Ask a random person on the street where Belgium is, and chances are they cannot tell you that it is a country in Europe nestled between France, Germany and The Netherlands. However, many people will know little of this small country’s culinary gift to the world -- crisp fries, well-crafted beers and fine chocolates, to name just a few. The one thing most do know is that Belgium makes waffles.
The irony of the Belgian waffle's popularity in North America -- and it being a representation of the country's cuisine -- is that the large, heavily loaded breakfast item that graces so many of our morning menus has little resemblance to the original waffle that hails from Belgium. Actually, the North American breakfast version pales in comparison to the waffle sold all over Belgium, where it is a traditional street food eaten with your hands (not a calorie-laden meal served with gallons of syrup). In Belgium, the treat is the waffle itself because they're so well made; they aren't just a vehicle for toppings. We’re going to show you exactly how they're suppose to be cooked and eaten. But first, a little history.
The Belgian waffle made its first American appearance at the 1962 World’s Fair in Seattle. But it was at the 1964-65 World's Fair hosted in Queens, N.Y that Belgian native Maurice Vermersch and his family made the waffle's popularity skyrocket. Originally known as the Brussels waffle, named for the capital city from which it comes, the crisp-on-the-outside, airy-on-the-inside waffle was served two ways: the traditional fashion (plain) and with a slight embellishment of freshly whipped cream and just-sliced strawberries (as shown above, minus the bling). The demand was so great that the family had to hire a team of 10 people just to slice strawberries — this doesn’t account for those whipping the cream, piping that whipped cream or cooking up the waffles on the 24 machines they had running.
The Vermersch family were no fools -- they understood how little the rest of the world knew about Belgium and decided that calling them Brussels waffles would hinder its popularity. And so the Belgian waffle was born. They may have been flexible with the name, but the Vermersch family was adamant about maintaining the proper way to eat them. MariePaule Vermersch, the daughter of Maurice, recounts the tale of her mother refusing forks and knifes to paying customers at the Fair because that's not how you eat them on the streets of Belgium. The Brussels is only one of the waffles loved in Belgium. Some would even say it’s the inferior of the two. The one that's lesser known outside of its home country is the aforementioned Liege waffle.
If the Brussels waffle is the crowd-pleaser, the Liege waffle is its tougher, younger sibling. It doesn't wow you at first glance with its deep wells, perfect rectangular shape, and lighter-than-air texture like the Brussels. Rather, it grows on you with each bite revealing its dense, sweet characteristic over time. Aside from the fact that these two waffles are both, well, waffles, they couldn't be more different.
The Brussels starts off as a yeast-leavened batter. It's often times fueled with a special ingredient that we doubt gets used in many Belgian waffles at the IHOPs across America. MariePaule Vermersch alluded to one in her family's original recipe; we suspect it might be beer, because it's Belgian after all, but hers is a well-guarded secret. Made in a hot cast iron machine, this waffle is crisp, light, and nearly melts in your mouth. In Belgium, this waffle is often bought on the street and eaten with your hands, but it is also found in tea rooms, commonly known as gauferies. No matter which way you eat it, the Brussels is never served with maple syrup. The waffle doesn't need it, it tastes like pure happiness all on its own.
The name isn't the only thing that changed when this waffle moved to America. For one, it went from being a street food to a common diner breakfast option. And with that came the change in batter. These days, Belgian waffles in the States are more like pancakes that have been cooked in a waffle iron. They're not made from the delicately-balanced batter that ensures a crisp, airy waffle. And since the Americanized Belgian waffle is sub-par in flavor, it's been garnished and embellished to compensate.
The Liege waffle is nothing like either version of the Brussels. It comes from the city of Liege in the Wallonia region of Belgium and is made with a dough similar to that of brioche. Pearl sugar, which basically looks like regular sugar on steroids, is mixed into the dough; when cooked on the iron, the pearls melt and caramelize forming big bites of crisp, browned sugar. It's a denser, sweeter, chewier waffle that can make the world feel right again on the dreariest of days. (Belgium being a country with an unusual amount of gray, rainy days, it's no wonder they came up with a waffle to help them get through it.) These waffles are predominately sold on the street -- everywhere and anywhere... outside of train stations, in grocery store parking lots, at fairs, and so on. They're eaten with your hands and nothing else. Belgians prefer not to mask the sweet flavor and beloved texture of the waffle with toppings. It'd also be harder to eat them on the go.
We wouldn't dare say one waffle is better than the other -- the two possess their own irresistible qualities. It's important that they both exist. But there is something decidedly unique about the Liege waffle. It's not something you see everyday, probably because the dough is hard to make and the essential ingredient, pearl sugar, is expensive and not readily available.