Peasants Eating Waffles in a Tavern on a Fast Day, 1693. Jan Brueqhel the Elder, b. 1568, d. 1625. Brueghel, referred to as, “the elder because his son carried on his style of painting after his death, had an eye for detail and a painting style that takes us back into the 16th century. Because of his desire for accuracy, historians can zero in on a single topic, waffles, in this case, and know how they looked at the time he painted them. Each person in the setting has a rectangle-shaped waffle.
Discovering how waffles were made and eaten and what they looked like in the 18th century requires enough patience to compare accounts, paintings, and receipts published before, during, and after a target date. Fortunately, there are enough accounts surviving to enable us to form a good opinion of this article.
Some accounts from the early 19th century claim waffles date back to ancient Greece, and they well may have, however, the first account I can quote dates from 14th century France.
Waffles are made in four ways. In the first, beat eggs in a bowl, then salt and wine, and add flour, and moisten the one with the other, and then put in two irons little by little, each time using as much batter as a slice of cheese is wide, and clap between two irons, and cook one side and then the other; and if the iron does not easily release the batter, anoint with a little cloth soaked in oil or fat. – The second way is like the first, but add cheese, that is, spread the batter as though making a tart or pie, then put slices of cheese in the middle, and cover the edges (with batter: JH); thus the cheese stays within the batter and thus you put it between two irons. – The third method, is for dropped waffles, called dropped only because the batter is thinner like clear soup, made as above; and throw in with it fine cheese grated; and mix it all together. – The fourth method is with flour mixed with water, salt and wine, without eggs or cheese.
Item, waffles can be used when one speaks of the “large sticks” which are made of flour mixed with eggs and powdered ginger beaten together, and made as big as and shaped like sausages; cook between two irons. – Le Menagier de Paris. 1393. Paris. Trans. Janet Hinson.
Waffles and wafers are similar, and made using similar irons; however, a wafer was generally flatter, thinner, and crispier. The two words were used somewhat interchangeably. For example, similar receipts are used to make flat wafers and what are obviously waffles in William Jarrin’s 1826 book. The latter, which he called Flemish Wafers, were made in, “square irons engraved half an inch in depth, with the two halves to correspond”, and due to the depth of the “engraving” is obviously a waffle. – Jarrin, William Alexis. The Italian Confectioner. 1827. London.
A wafer iron opens and closes like a waffle iron, but its two circular plates close almost together to produce a flat wafer. The plates have a decorative design which transfers to the wafer during baking. [It is possible the translator erred and the Menagier’s account should read wafers instead of waffles.]
The French ate Gaufrettes which were, “a kind of waffle”, sometimes dispatched by boys in white caps and aprons. They were sometimes waffled, but not always. The term was not uncommon through the 19th century. – Peixotto, Ernest C. Through the French Provinces. 1909. NY.
The next comparison is a Dutch receipt from ca. 1683.
For each pound [one English pound] of Wheat-flour take a pint of sweet milk, a little tin bow[l], of melted butter with 3 or 4 eggs, a spoonful of Yeast well stirred together. De Verstandige Kock. Translated and edited by Peter G. Rose. 1989. Syracuse.
The thickness of the batter varied from a thin pourable batter to one stiff enough that a piece of dough could be cut off and put into the hot irons. There was no consistency with regard to the thickness of the batter even in comparing multiple receipts published within the same book.
The receipt below tells us the batter from which some waffles were made was perhaps best called dough since the writer tells us to lay a small piece of it on the hot iron rather than pouring, or dropping it on as one would do with pancake batter.
DUTCH WAFFLES. These form a delicious article in the shape of puff cakes, which are instantly prepared and exhibited for sale in stalls or tents, in the fairs of Holland, where they are eaten hot as they come from the plate or baking pan, with fine sugar strewed over them. Mix together three pounds of fine flour, a dozen eggs, a pound of melted butter, half a pint of ale, some milk, and a little yeast. Beat it well, till it forms a thick paste, and let it stand three or four hours before the fire to rise. Lay it in small pieces on a hot iron or frying pan, with a pair of buttered tongs, till it is lightly browned. Eat the waffles with fine sugar sifted over, or a little sack and melted butter. – Eaton, Mary. The Cook and Housekeeper’s Complete and Universal Dictionary. 1822. Bungay.
A writer  described waffles as, “a soft hot cake, of German extraction, covered with butter”. No mention was made of syrup in the earliest located receipts. They were eaten with butter and sugar instead. – Birkbeck, Morris. Notes on a Journey in America: From the Coast of Virginia to the Territory. 1818. London.
Robert Smith did not specify the thickness of his batter when his receipt was published in 1725. The dough still contains wine, as did Le Menagier’s.
Take flower, cream, sack, nutmeg, sugar, eggs, yest, of what quantity you will, mix these to a batter and let them stand to rise; then add a little melted butter, and bake one to try. If they burn, add more butter: Melt Butter, with sack, refin’d sugar, and orange-flower water, for the sauce. – Smith, Robert. Court Cookery. 1725. London.
Cooks who added sugar to their batter could be in no hurry to have the waffles bake as the sugar caused them to burn unless baked at lower temperatures. When waffles did not brown as well as wanted adding syrup or sugar to the batter remedied the situation. – Whitehead, Jessup. The Chicago Herald Cooking School: A Professional Cook’s Book For Household Use. 1883. Chicago.
This receipt published in 1821, is a little more specific as to the amount of ingredients.
Take four eggs beat well with half a pound of flour; melt a quarter of a pound of butter in a pint of milk; let the milk and butter stand till they are almost cold, then mix them with the flour and eggs with one spoonful of yeast and a little salt; be sure to beat them well; let it stand three or four hours to rise before you put it in the waffle iron, and bake them on a quick fire. – Hudson & Donat, Mrs. The New Practice of Cookery, Pastry, Baking, and Preserving. 1804. Edinburgh.
Mary Randolph’s receipt published in 1838 contained cooked rice to bolster the batter. The addition of cooked rice may sound odd but it was not terribly unique. Two gills of rice, boiled until quite soft, were mixed with three gills of flour, a little salt, and a couple of ounces of melted butter. Two well beaten eggs were added with enough milk to make a “thick” batter. It was then beaten until very light and baked in the hot irons. – Randolph, Mary. The Virginia Housewife. 1838. Baltimore.
Englishman, Philip H. Gosse left an excellent description of the early waffle iron. Woffles he was served in Alabama in the 1850’s were, “square thin cakes, like pancakes, divided on both sides into square cells by intersecting ridges…at the end of a pair of handles, moving on a pivot like a pair of scissors, or still more like the net forceps of an entomologist, are fixed two square plates of iron like shallow dishes, with cross furrows, corresponding to the ridges in the cakes; this apparatus called a woffle-iron, is made hot in the fire; then being opened, a flat piece of dough is laid on one, and they are closed and pressed together; the heat of the iron does the rest, and in a minute the woffle is cooked, and the iron is ready for another. They are very good, eaten with butter; sometimes they are made of the meal of Indian corn (as so little wheat is grown here as to make wheat-flour be considered almost a luxury), but these are not nearly so nice, at least to an English palate”. – Gosse, Philip Henry. Letters from Alabama. 1859. London.
Again, the writer instructs putting a piece of dough in the iron instead of pouring batter into the iron. Gosse’s account, penned in 1838, still makes no mention of topping the waffles with syrup, only butter.
Eliza Leslie instructed us in the use of a thick, but pourable batter made from six eggs, a pint of milk, a quarter of a pound of butter, a quarter of a pound of white sugar, a pound and a half of sifted flour, and a teaspoon of powdered cinnamon. The milk was warmed and the butter cut up into it. The eggs were beaten and poured into the milk and butter mixture. Half the flour was gradually stirred in with the powdered cinnamon and sugar. The other half of the flour was added in increments, as needed, until it became a, “thick batter”.
Heat your waffle-iron; then grease it well, and pour in some of the batter. Shut the iron tight, and bake the waffle on both sides, by turning the iron. – Leslie, Eliza. Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats. 1830. Boston.
As early as the French version from 1393 writers instructed in greasing the irons well with lard, or butter tied in a piece of cloth, and heating the irons “very” hot before putting in the batter to prevent the waffles from sticking to the irons.
The only remedy for waffles sticking to the irons is to keep the irons in constant use with scraping and rubbing out with lard while hot, and avoid letting them burn with nothing in them. To bake waffles, pour in one side a spoonful of melted lard, shut up and turn over the iron two or three times then place a spoonful of batter in each compartment. Shut and turn over to the fire frequently till both sides are brown. – Whitehead, Jessup. The Chicago Herald Cooking School: A Professional Cook’s Book for Household Use. 1883. Chicago.
Sarah Hale left us with an idea of how long it should take a waffle to bake. “Bake on a bed of coals. When they have been on the fire between 2 and 3 minutes, turn the waffle-irons over-when brown on both sides they are sufficiently baked”. – Hale, Sarah Josepha. The Ladies New Book of Cookery. 1852. NY.
The heavy irons described by Gosse, and others even earlier, remained in use into the 20th century.
Waffle irons, with long handles, that bake one big, square waffle, at a time; waffle irons of Colonial times were they, and still in use in many parts of the South and old states. – Halleck, Charles. Forest and Stream. Jan., 1915.
Dozens of accounts from various locations in the U.S. specified serving waffles with butter and sugar through the mid-19th century, and almost as many advised spreading the waffles with butter and powdered cinnamon. A receipt in Peterson’s 1858, suggested serving them with butter and honey.
Mrs. Haskell’s cookbook instructed putting maple syrup on the waffles in 1861, but cookbooks continued to suggest the accompaniments of butter and sugar. – Haskell, E.F. The Housekeeper’s Encyclopedia of Useful Information. 1861. NY.
Sarah Annie Frost still gave her readers a choice between eating the waffles with maple syrup or cream and sugar in 1870. – The Godey’s Ladies Book of Receipts and Household Hints. 1870, Philadelphia.
American ladies were eating waffles with molasses at least by the 1890’s. That is about the time when syrup seems to have become the expected accompaniment. – Cobbe, Francis Power. The Life of Frances Power Cobbe. 1894. London.