1 cup whole wheat Graham flour (such as Bob’s Red Mill or Hodgson Mill brand)
- ½ cup white flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- ½ tsp salt
- 2 eggs, separated
- 1 cup milk
- 2 tbsp maple syrup (or honey)
- Preheat oven to 360F.
- Sift the flours, baking powder and salt.
- Beat the egg yolks and combine with the milk and syrup or honey. Mix together with the dry ingredients.
- Beat the egg whites until stiff, and then fold gently into the batter.
- If using a cast-iron pan, preheat in the oven for about 5 minutes. If using an aluminum muffin pan, just two minutes is fine. (You will need two 12-muffin pans) Remove the pans and grease the cups. Pour the batter so it fills each cup about 2/3 of the way. Return the pans to the oven.
- Bake 20 minutes.
- Yield: 2 dozen gems
Blog post by Becky Diamond
Sources: The Successful Housekeeper (1887) by Milon W. Ellsworth, Dr. Chase’s Third, Last and Complete Receipt Book (1895) by Alvin Wood Chase, America Eats (1989) by William Woys Weaver, The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink (2007) ed. by Andrew F. Smith, and The American Plate (2014) by Libby H. O’Connell.