I baked waffles. The reason for that was twofold: because it happened to be the subject at hand on a recent Dutch version of the How do they do it? show, and because Peter’s waffles for supper!? blog post—where Olivia threw up in Peter’s shoe thanks to a Dutch stroopwafel—stuck with me for a long time.
See, according to the narrator of How do they do it?, waffles is an American thing that we as Belgians transformed into arguably the superior product with the addition of yeast. As a baker, that obviously got my attention, since that’s simply not true. There’s Gingerbread Waffles, Stuffed Waffles, Blueberry Buttermilk Cornmeal Waffles, Alaskan Sourdough Waffles, Brussels Waffles, Sugar Waffles, Grandmother’s waffles, and so forth. What’s the difference? How to set up a taxonomy of waffles?
The most frequently baked waffles here in Belgium are undoubtedly “classic/vanilla waffles”—due to lack of a better name—converted from another classic: the French quatre-quart cake. Most of our cuisine is French. The best thing about the quatre-quart waffle is that it’s both quick and easy to make. You don’t even need to remember the recipe—the name will suffice: four equal parts of butter, sugar, flour, eggs and you’re done. As with all things cake, first beat the butter with the sugar, gradually add eggs, and leave the flour for last. I’ll ignore the angel cake and other variants here that dictate the separation of egg white and yolk.
To express the recipe in baker’s percentages—relative to the amount of flour:
T450, meaning very finely sifted wheat flour)
100%eggs (medium size eggs hold
50 gliquid each)
200 g sugar on
200 g flour is a hell of a lot sugar, and a direct attack to both your teeth and mood. But the most interesting characteristic of a quatre quart waffle (or cake) is its rising capacity, that used to completely rely on the power of the eggs. Until the late 1850s, when baking powder was invented. The powder is much more important in cake than in waffles though: it alters the structure of the crumb, making it more soft and springy. Since waffles have much more crust than crumb, that doesn’t matter much—depending on the waffle iron.
There are two other kinds of of frequently locally eaten waffles; both tied to a prominent city.
Arguably the most healthy variant, which heavily reduces both the butter and the sugar, is the Brussels Waffle. These are crisp and have a very light texture to them, and are great with Belgian strawberries, and yes, whipped cream. The batter of this waffle isn’t as sticky or fatty as a traditional cake-like batter: it is more akin to typical pancake batter. It is very liquid by nature and you’ll need to pour it rather than take a spoonful of it into the hot iron.
A fair bit of waffle history tells us pouring a batter in-between two hot iron griddles dates as far back as the Iron Age. Greeks ate waffles. Professional waffle peddlers existed in the Middle Ages. Of course, the addition of most expensive ingredients (eggs, honey instead of sugar, sometimes milk) was a perk reserved for the rich. According to those sources, Thomas Jefferson exported a waffle iron and pasta machine back to the USA, starting the American waffle craze.
Liquid dough means less flour or other expensive ingredients, turning waffles into a staple for everyone. It’s impossible to say when the addition of a leavening agent was considered, but this is the essence of a Brussels Waffle: the batter should be made with sourdough and given a day rest before the iron is heated.
My recipe expressed in percentages:
200%milk (or a water/milk mixture)
40%eggs (2 on
250 gof flour)
As you can see, the added liquid is twice the amount of flour, even without the eggs taken into account. The liquid ratio of typical pancake batter is
250%, making it even more runny. Another big difference is its leavening agent: instead of only relying on eggs or a chemical component such as baking powder or soda, we let nature do its thing by adding the most important ingredient: time.
Because of the liquidity, a Brussels Waffle requires a lot of heat in a small amount of time. Thick gas-fired griddles with deep pockets work best to churn out these delicious treats, such as the ones legendary waffle shop Max Consael uses—Consael invented the Brussels Waffle.
Bread risen with baking soda is popular in Ireland. I would not advise to eat too much of that stuff—it’s very difficult to digest, because the yeasts and lactic/acetic acid bacteria haven’t given any chance to pre-digest and convert the carbohydrates present in the flour for you. Think about fermentation the way you cook food. A cooking pot “digests” food for us, making it easier for our weak stomach to extract basic components and vitamins. Raw vegetables are not easily digested. The same is true for wheat, our its ground alternative, flour.
What’s brioche dough? Another French treat! Bread dough with a lot of butter, milk, and a little bit of sugar added to it. Since it’s bread dough, it’s leavened with yeast—although you should ideally still add sourdough here. Around
40% of butter and
10% of sugar is added, and sometimes, even eggs make it into the dough.
Make no mistake, even though local celebrity chefs such as Piet Huysentruyt use baking soda, a proper Liege Waffle needs to be leavened using yeast. Butter impedes rising, so only relying on sourdough isn’t going to cut it (the same is true for croissant dough). I’ve seen popular recipes add up to
5% of dried yeast, which is ridiculous! Just give the dough time to develop. More time equals (1) more taste and (2) better digestion.
My variation of the above recipe:
25%water (you can use milk but doesn’t add much)
8%sugar (vanilla-flavored if desired)
43%of pearl sugar (add after kneading)
These percentages vary from recipe to recipe. At our baking school, we learned baking Liege Waffles with as much as
72% pearl sugar and
60% of butter! That’s more than rich indulgence, that’s simply insane. There is also some wiggle room with the liquids: for example, if you’re low on eggs, you can make do with one egg provided you up the water/milk amount. As long as the total amount stays around
Since there’s still an awful lot of butter to knead into the dough, I worked with a preferment this time. I mixed
100 g of water (everything when working with
400 g of flour) and
100 g of flour together with a pinch of dried yeast (very very little) to let it develop overnight, at room temperature.
The day after, combine everything except the pearl sugar and butter and knead well. Add butter gradually. Mix in the pearl sugar in the very end. Let rise for at least two hours. Some weird recipes state to add butter after rising—don’t do this. Well-developed brioche dough—in terms of gluten that hold CO2 during the baking process and cause the bread-like dough to rise—is virtually impossible to knead by hand I’ve tried it countless of times, and while the result is okay at best, a Kitchen Aid is probably your best friend when it comes to buttery dough like this. Out of the three kinds of waffles, the Liege ones are the ones that benefit from a thorough beating. Over-kneading a quatre-quart batter will result in chewy waffles.
Note that recipes stating silly stuff like “add a pinch of salt” are rubbish. This is brioche dough, and it should be treated as such: add between
2% of sea salt. Don’t take more rubbish like “let rise on a warm place”—this dough can’t handle more than
24 °C, unless you like leaking butter.
The pearl sugar is optional, but without it, it ain’t a Liege Waffle. And with it, your waffle iron will look like a caramelized black mess: good luck with the dishes. If you’re serious about Liege Waffles, you’ll need yet another iron size which doesn’t crush the sugar pearls. Another pro tip: coat the pearls with a bit of melted butter before adding them into the dough. It will prevent them from melting during baking.
Would you look at that, Liege Waffles are “more healthy” than their conventional quatre-quart variant! It contains half the amount of butter and sugar—even though the sugar is much more prominent. The only upside to the fattiest waffles is that they’re still in acceptable shape a few days later. Brussels Waffles lose their much-needed crisp after a day, and Liege Waffles too are yummiest when served still warm.
Once you’ve tasted leavened waffles, you simply can’t go back to the mundane version. And yet, they’re still the most popular, simply because it doesn’t only feed people’s stomachs, it feeds their instant gratification. You can’t decide to bake Brussels or Liege Waffles and have family and friends queuing up half an hour later. Yes, they can be “brute-forced” by multiplying the amount of yeast by a factor two or three. No, it won’t be too tasty, and your stomach and gut will hate you a few hours later.