“Still Life with Wafer Biscuits”, Le Dessert de Gaufrettes, painted 1630’s. Baugin, Lubin (b. ca. 1610, Pithiviers, d. 1663, Paris). Musée du Louvre, Paris
Wafers are thin crisp cookies, plain sweetened versions, or flavored with a variety of ingredients, baked in the manner of waffles. They could be served flat or they could be wrapped on a round object as soon as they came from the oven which resulted in a rolled product.
The eminent diarist, Samuel Pepys, was among the 17th century writers who made mention of eating wafers. – Pepys, Samuel. Diary. 1661. London.
While not in recipe form, some of the earliest mentions of these cakes were by their French names. A definition from 1706 stated these, “thin cakes or wafers, bak’d in Iron moulds”, were, “still called oublies by the French”. – Kersey, John. The New World of Words, or Universal English Dictionary. 1706. London. [First edition was pub. 1696]
Another dictionary from that time period spelled oublies obleè or obliè, again, called such by the French. As will be seen in the following quote, the French have a long history of making and serving wafers. – Cowel, Dr. A Law Dictionary: Or the Interpreter of Words and Terms, Used Either in the Common or Statute Laws of that Part of Great Britain, call’d England. 1708. London.
There is a plaintive cry that rises from Paris streets about sundown, accompanied with the monotonous sound of a wooden rattle, that is delightful to the ear of French children, and has been a familiar sound, through life, to the oldest inhabitant of Paris. The street-seller of ‘plaisirs’ or oublies as they are called long, long years ago, is generally an elderly woman of somewhat lively temperament, dressed with scrupulous neatness, her head covered with a cap, white as mountain snow. She must needs be amiable, and of a kindly habit of mind, for it is her business to please, and attract children to that magic round green box, in which she holds those frail crisp cakes, curled in the shape of sugar-bags, which have delighted—well, how many generations shall we say? —of the vivacious, light-witted children of Lutetia. These oublies of sweet paste, cooked between hot irons, have come direct down, according to some authorities, transmitted to the Paris bèbès of to-day, from the Obliophores, who used to cry their cakes, or obolios, about the streets of ancient Athens. Certain it is, however, that the rising generations of Parisians have been delighted with the toothsome oublie or plaisir from a very remote period. Time was, when the King of France had his Officer of the Mouth, whose duty it was to offer oublies to the royal guests. Centuries ago the street vendors of oublies (which were carried about hot, in a basket laid out with white linen) tempted their customers to gamble with dice for their dainties. Sometimes a very lucky gambler would win the basket and its entire load. Levasseur, in his history of the working classes, describes how the students, when they had won a whole basket of oublies, were in the habit of hanging them outside their windows in triumph. But when the makers of oublies, or oublayers, were formed into a corporation under regular statutes, the use of dice was prohibited, and the oublayers gradually developed into a great corporation [guild] of pastrycooks, making infinite varieties of pastry. Considerable skill was demanded from the journeyman pastrycook, even in the thirteenth century, for then he was compelled, by the statutes of his corporation to prove that he could make at least a thousand of the cakes called ‘heules’ in a day…and time was when vassals were compelled, on certain days of the year to offer oublies to their feudal lords; so that the oublayer occupied a somewhat important position. – Jerrold, Blanchard. At Home in Paris: and a Trip Through the Vineyards of Spain. 1864. London.
Wafers were among the items meant for guests as a last course in their meal in the 1390’s. The notation, “Hippocras and wafers to finish”, was listed following the dessert course. – Greco, Gina & Rose, Christine, translation. Le Menagier de Paris. 2009. Cornell University.
In 1826, an article on food made the comparison between the sweet wafer and the item by the same name used in communion. The similarity lay in the appearance and not the flavor of the two items.
The Wafer, by far the greatest favourite of the French, and common over Europe, was probably Grecian or Roman origin and was early known in the middle ages by the name oblatae, the term given to the holy cakes used in the Eucharist. Hence the French oublie, which in that language, as well as wafer in our own, denotes both the consecrated and the common cake. In form it was round and thin, and baked, as the Eucharistal one, between two flat hot irons, shutting together by a pivot, and ornamented inside, so as to leave the impression on the cake. – The Gentleman’s Magazine, and Historical Chronicle. “The Cries of Paris in the Thirteenth Century”. Vol. 96, Part 2. November, 1826.
Wafers also referred to wax disks used to seal letters, but for this article we will concern ourselves only with the definition of a, “thin round cake, often formed into a roll, sold by pastry cooks; this seems to be the Earliest use of the name in England, and the persons selling them were formerly called waferers”. – Ripley, George. The New American Cyclopaedia: A Popular Dictionary of General Knowledge. 1863. NY.
They were baked on wafer irons which opened and closed scissor-fashion, with two flat round surfaces on the end. They were made of iron and are fairly heavy to handle in making any significant quantity of wafers. The flat surfaces were inscribed with a design of some sort which pressed the decorative design into the wafers.
To bake the wafers the cook was to, “Heat an iron on both sides over a moderate fire. Rub it inside with a little butter, put a tea-spoonful of the wafer batter into it, close the iron upon this almost immediately, and put it on the fire. When cooked upon one side, turn it upon the other. Cut away the superfluous paste round the edges, and roll the wafer on a stick while it is still warm. Put in another piece of batter and repeat until all the batter is used. Keep the wafers in a tin box in a dry place till wanted. They are generally served with the sweets”. – Cassell, Ltd. Cassell’s Dictionary of Cookery. 1883. NY.
Do not expect that there was any consistency in the receipts as to the thickness of the batter as it varied from a thick batter poured onto the heated surface of the iron by a spoon to pinching or cutting off small pieces and laying them onto the iron. Even receipts within the same book varied a great deal in the thickness of the batter or dough.
Flavoring agents used in 18th century receipts included chopped almonds or pistachios, mace, nutmeg, cinnamon, orange zest, orange-flower water, rose-water, and lemon, etc., later, the 19th century saw a variety of spices and flavorings added to the repertoire such as ginger, vanilla, and cardamom.
At the turn of the 20th century, the rolled wafers were often filled with whipped cream.
Cafes in Paris served flat wafers imprinted with the name of the café along with various ices. – By an American. Ice-Cream and Cakes. 1909. NY.
Let’s compare receipts, for a pourable batter, and for making balls of paste to be placed in the irons. In so doing, we may also compare receipts from the 16th century through the 19th.
Gervase Markham’s receipt for wafers was surprisingly easy to follow considering the early date of publication.
To make the best Wafers, take the finest wheat-flower you can get, and mix it with Cream, the yelks of Eggs, Rose-water, Sugar, and Cinamon, till it be a little thicker than Pancake-batter, and then warming your Wafer Irons on a charcoal-fire, anoint them first with sweet Butter, and then lay on your batter, and press it, and bake it white or brown at your pleasure. – Markham, Gervase. A Way to Get Wealth. 1668. London. 2. Markham, Gervase. The English Huswife. 1615, Michael Best edition. 1986. McGill-Queens University Press. Kingston and Montreal.
By, “anoint them first with sweet Butter”, he means to grease the heated irons with butter to prevent the wafers from sticking.
John Nott’s cookery book  contained five receipts for wafers, a good indication of their popularity. Two versions were made primarily of flour and cream, another was made with, “the yolks of 4 Eggs, and three Spoonfuls of Rose-water, to a Quart of Flour; mingle them well, make them into a Batter with Cream and double refin’d Sugar, pour it on very thin, and bake it on Irons”. – Nott, John. The Cooks and Confectioners Dictionary. 1723. London.
Nott’s second receipt was quite lengthy, requiring the flour and cream to be mixed and left to sit overnight before mixing in sugar and orange-flower water to the consistency of milk. A spoonful and a half of the mixture was poured onto the heated iron to bake. He advised rubbing both sides of the wafer iron with butter periodically to prevent the wafers from sticking. The cook was to, “open your iron a little, and observe, if it come to a good Colour, it is enough”. When done, the wafer was removed with a knife and rolled, “round the same” where it was allowed to cool. Once cooled, the sugar hardens and the wafers retain the rolled shape.
Take two Spoonfuls of Cream, two of Sugar, the same of Flour, and one Spoonful of Orange Flower Water, beat them well together for half an hour, then make your wafer tongs hot, and pour a little of your batter in to cover your Irons, bake them on a Stove Fire, as they are baked roll them round a Stick like a Spiggard, as soon as they are cold, they will be very crisp; they are proper for Tea, or to put on a Salver to eat with Jellies. – Raffald, Elizabeth. The Experienced English Housekeeper. 1769. Manchester.
Wafers, Dutch. Put seven ounces of flour upon a pasteboard, and work it to a smooth stiff paste with three ounces of butter, the grated rind of an orange, five ounces of powdered sugar, and one egg. Divide the paste into pieces the size of a pigeon’s egg, form these to an oval shape, and bake in an oval wafer-iron. – Cassell, Ltd. Cassell’s Dictionary of Cookery. 1883. NY.
Imprint on the inside of the plate of an 18th century wafer iron. The wafer bears the imprint of whatever design is carved into the plates.
At various time periods through the 18th and 19th centuries, receipts are found which instruct the building of a confection on top of a wafer, in essence, the wafer forms the base or foundation. Such wafers can be purchased from the King Arthur flour catalog and the description reads that they are designed to cradle certain German cookies.
Modern redaction: 4 Tablespoons unsalted butter, 2 eggs, ½ cup sugar, 1 teaspoon vanilla, 1 teaspoon orange-flower water, ½ teaspoon cardamom seeds, grated zest of 2 oranges, 2 cups unbleached flour, butter or piece of pork fat for oiling the iron.
Melt the butter and set aside. Break the eggs into a bowl, and whisk in the sugar until well blended. Whisk in the melted butter, being careful it has cooled enough not to cook the eggs. When this mixture has cooled, add the vanilla, orange-flower water, cardamom seeds and orange zest. Stir in the flour until the mixture is smooth, but do not overwork the dough. Let the dough rest for 20 to 30 minutes. Turn onto a floured surface, dust with flour, and form into a long roll about the diameter of a small egg. Cut this dough into about 18 pieces of equal size. Roll the pieces of dough into balls. Cover to prevent drying while baking.
Place a tripod over coals that have been pulled out of the fire onto the hearth. Place the wafer iron on the tripod and rotate it to heat both sides of the iron. When ready to bake, grease both plates of the wafer iron, then place a ball of dough onto the center of the wafer plate. Close the iron. Bake until the wafer begins to brown, rotating the iron as needed. Usually one to two minutes is sufficient time. Remove the wafer from the iron and place onto a rack to cool. OR, if desired, roll the wafer onto a round form and allow it to cool. Add more coals underneath the tripod as needed in order to maintain an ideal baking temperature.
Note: Wafer irons changed little in design over two or three centuries, other than perhaps the degree of skill and the subject matter of the design imprinted on the plates. Those in the collections of museums in the U.S. and Europe dated to the 17th century or earlier are no different from the ones in my collection which I estimate to be early to mid 18th century. Irons from the 17th century and earlier often depict Biblical images or images associated with heraldry, whereas flowers and leaves, geometric patterns, or patriotic images were common later on.
For those who have an interest in serving wafers, but either don’t want to bake them or don’t have a wafer iron to bake them on, see www.stashtea.com, and type in “wafers” in the search box. They offer wafers, “faithfully baked following a 200 year old European recipe”.