In my four-child household, we employ our waffle iron much like a federal penitentiary uses cable TV. It's a way to mollify the inmates, distracting them from their ceaseless complaints and riotous, cup-banging demands.
It's also the path to a darn good breakfast.
A perfect waffle, the product of hot iron and sufficiently thick batter, delivers that irresistible combination of crunch and fluff. The outside is a crisp sculpture of bronze, turreted corners daring you to explore. Within this edible shell lies the promise of a warm, yielding center--never gooey, not exactly chewy, it practically dissolves in the mouth. And that ingenious grid pattern. Each cubic dimple becomes a tiny pool of maple syrup and liquefied butter that a pancake would kill for.
According to an old Betty Crocker cookbook, waffles were born when "a crusader wearing his armor, accidentally sat in some freshly baked oat cakes, flattening them and leaving deep imprints of the steel links." This is probably gastronomic apocrypha, akin to the controversial "collision theory" of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. Still, it does remind us that the waffle, an icon of modern convenience, has deep roots.
People have been making waffles at least since the end of the 12th century, when French gaufres--flat cakes, roasted between hot metal plates bearing a honeycomb pattern--were mentioned in poems. On religious feast days of this era, waffle vendors would set up stalls at the doors of the churches, tempting the faithful with fresh-baked, piping-hot treats. They were eating wafels in Holland in the 1600s, and Dutch settlers soon introduced them to the New World. In the Age of Revolution, Thomas Jefferson returned from France with a primitive waffle iron--a long-handled contraption to be plunged directly into an open fire.
Electric waffle irons appeared after World War I, and by the 1930s they had become a common feature of the American kitchen. Most current models don't even need to be greased. Some, our Krups WaffleChef included, blink at you when the plates are hot enough to begin waffling. There are four-waffle irons and two-waffle irons, round irons and irons shaped like the smiling head of Mickey Mouse (though the Walt Disney Co. voluntarily recalled 1,300 of them in 1999, citing hazardous wiring).
Historically, the waffle was not considered a breakfast item. Ingredient lists have mentioned everything from cheese to tuna. Louis P. De Gouy's "The Gold Cook Book," published in the late '40s, includes recipes for chopped meat waffles (with curry sauce) and cooked chicken waffles (with mushroom sauce). These evoke the image of Roscoe's House of Chicken 'N Waffles, the high-cholesterol crossroads of L.A. multi-culture (with locations in Los Angeles proper, Hollywood, Pasasdena and Long Beach). Roscoe's fundamental pairing is bold, to say the least. But remember, the plain waffles are always a gilded accompaniment to the fried chicken; never do they share a mixing bowl on the premises.
Sweet and simple, that's how most of us like our waffles. And James Beard may be counted among us. "Many people felt if they mastered waffle batter and had a waffle iron, no extension of their gastronomic repertoire was needed," the great food authority wrote. "Waffles are delicious when properly served and are a bore when served too often."
Phil Barber is a Northern California-based freelance writer.
Makes about 6 waffles
3/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cups whole-wheat flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 cups buttermilk
3/4 cup melted butter (cooled)
1/4 cup milk, if needed to thin batter
Pour flour into mixing bowl and add other dry ingredients. Using fork, stir to blend. In another large bowl, beat eggs until well blended. Stir in buttermilk and melted butter. Add flour mixture and stir again, until well mixed. The batter should flow smoothly from a spoon into the hot waffle iron. Bake waffles until golden-crisp.