No waffling about it: Baked cake is sweet treat

Wednesday, March 1, 2006
The waffle mix is poured in the waffle maker, and it only takes a couple minutes to cook. (Diane L. Wilson)

The Dutch likely manufactured the first waffle irons.

Undoubtedly the most inventive, not to mention lucrative, use of a waffle iron occurred in Bill Bowerman's garage.

That's where, back in 1971, the University of Oregon track coach poured some liquid rubber into his wife's waffle iron and created the soles of the first Nike running shoes. The rest, as they say, is history.

Happily, waffle irons can also be used to make delicious treats that don't taste like shoe leather. They're so delicious, in fact, that even upscale restaurants are getting into the act. Consider, for example, the Belgian waffles with foie gras served as an appetizer at New York's Silverleaf Tavern.

For that matter, waffle irons technically don't even require conventional waffle batter to work their magic. Try baking your favorite brownie recipe in one and you may never go back to the oven method again.

Honeycombed classic

But when most of us think of waffles we think of the classic honeycombed griddle cake that, though originating in Europe, is as American as anything, having come here on the Mayflower with the Pilgrims, who picked up the concept in Holland.

We get the word "waffle," in fact, from the Dutch, whose term "wafel" is derived from the Germanic "wafer," which comes from an earlier word meaning honeycomb. As the Joy of Cooking notes, ancient Communion wafers, like waffles, were once baked in irons that imprinted them with a honeycomb pattern.

The Dutch, who have never waffled in their fondness for waffles, also probably manufactured the first waffle irons, but it's not certain that they created the delicacy itself. Waffles are among the oldest type of bread known to humankind, so no one knows for sure who made the first one. One legend suggests that the honor goes to an anonymous crusader who while wearing his spiked armor accidentally sat in some freshly baked oat cakes leaving deep imprints in them.

Waffle iron age

We do know that early versions of the waffle iron were in use during the Middle Ages in Germany and Holland. Batter would be placed between two hinged iron plates that had handles long enough to permit them to be held over a fire to produce a sort of toasted cake. The plates might be embossed not just with the traditional honeycomb pattern that we associate with modern waffles, but with coats of arms, religious symbols, family initials, and even landscape scenes. It wasn't until August 24, 1869, that a U.S. patent was issued for such a device--to Cornelius Swarthout of Troy, New York. The anniversary of the event each year is officially known as National Waffle Day. Nearly one hundred years earlier Thomas Jefferson had boosted the country's interest in waffles when he brought an iron back with him from France.

Surprisingly, the popular Belgian waffle is a relative newcomer. It first premiered at the 1960 World's Fair in Brussels and in this country at the 1964 World's Fair in New York. A far less distinguished year in the annals of waffle history was 1953. That's when frozen waffles first appeared in U.S. grocery stores.

Listen to A Harte Appetite Fridays at 8:49 a.m. on KRCU, 90.9 on your FM dial. Write A Harte Appetite, c/o the Southeast Missourian, P.O. Box 699, Cape Girardeau, Mo., 63702-0699 or by e-mail to tharte@semissourian.com.

Pumpkin Nut Belgian Waffles

This recipe, adapted from a Waring Company booklet, is a favorite of Don and Ruth Schulte of Cape Girardeau, owners of a restaurant-style gravity waffler, the kind that flips over so the grids fill evenly with batter for uniform browning. It brings back fond memories of the old cast iron hinged device that Ruth's father used to bring out on snow days to make waffles for the family. Handed down from her grandfather, it operated on the very same principle as today's modern gravity irons, only it was held over the stove after being flipped.

Ingredients:

1 and 1/2 cups flour

1/4 cup chopped pecans, toasted

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

3/4 cup canned solid pack pumpkin

2 egg yolks

1 cup milk

1/4 maple syrup

3 tablespoons melted butter

1 teaspoon vanilla

3 egg whites

Directions:

Combine flour, nuts, cornstarch, baking powder, salt, and spices. Stir together until smooth the pumpkin, egg yolks, milk, syrup, butter, and vanilla. Blend together wet and dry ingredients. Beat egg whites until stiff and gently fold into batter. Bake in waffle iron according to manufacturer's instructions. Makes six 8-inch waffles.

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