Although waffles seem to be a relatively contemporary food, they have been around, worldwide, for thousands of years. It is quite likely the Ancient Greeks ate extremely flat cakes, called obleios. However, it would appear the earliest evidence of the manufacture of waffle irons may have come up from Holland or Germany during the 1300s. Construction of these waffle irons consisted of two hinged plates which were connected to two long handles of wood. It was not unusual to find elaborate patterns, such as landscapes, religious symbols, or heraldic shields, imprinted upon the waffles by plates embossed with these symbols. Some plates had the honeycomb-grid that we now use. The waffle plates (or irons) were then baked over the fire in the hearth.
Waffles were cooked between two hot metal plates, a method used continuously throughout the Middle Ages by obloyeurs, people specializing in making a variety of obleios that were often flat or rolled into coronets (a horned shape).
In 1620, waffles made the voyage from Holland to North America, courtesy of migrating Dutch pilgrims. Thomas Jefferson obtained a waffle iron, after a journey to France, and voila! a new form of culinary entertainment cropped up, in the form of waffle frolics or parties, in the late 1700s. Party guests were given their choice of waffles topped with sweets such as maple syrup or molasses or with savories such as kidney stew.
Thomas Jefferson was dependent upon slaves for cooking; soon, many members of the African-American community were highly skilled in making waffles. The diet of the slaves relied upon whatever food items were left behind by landowners and plantation families. Poultry was a rare delicacy for the slaves. Waffles were considered equally exotic; they were unusual, expensive, and time-consuming. Because of these qualities, chicken and and waffles came to a special occasion meal for the African-American community; this hearty meal gave the slaves a supply of energy before attending all-day church services.
The first U.S. waffle iron was patented on August 24, 1869, by Cornelius Swarthout of Troy, New York. Predating electrical models, Swarthout’s waffle iron was heated by sitting it atop wood or gas stoves. A swivel hinge, in a cast iron collar, joined the two iron plates together.
These new electrical waffle irons were standard kitchen appliances by the 1930s. Thomas J. Stackbeck was instrumental in the development of the first electric waffle iron. He was responsible for designing the prototype heating elements that were used in building a thermostat to prevent the problem of frequent overheating. With the assistance of funding from General Electric, the first fully electric waffle iron was presented to the nation on July 26, 1911.
Over the years since the first electric waffle iron made its appearance, the interior design has changed from the utilitarian to whimsical; for waffle purists, the square or circle waffle shape is always available and for the child in us all, waffle plates can range from hearts or shamrocks to Mickey Mouse® or Hello Kitty®.
Waffles have been consistently popular since that first electric waffle iron. In 1953, an entrepreneur named Frank Dorsa introduced the ever-popular Eggo “Leggo of My Eggo®’ frozen waffles to supermarkets throughout the United States. Now waffles were available to everyone, even if no waffle iron was available.
The inventor of the Belgian waffle, Maurice Vermersch, was made famous by the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair. Before the outbreak of World War II, Vermesch experimented with his wife’s recipe for waffles while living in Belgium.
He opened two restaurants in Belgium at the close of the war, and introduced his wife’s waffles at the 1960 Brussels Fair. His first efforts were so successful that Vermersch and four other other Belgian families took the waffles to the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens, New York. They changed the name of the waffles from Brussels Waffle to Belgian waffle once they set up business in New York.
Belgian waffles are thicker than American waffles because of its use of yeast. Because yeast is a living organism, it takes a certain amount of time to achieve sufficient growth. For various reasons, American cooks chose not to use yeast recipes and looked for newer and faster ways, to get somewhat similar results, but in less time; baking powder and baking soda seem to do the job.
Belgian waffles have a very light and fluffy texture. They are baked in slightly larger waffle irons than are American waffles. The best-tasting waffles are made with yeast. Unfortunately, waffles made with yeast can be stored for only one to two days. The taste is at its acme upon immediate removal from the waffle iron.
To avoid having to excavate pieces of stuck-on waffle from the grids, it is a good idea to grease older waffle irons with a bit of oil or melted butter before commencing baking. Nonstick-lined waffle irons to not need pretreating; the finished waffle should slide out with the greatest of ease