“Poor Man’s” Corn Gems

Let’s dig a bit deeper into gems.

Corn [no explanation]gem[/no explanation] pan by Joelk75, on Flickr

Until the late 19th century, muffins were leavened chemically, while gems were leavened only by beaten eggs. That started to change, at least in part, when baking powder companies promoted using baking powder in other recipes.

Given the time period most of the recipes in this box are from, I’m thinking the owner copied this recipe form 1917’s American Indian Corn (Maize): a Cheap, Wholesome, and Nutritious Food by Charles Joseph Murphy:

“Poor Man’s” Corn Gems

Stir one pint each of corn meal and flour, one teaspoon of salt, and two teaspoons of baking powder into a third of a pint each of milk and water. Mix to a smooth, firm batter and turn into greased cold gem pans. Bake fifteen minutes in a brisk oven.

But the earliest version of this recipe I’ve found is from the Royal Baking Powder Company; we learned about its history in the post for Royal cinnamon buns. The Royal name came into use in 1873; in 1877, the company published the “poor man’s” corn gems recipe in the booklet and catalog The Royal Baker and Pastry Cook:

30 — “Poor Man’s” Corn Gems.

1 pint corn meal, 1 pint flour, 1 teaspoonful salt, 2 teaspoonfuls Royal Baking Powder, 1/2 pint each of milk and water.

Sift the corn meal, flour, salt and powder together. Add the milk and water, mix into a firm batter, two-thirds fill well greased, cold gem pans (fig. X). Bake in a well-heated oven 15 minutes.


Hrm. Well, yes, that is a gem pan. I guess my glossary explanation hasn’t really adequately covered the potential varieties you might encounter.

Fair enough; let’s go shopping for [no explanation]gem[/no explanation] pans. The image at the right is from the 1910 Honeyman Hardware number 8 catalog. All of the pans displayed are [no explanation]gem[/no explanation] pans, and there are lots of other shapes, out there, too, including ears of corn, fluted cups, and even card suits.

Some modern dictionaries define mini-muffin pans as [no explanation]gem[/no explanation] pans, which is true, I suppose. A [no explanation]gem[/no explanation] pan is anything you can bake a “gem” in, and in this context, a gem is a muffin that can range from crusty, savory wheat muffins to ear-of-corn-shaped cornbread and fruit-filled sweet Graham muffins.

A related issue comes to mind: what makes these “poor man’s” corn gems? Well, compare this 1877 recipe to two 1886 recipes for corn gems (and a recipe for breakfast gems stuck between them) from the Royal Baking Powder Company’s collection of consumer-submitted recipes, My Favorite Receipt:

Corn Gems. — 1 pt. corn-meal, 1 pt. flour, 1 pt. sweet milk, 2 teaspoons Royal Baking Powder, 1/2 teacup butter, 1/2 teacup sugar, 2 eggs; bake in gem pans in a hot oven 20 minutes. — Mrs. George Lehr, Watertown, N.Y.

(Click to expand breakfast gems recipe.)

Breakfast Gems. — 1 qt. flour, 1 qt. milk, 4 eggs, and 1 teaspoon salt; bake in gem pans; the above needs to be accurately measured to be light; hot oven necessary. — Mrs. Waring, 137 West 42nd street, New York.
Corn-meal Gems.–1-1/2 cups corn-meal, 2 cups flour, 2 teaspoons Royal Baking Powder, 1 dessertspoon butter, 1/2 cup molasses, 1 egg; wet with milk to a stiff batter; bake in a quick oven. — Miss H.A. Dunham, Bennington, Vt.


From the box of A.D. from Lutz, Florida, by way of Pennsylvania in the 1940s, and originating in Ohio in the 1920s.

“Poor Man’s” Corn Gems

1 pint corn meal
1 pint flour
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking powder
1/3 pints each of milk and water

Sift cornmeal, flour, salt, baking powder together.

Add milk and water. Mix into a firm batter. 2/3 fill well-greased gem pans. Bake in well-heated oven 15 minutes.

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