If someone from medieval Europe saw a modern waffle, they might not be shocked–but they might also think it was really boring.
The grid design of today’s waffle irons might produce sweet treats that are perfect receptacles for whipped cream, fruit and maple syrup, but in terms of appearance they don’t hold a candle to what medieval Europeans had. The medieval precursor to a waffle was a ubiquitous and beautiful food that was more like a flat wafer or cracker than the fluffy waffles we know today.
The history of the waffle iron stretches back to ancient Greece, writes Jeff Wells for Mental Floss. Then, “cooks roasted flat cakes between two metal plates attached to a long wooden handle,” he writes. They weren’t anything special, then.
By the Middle Ages, obelios–the name of the cakes–had become art, and their name had been adapted to the French oublies. “A sort of companion to the communion wafer,” in Wells’s terms, “these oublies… were typically made using grain flour and water, and would depict Biblical scenes, crosses, and other religious icons. They were often served after meals as a symbolic final blessing.”
Oublies were made throughout Europe, and by the 13th century were a commonplace foodstuff “eaten by all segments of society, from peasants to kings,” writes Emily Han for the kitchn. “Often consumed in connection with religious occasions and saints’ days, they were sold by street vendors… who congregated outside churches,” she writes.
As cooks began to have access to different ingredients during and after the Crusades, spices became part of the recipe and over time the oublie or wafer became a delicacy called a gaufre or wafel. Dutch waffle-makers started using rectangular plates rather than circular around the 15th century, Wells writes.
Historic wafering iron designs indicate that, like today, the irons could be given as wedding gifts. They were personalized with heraldic crests and symbols or pictures of animals. Wafering irons, in both square and round designs, crop up in art, like this sketch by Hieronymous Bosch.
The waffle has gone in many different directions since the days of oublies, according to the Smithsonian Libraries blog. Take the Dutch stroopwafel–”literally ‘syrup waffle’: syrup sandwiched between two thin wafers,” writes the library. Then there are heart-shaped Scandinavian waffles and Hong Kong’s “grid cakes.” And there’s the quintessential American waffle, made in an iron that’s the electric version of the one patented by New York State’s Cornelius Swarthout in 1869.