Belgium’s Favorite Breakfast Food, the Waffle
Waffles despite their age have managed to stay as relevant and active as any of our contemporary breakfast foods. Pop tarts, Cronuts, they’re a flash in the pan when compared to the staying power of the waffle, which has firmly held its position within the culinary world in one capacity or another for centuries.
Some consider waffles to have first been created in the Neolithic age when a crude batter was cooked on a hot rock, but in my mind, that’s a pancake, not a waffle. To my thinking, the true inception of the waffle came sometime later in ancient Greece when cooks first began pressing batter between two hot plates. They were called Obelios and tended towards savory uses rather than sweet.
The Catholic church latched onto the idea and began to make Oublies (meaning “wafer”) that were served as a considerably larger companion to the Eucharist host. Eventually, they began serving them after meals as a final symbolic blessing. These large wafers typically depicted the crucifixion and other well known biblical scenes.
In the 13th century, the Church gave its consent to the secularization of the waffle and designs followed featuring family crests, landscapes, and intricate patterns. It was then also that the name changed to “wafla” or “gaufer” in French, meaning “a piece of honeycomb” to parallel the new design for the familiar crossing pattern we see today.
Thanks to its sanctified roots, waffle street vendors (called waferers in England and gaufriers in France) were permitted to congregate and sell their waffles outside churches. The waffle craze reached such a feverish pitch that eventually France’s king Charles IV had to regulate the vendors, mandating that they stay at least twelve feet from each other as they were choking every available church exit.
Based on what we can learn from 16th-century artists, waffles, after eating, seemingly had myriad other applications. Judging by this picture, the foremost among them being armor. Even the sharpest weapons bounced harmlessly off the wearer’s complex carbohydrate helmet. The fourth waffle, unfortunately blocking all vision, had to be removed and was promptly lost in a game of dice to a giant thumb.
Developing their characteristics based on the region we begin to see unique varieties emerging. In Germany, there was the coffee waffle, in Belgium the Léige waffle, and in France, Flemish waffles using egg whites as opposed to yeast and over a pound of butter.
With the expansion of the sugar trade into the Caribbean in the 18th century, sugar prices plummeted and waffle recipes began to surface. This is when we see the first written documentation of the word “waffle” in the English language, published in 1725 in the recipe book Court Cookery by Robert Smith.
Some say that Thomas Jefferson single-handedly introduced the waffle to America when he brought back four waffle irons from Amsterdam. Others say it was Dutch settlers;, I diplomatically hold the stance that it was probably a combination of the two. In all events, upon the discovery of the waffle among our forefathers, the development of something called a “waffle frolic” began to sweep the nation. According to a young William Livingston, these salacious sounding events consisted of a couple titillating rounds of cards, before massive tables were brought in on which a luxurious feast was laid, including all the accoutrements to make your own waffles. The frolic was then deftly pushed in another direction with the introduction of “ten sunburnt virgins”. Finally culminating in a “play” which primarily consisted of “kissing“. With our ancestors’ apparent tendency towards blue entertainment, these smutty waffle frolics became one of colonial America’s most popular forms of recreation.
148 years ago today, the patent for the first waffle iron in America was received by the Dutch-American, Cornelius Swarthout, of Troy, New York. Then designed to be used over an open fire, the two metal plates were attached to very long handles and were flipped once or twice in order to cook the waffles evenly. 42 years later, General Electric came out with the electric waffle iron, and over the past century the design has stayed much the same.
In 1932, three brothers started a food manufacturing business in the basement of their parents’ home. Frank, Anthony, and Sam began their business with the production of mayonnaise, later moving to waffle batter, and eventually to one of the first dry waffle mixes. Soon leaving the basement behind for a larger venue, they mechanized the production of their waffles selling them frozen. Calling them “froffles” (frozen-waffles) but eventually changing the name to match their other products they became Eggo waffles.
Though generally equated with breakfast, the waffle is a food that defies meal time boundaries. And I encourage the eating of them to be based not upon the position of the sun, but instead whenever the gastronomical notion strikes.
It can be eaten in the morning of course with fresh fruit and cream, or generously sprinkled with powdered sugar alongside an afternoon cup of coffee. And there is nothing finer than a small crisp waffle eaten with good chocolate at the end of a meal. Here is a recipe based on the aforementioned Flemish waffle. It is Flemish in the sense that what leavening it contains comes from beaten egg whites instead of yeast, not in the original recipes’ recommended addition of a pound of butter.
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 Tablespoon cornmeal (optional, but highly encouraged)
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon baking soda
1 large egg, separated
⅞ cup buttermilk
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
Plug in and heat up your waffle iron, this batter comes together quickly and by the time you’re finished the iron should be nicely heated through.
In a large bowl whisk together dry ingredients. In a separate bowl whisk together egg yolk, buttermilk, and butter. In a standing mixer, or in a large bowl with a hand mixer, beat egg white until it holds a stiff peak.
While stirring, add liquid ingredients to dry ingredients in a steady stream. Gently fold in the egg whites using a large rubber spatula.
Pour batter onto hot waffle iron, cook until golden brown and enjoy!