Waffles have always been the outlier; an occasional geometric diversion from the pancake routine or even having its identity hijacked with the popularity of waffle-cut fries. Even worse, ‘Belgian’ waffles became the normal menu variety in a largely meaningless marketing gesture. As far as I can tell, the only difference in American is Belgian waffles are round and American waffles are square. Then I went to Belgium…
I was exploring the beautiful city of Ghent one afternoon when I emerged from a narrow cobblestone side street to some delightful smells. The street opened up to an area of tables and chairs. Belgians were scattered around enjoying their afternoon coffee and snacks. There was a short line at an ordering window, and based on the aromas, I queued up. I saw several people come away with something wrapped in paper that looked vaguely like a waffle. Then it clicked. I had been so enamored with the extensive beer culture there, not to mention frites coming with every meal, I forgot that Belgium was famous for waffles. And rightly so.
When I got up to the window, the first thing I noticed was the waffles being made-to-order from balls of dough. They would knead the dough in what I later discovered were pearls of sugar and then press the dough in the waffle iron. When you hear people in-the-know talk about these liege waffles, they always talk about the pearls of sugar. I believe the real magic is in the use of dough instead of batter. It’s all about texture. Batter makes a waffle that is more crumby like cake or cookies and dough makes a waffle that pulls apart like a cinnamon roll or bear-claw.
The waffle was served to-go wrapped in light parchment paper. The two options were lightly powdered with sugar or half dipped in chocolate. I was hooked. I went back every afternoon I could while I was there. I went one morning, but the shop was not open. It seems waffles are not considered a viable breakfast option. Smart Belgians.
It was just a matter of time before someone brought the genuine liege waffle experience to the US.
First on my radar was the Wafels & Dinges truck in NYC. These guys have the accents and everything. They describe the liege waffle as “The ‘other’ Belgian wafel, the one the Belgians kept secret from the world. Sneaky Belgians!” Sneaky indeed.
Like many of the waffle vendors you can be a purist and order the simple powdered sugar waffle or add ‘dinges’ such as fruit, whipped cream, ice cream and even have a savory variety with pulled pork or chili.
Wafels & Dinges even won a Throwdown with Bobby Flay with their liege waffle covered in whipped cream and speculoos.
A word about speculoos: It is a very popular spread in Belgium (basically, their Nutella). It is made from crushed and caramelized speculoos biscuits which a vaguely reminiscent of graham crackers. It comes in smooth and crunchy varieties like peanut butter but, mostly, doesn’t stick to the roof of your mouth.
My love of liege waffles became dormant when I moved to LA until I started doing research for a trip to Portland. I read about The Waffle Window and decided I needed to go there. You always remember your first time and The Waffle Window reminded me of mine as, just like it sounds, its just a window in the back of a building where you order your waffles.
They have a full menu of sweet and savory combinations. The first time I went I got the basic liege waffle because I wanted to reacquaint myself in the purest form. They did not disappoint. I went back later and got the special apple pie version and a 6-pack of sealed frozen waffles to-go.
I figured there had to be an option in LA. I found a waffle food truck but it seemed they never ventured into the central part of LA. On the recommendation of Zach Brooks from Midtown Lunch and the Food is the New Rock podcast (highly recommended for food and music lovers), I checked out a place that wasn’t too far from me called Shaky Alibi.
This ‘coffee house and wafflerie’ makes them just like I witnessed in Belgium, pressing the sugar pearls into the dough just before mashing it in the waffle iron. It’s pretty quiet in the afternoon when I like to indulge but the place is packed when the brunch crowd can’t get enough of their savory and sweet waffle menu items.
Despite those ‘sneaky Belgians’ holding out on the rest of the world, liege waffles are clearly hitting the mainstream. Like Apple computers and the Black Keys, there’s something satisfying about knowing you were there before it was mainstream cool. Of course, there’s also something very annoying about people who let you know they were into it first. So, forgive me.