The International House of Pancakes, Denny's, and most likely your local diner serve some deep pocketed round or square waffle they call Belgian. The purpose of this cratered slab is to capture powdered sugar, jams, jellies, and other sugary toppings and whipped cream, and while this concoction may be appealing to the twelve and under crowd, it doesn't have a lot in common with gaufres, their original Brussels street food inspiration.
Instead of restaurants, gaufres are commonly made in street stands and meant to be eaten as you stroll and shop. At the Saturday morning farmer's market amid roasting chickens, a simmering escargo pot, and lots of fresh produce and cheese, you'll find at least one stand minting fresh gaufres that you can buy by the kilo and carry off in a wax paper bag.
The idea of cooking flat bread dough or batter between two hot metal plates can be traced back to at least ancient Greece, according to Larousse Gastonomique. At some point in medieval Europe, cross-hatch patterns were added to the plates, producing a honeycomb-like design on the finished product. The old French word for honeycomb being gaufre, it's likely that's how the French name got it's start. My dad, a pretty reliable language scholar, adds: "Our word 'waffle' owes its origin to an early German word 'wafel' which was also borrowed into Old French as 'gaufre, meaning both 'waffle' and 'honeycomb.' " Go dad!
The American version of gaufres, the "Belgian Waffle," was actually introduced at the 1964 World's Fair food by a Brussels man by the name of Maurice Vermersch even though it had been around in Europe in one form or another for hundreds of years.
Yeast, No Baking Soda
In America, we've come to think of waffles, more or less, as pancake batter pressed in a special iron. As you probably know, most pancake batters (with exceptions, such as the blini) use baking soda and powder to gain their height and texture. The traditional gaufres recipe is yeasted and the dough is dense and and sticky, more like brioche dough. It has to be scooped and scraped onto the iron, not poured. Lard, not butter or vegetable, was the traditional fat used to grease the plates, although that's no longer the fashion in our more health-conscious world.
Gaufres take longer to cook than American style waffles, and the finished product is hand-sized and irregular in shape. The most striking difference, however, is the flavor. Unlike box pancakes and waffles, extras like maple syrup, butter, and jams aren't the main attraction, and there's no lingering chemical bicarbonate pall. Gaufres have a fermented, tangy flavor blended with sugar and some salt to create a balance that easily stands on it's own. Simple and definitely not as tarted up as their American counterpart, gaufres are the perfect accompaniment to a cool, crisp Brussels morning (or a quick nosh at 4am when the clubs close their doors).