No ordinary waffle

I have an uncomfortable confession to make today, one that has put me on the receiving end of many gasps and furrowed brows of late: Until July 14th, 2013, I had never made a waffle.

Now, there happens to be a perfectly reasonable explanation for this failing, namely, that until just a few short months ago, I’d never consumed a waffle worth replicating. In fact, I think I’d sort of given up on the whole waffle genre. The waffle, I decided, may be a fine enough vehicle for maple syrup or whipped cream –or, in the case of a waffle I once had on Aza Street in Jerusalem, a heavy slick of Nutella– but it’s not much of a thing on its own.

I think you can see where this is going.

These waffles, the ones pictured here, changed everything. I’m a waffle eater now. I’m a waffle maker now. I’ve even fallen in love with a waffle iron. I’m a woman transformed.

If you’re from around these parts, Cambridge, MA, or somewhere nearby, maybe you recognize where these photos were taken. It’s a fromagerie-charcuterie-grocery-bakery-wine shop called Formaggio Kitchen that, as luck would have it, is just a quarter of an hour walk from where I live. When Mia was brand new and each day was approximately 3,479 hours long, and I had not a clue what to do with her or myself, I’d tie her onto my chest and we’d walk. Very often, we’d end up at Formaggio.

It was the perfect destination. The space itself is a tight squeeze, with an overflowing cheese counter and rows of jams, olive oils, heirloom beans, nuts, and produce arranged in nooks rather than aisles. You’re always walking a little sideways in there, inching your back along a shelf lined with chocolates to check out the honeys, for example, so tiny Mia got a close look at everything. Meanwhile, I got to talk to living, breathing, fully-grown humans! About food! (I’ve learned so much from these folks over the years.) Mia would bobble her head at the pastas. I’d taste some cheese. She’d pull my hair. I’d order a tub of anchovies. She’d pass out on my chest. I’d buy a Florentine for the walk home. These were proper outings.

Now that Mia is somewhat less tiny, she demands her own square of cheese on a toothpick when we go. Even on this Sunday morning in April, when we were there not for cheese, but for waffles.

Behold, the fate of that cheese.

This was Mia’s first-ever waffle, and it may as well have been mine. It was no ordinary waffle, not even an ordinary Belgian waffle. These were gaufres de Liège. I had heard of the famed Liège waffle, but I’d never tried one. Have you? They start out as a rich, yeasted dough studded with pearl sugar. The crumb bakes up elastic and tender, like brioche, interrupted throughout by oozy sweet spots where the pearl sugar has melted. Any beads of sugar along the outside of the dough caramelize against the iron to form a crackly crust.

Alyssa, the bakery manager at Formaggio, had tasted gaufres de Liège for the first time when she was working at a crêperie after college, and this past winter, she decided to develop a recipe of her own. She did a bang-up job (you can read about her process, here) and in the spring, her waffles started showing up at Formaggio on select Sunday mornings. I was perfectly happy to trek over there for my fix, but a few weeks ago, I noticed there hadn’t been a waffle Sunday in a while. When I asked why, I was told that, for whatever reason, summer wasn't the season for waffles. People weren't snapping them up the way they had in cooler months. I do not know who these people are, these seasonal waffle eaters ruining it for the rest of us. They are not invited to waffles at my place, waffles at my place being a thing that happens, now that I’ve learned how to make them.

First, I had to buy a waffle iron, of course, a task that set me back a couple of weeks as I searched up and down for a model that anyone, anywhere was actually excited about. Even the best options out there are bulky single-purpose appliances that are, by all accounts, impossible to clean. Then, in the archives of Cook’s Illustrated, I found a review of the humble stovetop waffle iron. I liked the idea of something slender, easy to store, easy to clean (no electrical components, so you can drop it in the sink) and less expensive than many of the machines. I bought the one highest up on the Cook's Illustrated list, and friends, I love it.

This is going on a bit, so let’s skip ahead and I’ll say more about stovetop waffling, below, for anyone interested.

The waffles: I began with Alyssa’s painstakingly tested recipe and produced a truly excellent waffle. But I wanted a chewier, fluffier interior, a real contrast against the crisp, caramelized crust. So I did some research, got some first-rate guidance from my friend Andrew, a supremely talented baker and editor at Cook’s Illustrated, tweaked the ingredients, altered the procedure, and tried again. After three variations (all variations of awesome, you should know), I had my –and now your– waffle. I took it for one more spin last week, just to be sure. I am sure.

I don’t normally get my camera so close and personal with my plate of food, but when I broke open a waffle from my final batch, I just had to show you this crumb. (Click on the photo to see it bigger.) (Do it.)

Happy waffling.

Liège Waffles (Gaufres de Liège)
Adapted from Alyssa’s recipe at Formaggio Kitchen and a recipe from the Liège Waffle Recipe blog, with guidance from Andrew Janjigian

A few notes:

On waffle irons:  If you already own an electric waffle maker, then by all means, use it. Alyssa makes her waffles in a CuisinArt Belgian Waffle Maker, sets the heat to just below 3 (on a scale from 1 to 5), and cooks the waffles for about five minutes. If you’re in the market for a waffle maker, I highly recommend a stovetop model. I have this one, from Nordic Ware. It’s made of cast aluminum with a water-based silicone non-stick coating (not Teflon) on the inside. The top and bottom of the iron come apart for easy cleaning. My one complaint is that the outside scratches easily, but that’s aluminum for you. Of course, stovetop waffle making requires more of your attention than throwing dough into an appliance, but no more attention than frying an egg or flipping pancakes. It may take you a burnt or underdone waffle or two to get the hang of it, but soon you’ll have them just right.

In the recipe below, I’ve included instructions for cooking the waffles on a stovetop iron. I’ve found that the key to perfectly cooked waffles is keeping the heat at medium-low. Cast aluminum heats quickly and retains that heat well; anything hotter and the exterior will burn before the waffle has cooked through. Also, you want the bottom plate, the one against the stovetop, to be plenty hot when you add dough to the iron. Which means that when you remove the finished waffles from the iron, do not flip the iron over before beginning the next batch.

On weight versus volume: I’ve been baking more and more by weight instead of volume and I’m hooked. It’s easy, precise, and my results are super consistent. If you measure the flour in this recipe by volume (cups) instead of weight, be sure to stir up your flour, spoon the flour into your measuring cup, and sweep off the excess with the back of a straight-edged knife. If you use the scoop and sweep method instead, you’ll end up with too much flour.

On yeast: This recipe calls for instant dry yeast (IDY) rather than active dry yeast (ADY). Instant dry yeast is all I ever keep around. It’s easier to use because there’s no need to dissolve it in liquid; you just add it to your dry ingredients and you’re off. I once assumed that there must be some kind of additive involved to make instant yeast “instant,” and I didn’t like the idea of that. But nope, it’s just yeast. I asked my friend Andrew about the real difference between IDY and ADY, and he gave me the scoop: ADY is coated with a layer of dead yeast that must be dissolved in order for the yeast to activate. That’s why you have to proof it. The reason that you use about 30% less IDY than ADY in any given recipe is because IDY is all viable yeast (no dead yeast coating). There’s no difference in flavor between the two.

On the sugar: If you’re having trouble finding Belgian pearl sugar in stores, you can find it online here. Alyssa's recipe calls for ¾ cup pearl sugar, which is great for the caramelizing action on the outside of the waffles, but so sweet that my tongue ached when I was through. I cut the sugar to ½ cup, and while you end up with fewer candied bits in and around the waffles, the sweetness is pleasantly toned down.

2 cups (240 g) bread flour (see note, above)
1 teaspoon (3 g) instant dry yeast
¼ cup (60 g) whole milk, at room temperature
2 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons (40 g) water
1 large egg, at room temperature, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon (20 g) light brown sugar
¾ teaspoon (4.5 g) salt
8 tablespoons (113 g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 tablespoon (15 g) honey
2 teaspoons (10 ml) vanilla
½ - ¾ cup (100 g) pearl sugar (see note, above)

Whisk together the instant dry yeast and 2/3 cup (80 g) of the bread flour in the bowl of a stand mixer. In a separate bowl, mix the milk, water, and egg. Add the wet ingredients to the flour and yeast measure, stir to moisten the yeast, and sprinkle the remaining 1 1/3 cup (160 g) of bread flour on top. Do not mix in. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let stand for 60-90 minutes, until the batter is bubbling up through the cover of flour.

Add the brown sugar and salt, and mix on low speed with the paddle attachment until just combined. With the machine still on low, add the honey and vanilla, then the butter, 2 tablespoons (30 g) at a time. When the butter is fully incorporated, switch to the dough hook attachment. Mix for four minutes at medium-low speed, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl once or twice. Let the dough rest for 1 minute, then continue mixing until the dough stretches rather than breaks, and starts to pull away from the sides of the bowl. If it takes longer than 2-3 minutes (it did for me), let the dough rest again for 1 minute, then mix for another 2-3 minutes.

Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator overnight.

In the morning, mix the pearl sugar into the dough by hand. Separate the dough into 110 gram chunks (about 3 tablespoons per waffle), and shape each one into a ball. Place on a wax paper-lined cookie sheet, cover loosely with plastic wrap, and let rise for 90 minutes, until puffy.

If using a stovetop iron: When the dough is ready, heat your iron over a medium-low flame for 4 minutes, then flip it over and heat the other side for the same amount of time. Transfer the dough balls to your heated waffle iron (I’d start with just one, to get the hang of things), close the iron, and cook for 45 seconds. Flip the iron over and cook for four minutes. Your waffles should be done enough at this point so that they won’t stick to iron. Open the iron for a peek, and if the waffles are still looking pale, cook for an additional couple of minutes, until the crust is brown and the sugar on the surface has caramelized.

Transfer waffles to a rack and cool for several minutes before serving.

Makes 6 waffles.


Summer all the way

It may be 60 degrees out and raining this morning, but I'm still feeling summer all the way. I bought a flat of apricots yesterday that will soon find their way into a batch of preserves, Eli's poaching salmon for dinner tonight, and I'm making his mother's cucumber salad. 

Also on our list: busting into the giant watermelon currently occupying our counter, an episode or two of House of Cards (SO GOOD.), reading aloud from this, and replacing the light bulb over the kitchen table that exploded out of nowhere last night, raining down tiny particles of glass on the entire room. La la la la.

A Friday five:

:: Megan's roasted strawberry buttermilk milkshake. Ooooo, baby. I am notoriously inept at milkshake making (strawberry milk, anyone?). I think it's time to get back on the horse.

:: This article about being your best whole person. It's specifically geared toward women in academia, but I think there's an important message here for anyone - man, woman, parent or not.

:: This piece by Rachel Howard about getting stuff down on the page.

:: A terrific film I saw on my birthday back in May. It's called Stories We Tell, and it's about exactly that.

:: Joy's modus operandi (mine too, by the way), with a side of waffles.

And speaking of waffles, come back next week. I'll have lots.


Walk that walk

That farro was once stuck in my mind as a cold-weather food probably has to do with the way I first ate it, mixed with peas, served hot, oiled, and salty at my friend Julia’s table. It was late 2008, and I was still quite ill. Julia and her husband, Eitan, were cooking for us a lot those days. At first, they’d bring food to our place. On my first night home from the hospital, which happened to be a Friday, they piled up one of those collapsible luggage carts with Eitan’s chicken soup, Julia’s roast chicken, salad, challah, and wine, and wheeled it the half a dozen blocks from where they were living at the time. Once I was strong enough, Eli and I would walk to their apartment and they’d cook for us there.

Food tasted strange to me then. My brain was recovering from a hemorrhage and my body from infection. I couldn’t smell (my olfactory nerves had been damaged during surgery) and the antibiotics I was on only made matters worse. Brussels sprouts and broccoli tasted spoiled, lettuce intolerably bitter, and chocolate like metal. Julia made feasts –a buttery mushroom soup flecked with thyme, salads with olives and feta, giant potato pancakes sliced like pizzas to serve– but would remind me when I got there that I didn’t have to eat a bite; she was just glad I was there.

Farro is a tender Italian grain that feels nice to bite into. I’d heard of it, but never seen it until that night at Julia’s. It was the first food in a long time that excited me. The peas tasted funny to me in a way that, thankfully, I can no longer remember, so I had to pick them out, but the farro itself was perfect: chewy, lightly sticky, with a flavor that’s nutty and bright. The following fall, fully back on my feet, I started cooking farro myself. I’d spoon it, steaming, into bowls of garlicky greens or bean and mushroom ragout. I’d stir it into soups. Then spring would arrive, and I’d forget.

It was last summer, I think, or maybe the summer before, when I found half a sack of farro in the back of the pantry one day and decided to make a cold salad. There were cherry tomatoes involved, and arugula, chopped walnuts, and a bit of feta. It was hardly revolutionary. You’d think that, having done the same with lentils, couscous, bulgur, and buckwheat over the years, it would have occurred to me that farro could also walk that walk. Alas. The good news is that I’ve since been making up for lost time, cooking up a heap of farro almost every week, and mixing into it whatever the crisper drawer holds.

My favorite this summer is one of the simpler concoctions I’ve tried, just farro, beans, scallions, and a couple pinches of salt tossed in lemon juice and olive oil. Last week, when it was too hot and too wet to move in these parts, this salad was all I wanted to eat. (Except for take-out pizza. I gladly ate that one night, too.)

Julia and Eitan live across the river now. They have a son, Levi, who was born almost a year to the day after Mia. The six of us picnicked on Friday, feasting on this salad, deviled eggs, kale with fresh currants, bread, cheese, and cookies. It was late enough in the day so that the heat felt all right. There was a breeze, and we all chased the napkins that got away.

Farro Summer Salad

With so few ingredients at play here, quality matters. Choose an olive oil you like the taste of and beans you can get behind. I’m crazy for Rancho Gordo beans in general, and these days, their Rio Zape variety in particular. They’re a deep purplish bean with zebra-like markings, a meaty flavor, and velvety interior. I could also see this salad with cannellini, pinto, or even black beans, perhaps with lime juice and a sprinkling of chopped cilantro.

In case you’re new to farro, here’s how I prepare it: One cup of farro and three cups of water go into a saucepan. I add a pinch of salt, bring to a boil over medium heat, then turn down the flame so that the water just simmers. I partially cover the pot and cook for 45-50 minutes, stirring occasionally. (You can soak farro before cooking it, if you want. It’s not necessary, but it will reduce your cooking time by about 20 minutes.) The farro is done when tender and pleasantly chewy. Remove from the heat and drain. You’ll end up with more farro than you need for this recipe, but I think you’ll be happy to have it around.

2 cups cooked beans (see note, above)
1½ cups cooked farro
2 scallions, thinly sliced
4 tablespoons (or slightly less) extra-virgin olive oil
3-4 teaspoons freshly-squeezed lemon juice
A generous pinch or two of sea salt flakes, like Maldon
Freshly-ground black pepper

Combine the cooked beans and farro in a medium bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together the olive oil, lemon juice, and salt. Taste, and adjust with a bit more oil or juice, if necessary. Pour the dressing over the beans and gently mix with a wooden spoon or silicone spatula. Stir in the sliced scallions, and add salt and pepper, to taste.

Enough for 4, give or take.


I've come around

Hey, good morning! I have a recipe for you! It’s from a couple of months ago, as are these photos. We have so much to catch up on. Honestly, I’m feeling a little stressed about that. You know what I’d really, really like? How about, rather than hanging around the ol’ blog today, you all just come on over for breakfast? It’s early still. You could totally make it. Our table is really quite large, and it’s square, not long and skinny, so we’d all be able to see each other as we chat, and eat, and catch up. Mia will be there, so you could see for yourselves how she counts to 15, and eats more blueberries in a single sitting than most humans I know. You would also see hair! On her head! (Finally.) She’s a grown-up baby now.

This kid turned twenty-two months last week. Let me tell you something about life with a twenty-two month old: It is wonderful. No offense to floppy little newborn Mia, or squishywishy six-to-twelve-month-old Mia, but talky, toddle-y, twenty-two-month-old Mia, who narrates aloud her every move, takes her ice crushed, her socks purple, and won’t, under any circumstance, let the pigeon drive the bus… You guys: I LOVE THIS GIRL. (“Yeah,” she said, when I told her so this morning. “So much.”  I could slurp her through a straw.)

I think sometimes about what I felt towards this creature during the first few months of her life. Between you and me – and I can’t believe I’m about to type this – I’m not exactly sure it was love. It was more an intense awareness of her presence, an adrenaline-fueled concern for her well-being that kept me checking: that she was breathing, that she was comfortable, that she was continuing to exist and hadn't, in her tininess and near-translucence, spontaneously evaporated into the atmosphere. It was a kind of proto-love, I guess, or potential love, a bow with strings stretched back and an arrow resting just so.

Anyhow, love shmove. Best of all, these days, is how much I like her.

You’ve seen this photo before, a couple of weeks ago, when I posted about writing and the space travel it requires. It was not, in fact, taken on the moon (whaaat?), but on Cape Cod, in a small, white room overlooking the bay. This was the view from our bed. (Which nearly filled the room. It was a very small room.) Above me was a skylight, behind me a window, and to my right, the glass door and the window you see here. I’d selected the room from a photo online because it was the whitest, lightest one I could find. A cross between a boat cabin and a tree house, you might say, and our home base for a 30-hour micro-vacation, just Eli and me.

We left on a Thursday morning and came home Friday before dark. It was the longest I’d ever been away from Mia, the first time since Mia was born that “the two of us” meant Jess and Eli again, not just one of us and her.

It was rad.

Thirty hours may not have been long enough to vacation our way through the two books, one crossword puzzle, and sack of Bananagrams we zealously stuffed into our bag, but we did find time for ice cream. Twice. Above: A very happy Jess and her Lewis Brothers’ cookies and cream. Not pictured: An even happier Jess and the black raspberry soft serve that allows me to say, at last, that I get it.  I understand soft serve now. It only took me 33 years. Thank you, PJ’s.

All right. Shall we eat? How about something I first made back in May, shortly after our trip, when apricots turned up at the market? You already know how I feel about apricots (good), and in particular baked apricots (very good). Well, I’m back at it this year, only this time, I’m baking them into oatmeal.

The recipe I’ve adapted is from Heidi Swanson’s Super Natural Every Day, which I bet a lot of you already know. In Molly’s post about it last March, she mentioned that I’d made a batch for her and Brandon once upon a time. What she was too kind to mention is the fact that I butchered it. As in, little bits of cooked egg clinging to the oats. Any takers? No? The problem, I’m fairly certain, is that I used the low-fat milk I’d bought for Eli – it’s his favorite cereal milk – so technically, the blame rests with him, yes?

Prepared properly, with whole milk, Heidi’s baked oatmeal is a lovely dish. I went on to make it half a dozen times to rave reviews. Still, I couldn’t shake the mild disappointment that came with each round. Turns out, I had some unfair expectations of what baked oatmeal was supposed to be: crisp on top, creamy, even custardy, inside. Baked oatmeal is the first of these things a little bit, and the last one not at all. I might as well have been mad at a cupcake for not being a cookie.

I have since realized that baked oatmeal is actually more like kugel, the faintly sweet kind, only with oats instead of noodles and fresh fruit instead of raisins. I see some of you giving me the crazy eye, but think about it: It’s on the sweet side of savory, just like a kugel, crisp here, chewy there, good hot and cold and everything in between. It sets up like a kugel, half-slices, half-scoops like a kugel. So much like a kugel!

The point is, I’ve come around. And, with the addition of apricots, around and around and AROUND. Apricot baked oatmeal is something special, the apricots doing their thing, going bold in the oven as they do – jammy, soft, sweet – splaying into the milky oats. Apricots are still going strong (Blenheims!), so you’ve got time yet to give this one a go. But only a little. So do it! Enjoy! I really think you will.

p.s. I’m a guest over at habit this month. Come visit!

Apricot Baked Oatmeal
Adapted from Heidi Swanson’s Super Natural Every Day

I’ve made a few tweaks here to the spices and nuts to suit the apricots. (A bit of nutmeg in with the cinnamon, pecans instead of walnuts, brown sugar.) Speaking of the nuts, I sprinkle all of them on at the end, rather than mixing half in with the oats. This keeps them crisp and tasting toasty, and gives the top a crumble-like feel. I like to pack the baking dish with apricots, squeeze them in shoulder to shoulder, as many as I can fit. If you want your baked oatmeal more oatmeal-y, feel free to dial back the fruit.

6 fresh, ripe apricots, halved, stones removed
2 cups (200 g) rolled oats
½ cup (60 g) pecans, toasted and chopped
1/3 cup (65 g) brown sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon fine sea salt
2 cups (475 ml) whole milk
1 large egg
3 tablespoons (45 grams) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Heat the oven to 375 degrees with a rack in the top third of the oven. Generously butter an 8-inch square baking dish (I use a 2½-quart casserole dish) and place the apricot halves, skin side down, inside in a single layer.

In a bowl, mix together all of the dry ingredients: the oats, toasted pecans, brown sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt. In another bowl, whisk together the wet ingredients: the milk, egg, half of the melted butter, and vanilla. Sprinkle the oats over the apricots, then slowly drizzle in the milk mixture. (Don’t worry if you end up with a few dry spots on top. Those patches will just be slightly crisper, which I happen to think is great.) Tap the baking dish on the counter a few times to ease the liquid all the way through the oats and fruit. Scatter the toasted, chopped pecans across the top.

Bake for 40-45 minutes, until the top is golden – even lightly brown – and the oats have set up. Remove from the oven and let cool for a few minutes. Drizzle the remaining melted butter on top (you may need to rewarm the butter to make it pourable again) and serve.

Makes enough for six.