"a culinary gilded lily that is impossible to resist."
"If you love someone, you make them pancakes. If you really love them, you make them waffles." Bee Wilson - The Guardian
This lovely photo is from Jamie Oliver's recipe for waffles. I think it is probably a bit old and shows Buddy and Petal - numbers three and four in his family of five. Anyway, it beautifully illustrates that quote from Bee Wilson. Mind you Jamie Oliver makes pancakes too, and they also are a bit special - I remember them as an enormous treat when we were children. And if you haven't got a waffle iron or waffle maker, then the advice in a couple of the recipes I found was to just make pancakes with the waffle batter. Which rather loses the point it seems to me. One even said to make square pancakes. How on earth do you make square pancakes. And then waffles are all about those little square dimples aren't they? Just like crumpets are all about the bubbles of air that the butter and jam sinks into.
I'm talking about waffles because, as I promised, they featured as the second recipe in Nigella's At my table book, and I thought it might be interesting to look at their history and how they are evolving today. And unlike many modern cooks who give impossibly long titles to their recipes Nigella just calls them Waffles. She doesn't do anything fancy with the presentation either - just a few blueberries and maple syrup.
Which could be how I first came across waffles - in America. When I was there as a student with my friend Carole, we had very little money so when we were travelling we would usually eat in the Greyhound Bus cafés. For breakfast there were often waffles - with maple syrup which was in a bottle on the table. Now who could resist? I think it was there that I first met hash browns too. But that's another story altogether - though mind you in my research of waffle recipes I did see a few that had potatoes in the batter. Pumpkin even.
I have never owned a waffle iron, or waffle maker, however briefly. I think I saw one recently somewhere - Aldi, or maybe K-Mart, and I did think about it for a moment because of Nigella. Where would I put it though and when would I use it? For it is David who makes the breakfast, and even if I prepared the batter the night before I don't see him making waffles. Toast is more in his line. Felicity Cloake, however highly recommends this option:
"believe me, there’s little to touch the smugness of waking up to a bowl of bubbling waffle batter in need of a home." Felicity Cloake
Her 'perfect' waffles are also pretty plain in their presentation but she does, as usual, go into all the ins and outs of making waffles. The biggest controversy it seems to me is whether you use yeast or baking powder as your rising agent. Plus a bit of controversy about liquid.
She, like Nigella recognises that it's a bit of a faff to make them - just because of needing to leave the batter to rise, and also the bother of the waffle iron. Nigella admits to having once bought one and then never used it more than once, although now she says it is a weekend treat. Maybe - or maybe it's just celebrity chef waffle. And look I used the word 'waffle' in its other context without even thinking about it - "to speak or write at length in a vague or trivial manner", which is what I do all the time. It's something I think I have always done. Probably because there are too many thoughts tumbling around in my head and they all fall out in a completely unorganised, random and not always relevant way.
Both Felicity and Nigella say they've seen the light, however, and now make them regularly at weekends.
"But try them hot and crisp from the griddle and you’ll never queue for a tepid flannel again; waffles may not be the kind of thing you knock up at 7am before work, but they’re a surprisingly, perhaps dangerously simple weekend treat." Felicity Cloake
Nigella says much the same. Indeed they are a bit more positive about making your own waffles than making your own crumpets. Too many things can go wrong with the crumpets I think. But yes, where would you put your new waffle iron, and when would you use it? Invite the family over for brunch perhaps. And I really must get rid of that juicer that David bought in a fit of enthusiasm and which takes up a large amount of my appliance bench and was used just once or twice.
Waffles are ancient. Well not waffles as we know them now. It seems like the Greeks made things called obelios which was basically just flour and water made into a dough, compressed to a thin wafer between two iron plates and cooked over a fire. This morphed into the oublie which was either a communion wafer or a slightly larger version distributed at fairs and so on. The iron plates now had scenes from the Bible and other decorations on them.
The crusaders brought back flavourings such as orange and cinnamon from the Middle East, and then in the late 14th century the first recipe was written down - with eggs. They must have been very popular because many artists including Brueghel, included them in their paintings. But it wasn't really until the 16th century that sugar was added and the squares appeared. Next came yeast and later pearl sugar. What is pearl sugar?
Well it's oddly shaped chunks of sugar and the web says that you can make your own by bashing sugar cubes with a mallet. But you can't get pearl sugar here, and you can't get sugar lumps either. Well not easily. So I think coffee crystals are the nearest you are going to get to crunchy sugar. It's supposed to be a vital component to the mix.
If you are really into the history of these things then the Wikipedia article is very detailed. I've just given you the brief outline.
Nowadays I think you can probably divide waffles into three camps - American - and the packaged variety that you can get at your local supermarket. Coles for example has some made the same people that make Golden crumpets or more classy looking ones from Toscano.
I checked out the ingredients for these and they look reasonably Ok, and they are made in Belgium - modern day home of the waffle.
For this is the next type of waffle - the Belgian or the northern French waffle which is called a gaufre. I had a feeling that they were also made in Brittany, but I think I am wrong and thinking of their own particular brand of crêpes. Below are pictures of genuine Belgian and French waffles - and note that they are rather differently shaped from the square American type.
In Belgium it's street food, and look at the beautiful French plate in the picture of the French ones, from my France: a culinary journey book. That recipe has beer in the batter - a common ingredient in gaufres.
Then there are the moderns. The ones who write food columns, publish books and open restaurants. And boy do they have fun. Here is a selection - from mildly different to extreme: Belgian waffles with ganache and amaretto cream - Tamal Ray, Almond waffles - Bee Wilson, Dark chocolate - Bon appétit, Cherry poppy seed waffles - Anna Jones - this one is not quite as simple as it sounds and looks - it uses chia seeds instead of eggs, for example, so vegan? Savoury waffles - Anna Jones, Toasted Coconut Waffles with Fresh Mangoes and Palm Syrup - Bill Granger/ Milk and Honey - I think Bill Granger - the breakfast king - probably has many more but there are not many Bill Granger recipes online. Then there is Ham and cheese - Bon appétit and last, but certainly not least Donna Hay who has six out there recipes including the one shown here - Kimchi waffles. Yes kimchi - I couldn't resist. There's also one that includes harissa as well as a whole lot of other things.
Waffles have obviously come a long way from those flour and water wafers back in ancient Greece - possibly even earlier - iron age people I think. Today I'm betting there is hardly a breakfast café that doesn't have waffles on the menu at least occasionally. Now do I buy a waffle machine? Don't think so because I don't see David making me waffles for breakfast, and I don't really see me making kimchi ones either. We could try those toscano ones though. I think you just heat them up in the oven. Maybe a bit much for breakfast too.
Waffles - gorgeous - eat them when you go out to a gourmet café for brunch but unless you have kids it's probably not worth buying a waffle maker. But then again it would be fun wouldn't it? I'm torn.