How to Make: Cornmeal Gems

Cornmeal Gems

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Welcome back to Tenacious Genealogy! Here in the States, we’re revving up for the holidays – Thanksgiving next Thursday and Christmas a month later. A lot of people jump straight to Christmas, however, I love Thanksgiving just as much and definitely think it is a holiday not to be overlooked! I love getting together with family (most of the time) and there is always tons of delicious food for days after. This year, I’m preparing for Thanksgiving with a couple of historic recipes that I plan to bring to my in-laws. Today’s post focuses on Cornmeal Gems – a delightful bite-sized version of the cornbread staple that is often found on Thanksgiving tables.

One of the great things about this recipe is how scalable it is. One batch makes about 56 mini muffins or ‘gems’ as they are sometimes called. Gems were dense, baked goods, traditionally cooked in a shallow ‘gem pan’. Authentic cast iron pans from the 1800s can be found on Ebay frequently. But a mini muffin pan like the one I have works perfectly as well.

This kind of recipe was extremely popular in the 1800s. Family stories and journals from pioneers traveling West often note that if the family had a gem pan, it was not left behind. Working with a recipe like this one, I can tell why. Cornbread gems (and other baked ‘gems’) were sturdy, filling food that could be taken out into the field and consumed when needed. They were also made of fairly simple and common ingredients. While many people today don’t necessarily use a lot of cornmeal, that would have been a staple for pioneers and most families in the 19th century.

With that in mind, let’s dive into the recipe.

Cookbook: Things Mother Used to Make: A Collection of Old Time Recipes, Some Nearly One Hundred Years Old and Never Published Before 

Author: Lydia Maria Gurney
Published: 1914
2 cupfuls of flour
1 cupful of cornmeal (bolted is best)
2 cupfuls of milk
2 teaspoons of cream of tartar
1 teaspoonful of baking soda
1 egg
1/2 cupful of sugar
1/2 teaspoonful of salt
Original Recipe:

Stir the flour and meal together, adding cream of tartar, soda, salt and sugar. Beat the egg, add the milk to it, and stir into the other ingredients. Bake in a gem-pan twenty minutes.

My translation of the recipe:

2 cups of flour
1 cup of cornmeal (I use and highly recommend this brand – also, ‘bolted’ just means finely ground, which most cornmeal sold in stores will be.)
2 cupfuls of milk
2 teaspoons of cream of tartar
1 teaspoonful of baking soda
1 egg
1/2 cupful of sugar
1/2 teaspoonful of salt
  1. Preheat the oven to 350° F (175°C).
  2. Sift the flour and meal together.
  3. Add the cream of tartar, baking soda, salt, and sugar.
  4. In another bowl, beat the egg and add the milk to it.
  5. Mix your wet ingredients with your dry ingredients.
  6. Spray your mini muffin pan liberally with cooking spray.
  7. Pour a spoonful of the cornmeal mix into each muffin tin.
  8. Bake for twenty minutes.

Cornmeal Gems Redux

Cornmeal Gems Ingredients
Ingredients for Cornmeal Gems

As noted above, one of the reasons that cornmeal gems and ‘gems’ in general were so popular was the fact that they were simple to make and were made from ingredients that nearly every kitchen (even the most basic) would have. Cornmeal was a very common ingredient in the 19th century, more so than it is today, and could supplement wheat flour when needed. Baking soda and cream of tartar would have been the leavening agents of choice as they were also both easy to obtain and until the mass production of baking powder in the 1890s, the easiest way to get baked goods to rise.

Cornmeal Batter
Cornmeal Batter

Once you’ve mixed the batter, it should have the consistency of pancake batter. It’ll be liquid enough for you to spoon (with a regular eating spoon) into each muffin tin. Since there isn’t any butter or oil in the recipe, I recommend liberally oiling or spraying the pan to keep the gems from sticking to the pan. Don’t worry if you can see a little layer of oil at the bottom. This will help the gems pop out once they are done baking.

The Finished Product

Cornmeal GemsCornmeal Gems

Voila! Pint-sized cornbread muffins! Delicious and portable, these would have been a great staple for many a pioneer family and great for modern day family gatherings (like Thanksgiving). This recipe is not too sweet and (for me) just the right amount of ‘corn’ taste. This recipe was also a winner with my co-workers. I brought some to work and they were raving about how good these ‘gems’ were all day!


  • Heavily oil the pan to keep the gems from sticking to the pan.
  • Feel free to adjust the amount of sugar if it too sweet or not sweet enough.
  • One batch makes about 56 mini muffins but if you need to make more, this recipe is easy to double or triple.

Comments? Questions?

Any comments or questions about this recipe? Have any other recipes you’d like me to feature? Let me know in the comments! And if you like what you’ve been seeing here on Tenacious Genealogy – please subscribe to our email list. Not only will you stay up to date with the latest blog posts, but you’ll also get access to freebies such as ’10 Tips for Starting Your Genealogy’ and other fun ‘subscriber only’ items!

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