Belgian waffles as we know them - light, golden platforms for pyramids of frothy whipped cream and gooey strawberries - were introduced to America at the 1964 World's Fair in Flushing Meadows, N.Y. They were an instant food fad, capturing the exuberance of the '60s with their generous proportions and over-the-top sweetness.
Later, the fun-food sensation turned into a showy brunch dish, finally fading away into the land of kitsch. Most of us just don't eat that way anymore.
But waffles are wonderful, and unadorned Belgian waffles are more wonderful than most because their superior height (often more than an inch) allows for extra lightness and creates deep wells for syrups or topping to be caught in. They're great vehicles for contrasting flavors and textures.
So, taking advantage of the many new Belgian waffle makers on the market, we experimented with savory waffle recipes, looking for grown-up combinations that would make the most of Belgian waffles' unique characteristics.
To add heft and crunch, we used cornmeal in a corn-flour waffle. Chopped serrano chiles and cheddar cheese add a Southwestern flair. For a touch of haute, we added ground hazelnuts to the batter in one recipe, sprinkling in chopped nuts just before closing the waffle iron.
In every case, we paid attention to toppings and accompaniments, orchestrating the combinations of crisp and creamy, smooth and sweet, savory and fresh. The hazelnut waffles are perfect with ripe strawberries, soon to be coming into season. But use your imagination: jam, Nutella, flavored butters, sour cream, yogurt or fruit sauces all make delicious toppings.
The ideal Belgian waffle is dark golden-brown, with a nice sheen. If the waffles are too lightly browned, they will lack appealing nutty flavor; they'll also be prone to sogginess. A waffle that's too dark brown leaves a bitter taste in the mouth and will have a dry center.
When waffles are browned just right, the outside is crisp and the inside is light, moist and fluffy. If your waffles are soggy or pull apart when removed from the iron, your batter might be too thin. Over-mixing can make for a tough, heavy waffle. Waffles that stick might be a result of too little oil or butter in the batter.
Be sure your waffle iron is seasoned (brush it with oil and let it heat for five minutes or so, the way you would season a skillet). Even "nonstick" waffle irons need to be sprayed with cooking spray or brushed with oil before pouring on the waffle batter.
Use a measuring cup to pour the batter onto the center of the waffle grid. Use a heat-proof spatula to spread it evenly over the grid to the edges before closing the lid. Follow the manufacturer's instructions for amounts of batter.
Once the lid is closed, do not open it until the ready light comes on. In some cases, we found that the waffles were not always done at this point, so we baked them for another minute or so.
If you have a problem removing the waffles from the iron, use the tip of a nonstick spatula to loosen one corner.
Waffles are best eaten hot from the iron. Otherwise, put them on a wire rack and keep warm in a 200-degree oven, or remove them to a wire rack and let them cool before reheating them. Do not stack.
Baked waffles can be frozen. Freeze them unwrapped, then seal them in bags and return to the freezer. To serve, heat frozen waffles on a baking sheet at 400 degrees for 8 minutes to 10 minutes.
Waffle batter can be made and kept in the refrigerator for as long as two days. Let refrigerated batter stand at room temperature for 30 minutes before cooking. Stir the batter before baking the waffles. The batter might have thickened; add a little milk or buttermilk.
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Hazelnut Belgian Waffles
Total time: 60 minutes
2 cups sliced strawberries
1/4 cup sugar, divided use
1 1/2 vanilla beans, divided use
1 1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons blanched hazelnuts (see note)
1 cup flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups buttermilk
2 egg yolks, beaten
1/4 cup ( 1/2 stick) butter, melted
2 egg whites
Combine sliced strawberries and 2 tablespoons of sugar. Scrape seeds from 1/2 vanilla bean over strawberries. Stir together, cover and let stand.
Toast hazelnuts in a 350-degree oven until golden-brown, about 15 to 20 minutes. Let cool to room temperature in baking pan. Coarsely chop 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons of toasted nuts and set aside. Process remaining 1 cup of nuts in a food processor until finely ground.
Stir together ground hazelnuts, flour, remaining 2 tablespoons sugar, baking powder, salt and baking soda.
Lightly beat together buttermilk and egg yolks. Split remaining vanilla bean in half and scrape seeds into buttermilk mixture. Make a well in the center of dry ingredients and pour in buttermilk mixture. Stir just until all ingredients are almost combined, then stir in melted butter. Beat egg whites to soft peaks and fold into batter.