For me, there is no better treat on a Saturday or Sunday morning. I don't care if the rest of my time is spent balancing checkbooks and cleaning out the garage, as long as I've had waffles, it's been a good weekend.
They were one of the first things I fixed when I started learning to cook and they are still one of my favorite indulgences. I've got a feeling that in that I'm not alone -- at least among men. Waffles seem to be one of those "dad" meals, probably because the recipes are so simple any fool can make them acceptably, and it's hard to think of another food with a higher ratio of deliciousness to effort.
As simple as waffles may be to make, they're a little difficult to talk about. That's because there is no such thing as "the waffle"; rather, there are several different kinds. The variations are mostly about texture: Do you want your waffle crisp or cake-like?
Most obviously, there is the difference between deep-pocketed Belgian waffles and their flatter cousins. This is not just a matter of appearances, of course. Those deep indentations do make a difference by increasing the ratio of surface to center. In other words, there's more crisp than cake in a Belgian waffle, and the reverse is true for the flatter ones.
Whatever you like
THERE are also several types of batters. Some make waffles that are more substantial and slightly softer -- the caky type. Others emphasize crispness and lightness. All of those batters will work in either type of waffle maker.
Not to waffle, but there are no right or wrong answers: It all depends on what you like. Of course, with my passion for the subject, I have some very definite opinions. For me, the paragon of the caky style is the sour cream waffle recipe from the older editions of "Joy of Cooking." A standby of the midcentury versions of the book, for some reason, it was left out of later editions.
I tried it the first time because in the dog-eared, batter-stained "Griddlecakes" section of my 1957 edition, I noticed the head note: "These waffles are superlative." Given the nearly pathologically modest nature of the book and its authors (there are almost no other similar endorsements), I had to try them.
And that high praise was no hype. These waffles have an incomparably rich flavor and texture.
My other favorite waffle recipe comes from another champion of American home cooking, Marion Cunningham. Author of the last two editions of the "Fannie Farmer Cookbook" as well as several books on her own, and a former Los Angeles Times columnist, Cunningham created a yeast-raised waffle that has a cult following. They've been reprinted in at least half a dozen other cookbooks, including our own "Los Angeles Times Modern California Cooking."
These are just about the polar opposite of the sour cream waffles. The phrase "lighter than air" is hackneyed, but when you pop these waffles from the iron, that's what you'll think -- it's almost like they have negative weight. And crisp? These waffles crackle.
Both recipes are extremely easy to make -- just a matter of mixing wet and dry ingredients. The only hang-ups are that the sour cream waffles require folding in stiffly beaten egg whites, and the batter for the yeast-raised has to be prepared the night before. But surely those are not obstacles for the waffle-obsessed.
The real trick to making waffles -- as anyone who has ever tried to feed breakfast to a house full of hungry kids will attest -- is making enough of them to serve at the same time.
Even the best waffles lose their crispness quickly, and since most irons can only bake enough for two people at a time, you're left trying to hold them until you have enough to go around. This is a mistake. Leave waffles at room temperature and they go soggy; stick them in the oven and they over-bake and get tough.
The solution, I found, is really straightforward: Par-bake the waffles just like La Brea Bakery does with many of its breads. Cooked halfway through, the waffles reheat perfectly sitting directly on the rack of a 200-degree oven. They emerge crisp on the outside and tender inside. Since waffle irons vary in their baking time, it's hard to say how long this will be. I pull them as soon as I can open the iron (mine takes about 3 minutes to make a perfect par-baked Belgian waffle).
You can even freeze these par-baked waffles -- cool them on a cake rack before sticking them in heavy plastic bags. They'll feel limp, but don't be discouraged. Once out of the freezer, they defrost in about 10 minutes and are ready to go in the oven. Less than 20 minutes after they come from the freezer, they're crisp as freshly made. Or reheat them in the toaster on the lowest setting.
I tried baking these straight from the freezer (in both the oven and toaster) and had surprisingly good results. It isn't quite as good as letting them defrost, but when hungry kids (or adults) are banging on the breakfast table, it's a compromise worth considering.
You can top these waffles simply with butter and warm maple syrup. Fruit jam is good too. Or, if you want to get a little fancy, top them with sliced sugared fruit adorned with a dollop of sweetened yogurt, whipped cream or creme fraiche. In winter, you can do the same thing by poaching dried fruits in a light sugar syrup.
Of course, sometimes just a little fancy won't do. You can turn simple waffles into a dinner party dessert surprisingly easily by topping them with cooked fruit. This can be a basic compote -- stewed briefly with a little sugar -- or you can try something different.
Like roasting some rhubarb, for example. I got this idea from Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers' upcoming "Italian Two Easy" (by way of a bank shot from Luisa Weiss' Wednesday Chef blog). Scatter rhubarb chunks in the bottom of a baking dish, dust with brown sugar, moisten with orange juice, perfume with orange zest and a little vanilla, then bake away.
Depending on how big and how mature the rhubarb is, this can take anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes (thicker and older rhubarb can be quite tough and will require more time for softening).
Roasting this way intensifies the tart flavor of the rhubarb while leaving the individual pieces whole, rather than smushed. These pieces and their syrup can then be spooned on top of hot crisp waffles and topped with a bit of sweetened creme fraiche. You can use either waffle recipe -- the yeasted makes a crisp, light raft for the fruit to sit upon, the sour cream comes closer to shortcake. Another interesting way to cook the fruit is by poaching it in a plastic bag. This is a home cook's twist on the sous vide cooking that is so popular among chefs (though Melisse's Josiah Citrin taught me this adaptation). Combine the fruit, a little sugar (how much depends on the sweetness of the fruit), and some flavorings in a zip-sealed heavy plastic bag. Cook it in hot -- but not too hot -- water.
The results are amazing. The fruit cooks very gently, so the flavor, texture and color are much fresher than they would be otherwise; the long steeping lets the flavorings infuse the fruit.
Cook peaches or nectarines moistened with a little white wine (I like Riesling), and spiced with cinnamon or, if you have some in your garden, rose geranium. The flavors penetrate to the heart of the peach without overpowering it. And the fruit gives up enough of its own juices to make a light, flavorful sauce.
Serve this atop waffles with a spoonful of lightly sweetened whipped cream and I don't care whether it's breakfast, lunch or dinner, it'll make your weekend.
Waffles come out of the cold
FREEZING and defrosting usually turns waffles from crisp to limp and tender to tough. But not if you follow these simple steps.
* Only partially cook the waffles on the waffle iron, roughly half the usual cooking time. They should be light brown, but still very moist.
* Arrange them on a cake rack to cool completely and then place them in a heavy-duty sealable plastic bag, squeezing out as much air as possible before freezing.
* The best results will come from defrosting the waffles on a cake rack (it'll take about 10 minutes) and then baking at 200 degrees just until they are crisp, 5 to 7 minutes.
* You can also defrost them on the cake rack and cook them in a toaster on the lowest heat setting until they are crisp.
* In a pinch, you can bake the waffles straight from the freezer in the oven or in a toaster, though they'll be somewhat less crisp than if they'd been defrosted.
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