A waffle is a leavened batter or dough cooked between two plates, patterned to give a characteristic size, shape and surface impression. There are many variations based on the type of iron and recipe used, with over a dozen regional varieties in Belgium alone.
The word “waffle” first appears in the English language in 1725: "Waffles. Take flower, cream..." It is directly derived from the Dutch wafel, which itself derives from the Middle Dutch wafele.
While the Middle Dutch wafele is first attested to at the end of the 13th century, it is preceded by the French walfre in 1185; both are considered to share the same Frankish etymological root wafla. Depending on the context of the use of wafla, it either means honeycomb or cake.
Alternate spellings throughout contemporary and medieval Europe include wafre, wafer, wâfel, waufre, gaufre, goffre, gauffre, wafe, waffel, wåfe, wāfel, wafe, vaffel, and våffla.
Detail of a Belgian moule à oublie
Waffles are preceded, in the early Middle Ages, around the period of the 9th–10th centuries, with the simultaneous emergence of fer à hosties / hostieijzers (communion wafer irons) and moule à oublies (wafer irons). While the communion wafer irons typically depicted imagery of Jesus and his crucifixion, the moule à oublies featured more trivial Biblical scenes or simple, emblematic designs. The format of the iron itself was almost always round and considerably larger than those used for communion.
The oublie was, in its basic form, composed only of grain flour and water – just as was the communion wafer. It took until the 11th century, as a product of The Crusades bringing new culinary ingredients to Western Europe, for flavorings such as orange blossom water to be added to the oublies; however, locally-sourced honey and other flavorings may have already been in use before that time.
Oublies, not formally named as such until ca. 1200, spread throughout northwestern continental Europe, eventually leading to the formation of the oublieurs guild in 1270. These oublieurs/obloyers were responsible for not only producing the oublies but also for a number of other contemporaneous and subsequent pâtisseries légères (light pastries), including the waffles that were soon to arise.
In the late 14th century the first known waffle recipe was penned in an anonymous manuscript, Le Ménagier de Paris, written by a husband as a set of instructions to his young wife. While it technically contains four recipes, all are a variation of the first: Beat some eggs in a bowl, season with salt and add wine. Toss in some flour, and mix. Then fill, little by little, two irons at a time with as much of the paste as a slice of cheese is large. Then close the iron and cook both sides. If the dough does not detach easily from the iron, coat it first with a piece of cloth that has been soaked in oil or grease. The other three variations explain how cheese is to be placed in between two layers of batter, grated and mixed in to the batter, or left out, along with the eggs. However, this was a waffle / gaufre in name only, as the recipe contained no leavening.
Detail of a French moule à oublie / moule à gaufre, Musée Lorrain
Though some have speculated that waffle irons first appear in the 13th–14th centuries, it is not until 15th century that a true physical distinction between the oublie and the waffle (wafel / gaufre) begins to evolve. Notably, while recipes like the fourth in Le Ménagier de Paris is only flour, salt and wine – indistinguishable from common oublies recipes of the time – what does emerge is a new shape to many of the irons being produced. Not only are the newly fashioned ones rectangular, taking the form of the fer à hosties, but some circular oublie irons are cut down to create rectangles. It is also in this period that the waffle’s classic grid motif appears clearly in a French fer à oublie and a Belgian/Dutch wafelijzer – albeit in a more shallowly engraved fashion – setting the stage for the more deeply gridded irons that were about to become commonplace throughout The Netherlands.
By the 16th century, paintings by Joachim de Beuckelaer, Pieter Aertsen and Pieter Bruegel clearly depict the modern waffle form. Bruegel’s work, in particular, not only shows waffles being cooked, but fine detail of individual waffles. In those instances, the waffle pattern can be counted as a large 12x7 grid, with cleanly squared sides, suggesting the use of a fairly thin batter, akin to our contemporary Brussels waffles (Brusselse wafels).
Earliest of the 16th century waffle recipes, Om ghode waffellen te backen – from the Dutch KANTL 15 manuscript (ca. 1500–1560) – is only the second known waffle recipe after the four variants described in Le Ménagier de Paris. For the first time, partial measurements are given, sugar is used, and spices are added directly to the batter: Take grated white bread. Take with that the yolk of an egg and a spoonful of pot sugar or powdered sugar. Take with that half water and half wine, and ginger and cinnamon.
Alternately attributed to the 16th and 17th centuries, Groote Wafelen from the Belgian Een Antwerps kookboek is published as the first recipe to use leavening (beer yeast): 'Take white flour, warm cream, fresh melted butter, yeast, and mix together until the flour is no longer visible. Then add ten or twelve egg yolks. Those who do not want them to be too expensive may also add the egg white and just milk. Put the resulting dough at the fireplace for four hours to let it rise better before baking it. Until this time, no recipes contain leavening and can therefore be easily cooked in the thin moule à oublies. Groote Wafelen, in its use of leavening, is the genesis of contemporary waffles and validates the use of deeper irons (wafelijzers) depicted in the Beuckelaer and Bruegel paintings of the time.
Charles IX, King of France, created the first legislation regulating waffle sales.
By the mid-16th century, there were signs of waffles’ mounting French popularity. Francois I, king from 1494–1547, of whom it was said les aimait beacoup (loved them a lot), had a set of waffle irons cast in pure silver. His successor, Charles IX enacted the first waffle legislation in 1560, in response to a series of quarrels and fights that had been breaking out between the oublieurs. They were required, ”d'être au moins à la distance de deux toises l'un de l'autre. ” (to be no less than ~4 yards from one to the other).
Moving into the 17th century, unsweetened or honey-sweetened waffles and oublies – often made of non-wheat grains – are the type generally accessible to the average citizen. The wheat-based and particularly the sugar-sweetened varieties, while present throughout Europe, are prohibitively expensive for all but the monarchy and bourgeoisie. Even for the Dutch, who controlled much of the mid-century sugar trade, a kilogram of sugar was worth ½ an ounce of silver (the equivalent of ~$32 for a 5lb. bag, 08/2012 spot silver prices), while, elsewhere in Europe, it fetched twice the price of opium. The wealthier families’ waffles, known often as mestiers, were, "...smaller, thinner and above all more delicate, being composed of egg yolks, sugar, and the finest of the finest flour, mixed in white wine. One serves them at the table like dessert pastry."
By the dawn of the 18th century, expansion of Caribbean plantations had cut sugar prices in half. Waffle recipes abounded and were becoming decadent in their use of sugar and other rare ingredients. For instance, Menon’s gaufre from Nouveau Traité de la Cusine included a livre of sugar for a demi-livre of flour.
Germany becomes a leader in the development and publication of waffle recipes during the 18th century, introducing coffee waffles, the specific use of Hefeweizen beer yeast, cardamom, nutmeg, and a number of zuickerwaffeln (sugar waffles). At the same time, the French introduce whipped egg whites to waffles, along with lemon zests, Spanish wine, and cloves. Joseph Gillier even publishes the first chocolate waffle recipe, featuring three ounces of chocolate grated and mixed into the batter, before cooking.
A number of the 18th century waffle recipes take on names to designate their country or region/city of origin – Schwedische Waffeln, Gauffres à l’Allemande and, most famous of all the 18th century varieties, Gauffres à la Flamande, which are first recorded in 1740. These Gauffres à la Flamande (Flemish waffles / Gaufres de Lille) are the first French recipe to use beer yeast, but unlike the Dutch and German yeasted recipes that precede them, use only egg whites and over a pound of butter in each batch. They are also the oldest named recipe that survives in popular use to the present day, produced regionally and commercially by Meert.
The 18th century is also when the word “waffle” first appears in the English language, in a 1725 printing of Court Cookery by Robert Smith. Recipes had begun to spread throughout England and America, though essentially all are patterned after established Dutch, Belgian, German, and French versions. In 1789, Thomas Jefferson is fabled to have returned from 5 years in Europe with a waffle iron, setting off a fad for waffle frolics (waffle parties), though waffle frolics had been documented as early as 1744 in New Jersey, and the Dutch had long since established waffles in New Amsterdam (New York City).
Liège Waffles, Belgium's most popular variety – a legendary creation by an 18th-century chef to the prince-bishop of Liège – were not a confirmed recipe until 1921
Liège waffles, the most popular contemporary Belgian waffle variety, are rumored to have been invented during the 18th century, as well, by the chef to the prince-bishop of Liège. However, there are no German, French, Dutch, or Belgian cookbooks that contain references to them in this period – by any name – nor are there any waffle recipes that mention the Liège waffle’s distinctive ingredients, brioche-based dough and pearl sugar. It isn’t until 1814 that Antoine Beauvilliers publishes a recipe in l’Art du Cuisiner where brioche dough is introduced as the base of the waffle and sucre cassé (crushed block sugar) is used as a garnish for the waffles, though not worked into the dough. Antonin Carême, the famous Parisian pastry chef, is the first to incorporate gros sucre into several waffle variations named in his 1822 work, Le Maitre d'Hotel Français. Then, in 1834, Leblanc publishes a complete recipe for gaufres grêlées (hail waffles), where gros sucre is mixed in. A full Gaufre de Liège recipe does not appear until 1921.
Waffles remained widely popular in Europe for the first half of the 19th century, despite the 1806 British Atlantic naval blockade that greatly inflated the price of sugar. This coincided with the commercial production of beet sugar in continental Europe, which, in a matter of decades, had brought the price down to historical lows. Within the transitional period from cane to beet sugar, Florian Dacher invented the Brussels Waffle (Brusselse Wafel), the predecessor to American “Belgian” waffles, recording the recipe in 1842/43.Stroopwafels (Dutch syrup wafels), too, rose to prominence in the Netherlands by the middle of the century. However, by the second half of the 1800s, inexpensive beet sugar became widely available, and a wide range of pastries, candies and chocolates were now accessible to the middle class, as never before; waffles’ popularity declined rapidly.
By the early 20th century, waffle recipes become rare in recipe books, and only 29 professional waffle craftsmen, the oublieurs, remained in Paris. Waffles were shifting from a predominately street-vendor-based product to an increasingly homemade product, aided by the 1918 introduction of GE’s first electric commercial waffle maker. By the mid-1930s, dry pancake/waffle mix had been marketed by a number of companies, including Aunt Jemima, Bisquick, and a team of three brothers from San Jose, Calif. – the Dorsas. It is the Dorsas who would go on to innovate commercial production of frozen waffles, which they began selling under the name “Eggo” in 1953.
Then in 1958, a Belgian restauranteur, Maurice Vermersch, showcased his version of the Brussels waffle at Expo 58 in Brussels. Following his success there, he made plans to introduce them to America, but was beat to the U.S. by another salesman who sold his own Gaufres de Bruxelles with modest success at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. It was in 1964, however, when Maurice Vermersch finally debuted his “Bel-Gem” waffles at the 1964 New York World’s Fair that they took hold in the States. Originally intended as a marketing device, to work around Americans’ poor recognition of Brussels geographically, the “Bel-Gem” name stuck and quickly morphed into the distinctly American concept of the “Belgian waffle”. In practice, contemporary American “Belgian waffles” are actually a hybrid of pre-existing American waffle types and ingredients, together with some physical attributes of both Vermersch’s and true Brussels waffles.
In the 21st century, waffles continue to evolve. What began as flour and water heated between two iron plates are now popular the world over, produced in sweet and savory varieties, in myriad shapes and sizes. Even as most of the original recipes have faded from use, a number of the 18th and 19th century varieties can still be easily found throughout Northern Europe, where they were first developed.
Varieties of waffles
Plain waffle sold at a neighborhood store in Singapore
Brussels waffles are prepared with an egg-white-leavened or yeast-leavened batter, traditionally an ale yeast; occasionally both types of leavening are used together. They are lighter, crisper and have larger pockets compared to other European waffle varieties, and are easy to differentiate from Liège Waffles by their rectangular sides. In Belgium, most waffles are served warm by street vendors and dusted with confectioner's sugar, though in tourist areas they might be topped with whipped cream, soft fruit or chocolate spread. Variants of the Brussels waffles – with whipped and folded egg whites cooked in large rectangular forms – date from the 18th century. However, the oldest recognized reference to "Gaufres de Bruxelles" (Brussels Waffles) by name is attributed from 1842/43 to Florian Dacher, a Swiss baker in Ghent, Belgium, who had previously worked under pastry chefs in central Brussels. Philippe Cauderlier would later publish Dacher's recipe in the 1874 edition of his recipe book "La Pâtisserie et la Confiture". Maximilien Consael, another Ghent chef, had claimed to have invented the waffles in 1839, though there's no written record of him either naming or selling the waffles until his participation in the 1856 Brussels Fair.
The Liège waffle is a richer, denser, sweeter, and chewier waffle. Native to the greater Wallonia region of Eastern Belgium – and alternately known as gaufres de chasse (hunting waffles) – they're an adaptation of brioche bread dough, featuring chunks of pearl sugar which caramelize on the outside of the waffle when baked. It is the most common type of waffle available in Belgium and prepared in plain, vanilla and cinnamon varieties by street vendors across the nation.
Flemish waffles, or Gaufres à la Flamande, are a specialty of northern France and portions of western Belgium. The original recipe, published in 1740 by Louis-Auguste de Bourbon in Le Cuisinier Gascon, is as follows: Take “deux litrons” (1.7 liters or 7 cups) of flour and mix it in a bowl with salt and one ounce of brewer's yeast barm. Moisten it completely with warm milk. Then whisk fifteen egg whites and add that to the mixture, stirring continuously. Incorporate “un livre” (490 grams or 1.1 pounds) of fresh butter, and let the batter rise. Once the batter has risen, take your heated iron, made expressly for these waffles, and wrap some butter in a cloth and rub both sides of the iron with it. When the iron is completely heated, make your waffles, but do so gently for fear of burning them. Cooked, take them out, put them on a platter, and serve them with both sugar and orange blossom water on top.
American waffles vary significantly, but are often made from a batter leavened with baking powder and may be round, square, or rectangular in shape. They are usually served as a sweet breakfast food, topped with butter and maple syrup, bacon, and other fruit syrups, honey, or powdered sugar. They are also found in many different savory dishes, such as fried chicken and waffles or topped with kidney stew. They may also be served as desserts, topped with ice cream and various other toppings. They are generally denser and thinner than the Belgian waffle.
Belgian waffles are a North American type of waffle identified by its larger size, lighter batter and higher grid pattern which forms deep pockets and has larger squares than standard American waffles. Despite its name, the "Belgian waffle" does not exist in Belgium. It is somewhat similar to the Brussels waffle, but Brussels waffles are crisp on the outside. As opposed to a traditional North American waffle, the Belgian waffle attributes its height to the use of yeast batter instead of a pancake batter. Toppings vary from whipped cream, confectioners sugar, soft fruit, chocolate spread, to syrup and butter or margarine. Alternatively, they are served with vanilla ice cream and fresh fruit (such as strawberries) as a dessert. The waffles were popularized in the United States during the 1964 New York World's Fair by Maurice Vermersch of Brussels, Belgium, and was named the Bel-Gem Waffle. Largely based on a simplified recipe for the Brussels waffles, Vermersch decided to change the name upon observing the poor geographical skills of Americans.
Bergische waffles, or Waffles from Berg county, are a specialty of the German region of Bergisches Land. The waffles are crisp and less dense than Belgian waffles, always heart shaped, and served with cherries, cream and optionally rice pudding as part of the traditional afternoon feast on Sundays in the region.
Hong Kong style waffle, in Hong Kong called a "grid cake" or "grid biscuits" (格仔餅), is a waffle usually made and sold by street hawkers and eaten warm on the street. It is similar to a traditional waffle but larger, round in shape and divided into four quarters. It is usually served as a snack. Butter, peanut butter and sugar are spread on one side of the cooked waffle, and then it is folded into a semicircle to eat. Eggs, sugar and evaporated milk are used in the waffle recipes, giving them a sweet flavor. They are generally soft and not dense. Traditional Hong Kong style waffles are full of the flavor of yolk. Sometimes different flavors, such as chocolate and honey melon, are used in the recipe and create various colors. Another style of Hong Kong waffle is the eggette or gai daan jai (鷄蛋仔), which have a ball-shaped pattern.
Pandan waffles originate from Vietnam and are characterized by the use of pandan flavoring and coconut milk in the batter. The pandan flavoring results in the batter's distinctive spring green color. When cooked, the waffle browns and crisps on the outside and stays green and chewy on the inside. Unlike most waffles, pandan waffles are typically eaten plain.
Scandinavian style waffles, common throughout the Nordic countries, are thin, made in a heart-shaped waffle iron. The batter is similar to other varieties. The most common style are sweet, with whipped or sour cream and strawberry or raspberry jam, or berries, or simply sugar, on top.
In Norway, brunost is also a popular topping. And gomme. As with crèpes, there are those who prefer a salted style with various mixes, such as blue cheese.
In Iceland, the traditional topping is either rhubarb or blueberry jam with whipped cream on top. Syrup and chocolate spread are also popular substitutes for the jam.
The Swedish tradition dates at least to the 15th century, and there is even a particular day for the purpose, Våffeldagen (waffle day), which sounds like Vårfrudagen ("Our Lady's Day"), and is therefore used for the purpose. This is March 25 (nine months before Christmas), the Christian holiday of Annunciation. They're usually topped with strawberry jam, bilberry jam, hjortron jam, raspberry jam, bilberry and raspberry jam, sugar and butter, vanilla ice cream and whipped cream. Other, savory, toppings include salmon roe, cold-smoked salmon and cream fraiche.
Stroopwafels are thin waffles with a syrup filling. They were first made in Gouda in the Netherlands during the 18th or 19th century. The stiff batter for the waffles is made from flour, butter, brown sugar, yeast, milk, and eggs. Medium-sized balls of batter are put on the waffle iron. When the waffle is baked and while it is still warm, it is cut into two halves. The warm filling, made from syrup, brown sugar, butter, and cinnamon, is spread in between the waffle halves, which glues them together. They are popular in Belgium and the Netherlands and sold in pre-prepared packages from local supermarkets.
I gofri (Lou gofri)piedmontese light and crispy type, made in sweet or salted versions.
Waffles can be eaten plain (especially the thinner kinds) or sprinkled with powdered sugar. Depending on the region they may be eaten with various toppings such as:
^Jean Liebault, La maison rustique, 1582, cité dans Raymond Lecoq, Les Objets de la vie domestique. Ustensiles en fer de la cuisine et du foyer des origines au XIX siècle, Berger-Levrault, 1979, p. 180.
^"Oublie", Centre National de Ressources Textuelles et Lexicales