One evening late last fall, I went for a walk after a rainy stretch of weather and happened upon a tantalizing scent in Harvard Square. It was part freshly baked bread and part heady vanilla, with a toasty edge of caramelized sugar. Nose up like a cartoon character, I followed the aroma into a glowing café called Zinneken’s where cooks busily turned out waffles for a packed house.
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The Liège waffle, the Belgian café’s specialty, was unlike any waffle I’d ever eaten: oblong with charmingly uneven edges like a raw hemline and deeply caramelized crenulations that gave way to a subtly layered and elastic interior. Small sugar nuggets strewn throughout the rich crumb provided crunch and enough sweetness that I immediately understood why these waffles are traditionally served plain—no syrup or toppings other than an occasional dusting of powdered sugar. Plus, the Liège style is a popular street food in its eponymous hometown, so skipping the toppings keeps them tidy enough to eat out of hand.
Give It a Rest
The fresh-baked bread aroma I’d picked up on was no coincidence: Unlike Brussels or American waffles made from batters, the Liège kind are made from rich, yeasted dough. To start, you mix bread flour, yeast, salt, and a bit of granulated sugar with milk, soft butter, egg, and lots of vanilla extract and then knead the dough in a stand mixer for about 15 minutes until it’s smooth and elastic. After the dough rises, you knead in lumps of Belgian pearl sugar (larger and more dissolvable than the Swedish kind), portion the dough, let it rise again, and bake it on a Belgian iron. As the dough cooks, bits of the pearl sugar melt, caramelize, and crisp the crust.
Belgium’s Singular Sensation
There’s no mistaking Liège waffles for more common Brussels or American styles—in composition, shape, texture, flavor, or even serving traditions. Here’s a snapshot of how they stand out from the rest.
The waffles’ feathery, elastic crumb is the result of a robust gluten network. Developing it starts with bread flour, which contains lots of gluten-forming proteins, and usually lots of liquid, which activates those proteins. Ample hydration is especially important for rich doughs such as this because fat partially shields the gluten proteins from water, so the more liquid you have, the more chance it has to reach the proteins.
Trouble is, well-hydrated doughs don’t stay crisp. As soon as I pulled a high-hydration batch off the iron, the waffles’ abundant moisture migrated outward and softened the crust. I cut back on the liquid and kneaded the heck out of the dough, but it still needed more structure.
It was Nhon Ma, the Belgian co-owner of Zinneken’s, who suggested I ferment my relatively low-hydration dough overnight in the refrigerator. Doing so strengthened the gluten that formed during kneading, so the dough retained more gas bubbles and baked up more layered. Cold fermentation also slowed yeast activity so the dough had time to develop more complex flavor and broke up the work so that most of it could be done ahead.
Ma also mentioned that 360 to 365 degrees was his sweet spot waffle-baking temperature: hot enough for the dough to cook through while the crust browns without burning. I did the same: Each dough portion cooked for 2 to 3 minutes and emerged bronzed with soft, elastic chew. And since most home waffle irons don’t have reliably accurate thermostats, I came up with a visual cue to gauge the temperature: When my iron was at just the right temperature, a drop of water on its surface skittered around for 4 to 5 seconds before evaporating. (Alternatively, you can use an infrared thermometer to monitor the iron’s temperature and note the dial position when the cooking surface hits 360 degrees.)
To Clean the Iron, Strike While It’s Still Hot!
The sugar in the dough is going to shellac your iron, but the gorgeously caramelized results are worth the cleanup effort. This method makes it easy.
1. Unplug iron. Place wet, wrung-out rag on cooking surface; close and lock. Let sit for 15 minutes to melt sugar. (If applicable, flip iron now and again before opening.)
2. Open iron. Holding rag with tongs, rinse under cool water. Wring out rag and lay over cooking surface.
3. Place tip of chopstick on rag and scrub grids. If any sugar remains, reheat iron and repeat process.
What I loved most about these waffles were the random pockets at the surface where the pearl sugar melted and caramelized. In fact, the best ones were those with so many pockets that they merged into a thin, crackly shell, so I tried to produce that deliberately by lightly coating each risen dough portion in granulated sugar before enclosing it in the iron. It wasn’t a strictly traditional move, but I had no regrets. As each waffle baked, its surface sugar melted into a delicate, uniformly caramelized crust that gave it a lacquered sheen and the barest hint of sweetness.