WAFFLES Winter's perfect warm-up

Sweet or savory, the crunchy goodness of waffles is always welcome.
Who among us is so far removed from childhood that we don't consider waffles a special treat?
Not me, that's for sure.
Waffles are a good thing to think of this time of year, when palates jaded from holiday excesses are pining for a little surprise.
I've long felt that brunch is one of the best and most overlooked meals. A fancy brunch accompanied by sparkling flutes of champagne seems to me far more sophisticated -- not to mention easier to accomplish -- than an elaborate dinner or cocktail canape spread.
And waffles are just as easily adaptable to a late supper as to a morning brunch.
Remember, waffles don't have to be sweet; almost any waffle recipe can be nudged to the savory side simply by eliminating the sugar. Crisply browned waffles make great bases for all kinds of toppings, from creamed chicken to chili.
If you're pondering a theme or menu for an upcoming get-together, consider a waffle bar. Unearth that waffle iron from the back of the cupboard and borrow a couple more from friends. Create waffle stations for guests to make their own (or draft the kids into acting as waffle chefs). Set the waffle stations up on a sideboard or buffet or, more casually, on your kitchen counters.
Provide a big bowl of a different batter and a ladle at each station, and allow guests to customize their waffles from small dishes, cups or even martini glasses holding add-ins such as fruit or nuts.
Center the dining table with a cluster of pitchers holding syrups and honeys, whipped cream or yogurt -- even chocolate or other dessert sauces -- so diners can drizzle and dollop to their tastes. For cornmeal waffles, add sour cream and salsas to the table.
If you want your waffle supper to be on the heartier side, offer savory waffles and fill a slow cooker, a chafing dish or even that long-idle fondue pot with your choice of toppings -- meats or vegetables in cream or cheese sauces; chilis or other stews; savory hashes made from smoked turkey or ham. And don't forget that midnight-meal combo popular at African-American diners in Harlem and on the West Coast: fried chicken and waffles.
For a really elegant supper, consider cooking up crisp brown waffles laced with finely chopped smoked salmon, red onion and feathery dill, topped with sour cream or creme fraiche and crowned with caviar or salmon roe. Break out the champagne flutes for this one.
Intrigued? Consider the following suggestions, logistics, tips and recipes for constructing a successful waffle party.
Even if you haven't used your waffle iron for years, odds are it still works; waffle irons generally have long lives. Clean it up and wipe the grids clean with a cloth dampened with hot water. Give it a test run before the party so you'll be familiar with its idiosyncrasies and how quickly it cooks.
There are many waffle irons on the market, starting as low as $10, and striking vintage irons can often be found cheaply. Heavier is usually better; most of the experts rate the sturdy, compact irons by Vitantonio as superior.
If you're employing several wafflers, space your stations far enough apart that your guests can maintain a good traffic flow -- and that the waffle irons aren't all plugged into the same electric circuit. Make sure vulnerable surfaces are protected from heat. There will be drips from the batter bowl and ladle, so provide a tray to catch them and a napkin or cloth for wiping. Be sure to provide utensils for removing the cooked waffles from the iron and transferring them to plates; a fork and spatula at each station should do the trick.
You're limited here only by your imagination and what your grocery store stocks, but these suggestions should get you started.
For sweet waffles: blueberries or sliced strawberries; finely chopped apples, pineapple, pecans or other nuts; dried cranberries or other dried fruit (if the fruit seems too hard, plump it in a bit of hot water and then drain); shredded coconut; chocolate or butterscotch chips.
Felicitous additions to gingerbread waffles would be finely chopped crystallized ginger; grated lemon or orange zest (use a light hand in adding these); fresh or dried pineapple; almonds or walnuts; raisins, sultanas or dried currants.
Cornmeal waffles would take well to corn kernels; chopped red, yellow and orange bell peppers; chopped hot peppers, such as green chiles or jalapenos; grated Cheddar; bits of ham, Cajun tasso or partially cooked bacon. My beloved Bobbs-Merrill '60s edition of "Joy of Cooking" even suggests placing thin slices of uncooked bacon directly on top of the waffle before you close the lid; the heat of the waffle iron cooks the bacon.
Other savory add-ins might include shredded vegetables such as zucchini or carrot, thinly sliced or chopped mushrooms (try cremini or shiitake for more flavor), chopped green onions or chives. Judiciously add fresh herbs such as thyme, parsley, rosemary or even basil to the batter, or let your guests do the sprinkling. I'd avoid dried herbs, though, as they may lend too overpowering a flavor.
There's a plethora of flavored and infused syrups on the market, and sorghum and honey have their charms, but for my money (and you will have to shell some out), nothing beats pure maple syrup. The less expensive Grade A medium- or dark-amber syrup has a deeper maple flavor than the Grade A light or fancy.
Waffles lose their heat quickly, so for optimum melting, don't top them with butter that's just out of the fridge; soften or melt your butter first. Warm your syrup, too, by setting the bottle, can or jug in a pan or bowl of very hot water for several minutes. Whipping softened butter with warm maple syrup, honey or sorghum is an appealing option.
Marmalades or jellies can be melted over very low heat and made into thick syrups with the addition of a little fruit juice (if you use a tart juice, you may wish to add a little corn syrup or honey; taste first). Try topping cornmeal pancakes with a syrup made from hot pepper jelly (look for one that's red instead of green for better visual appeal) melted with a little grapefruit, lime or orange juice.
Other ideas: whipped cream, straight or blended with fruit; lemon, lime or orange curd; applesauce (particularly good on gingerbread waffles) or other fruit compotes; blends of cream cheese or mascarpone cheese with sour cream or yogurt, and fruit or jams or preserves. A shaker of confectioners' sugar is a nice addition to the table.
For heartier savory toppings, think Welsh rarebit or other cheesy sauces; creamed chicken, chipped beef, mushrooms, chicken livers, shrimp or other seafood; chilis or stews; variations on the popular hot spinach-and-artichoke-type dips -- the possibilities are legion.
Here are recipes for a classic buttermilk waffle, a super-crisp yeast-raised version, cornmeal waffles and spicy gingerbread waffles, along with a cheesy English-inspired sauce for savory waffles.
You can add a couple of tablespoons of cornmeal to this for extra crunch.
2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
11/3 teaspoons double-acting baking powder
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 eggs, separated
13/4 cups buttermilk
6 tablespoons ( 3/4 stick) melted butter
Sift flour, soda, baking powder, sugar and salt together.
In a separate bowl, beat the egg yolks until light; then add and beat together buttermilk and melted butter.
Combine the dry and the liquid ingredients with a few swift strokes.
Beat egg whites until stiff but not dry and fold gently into the batter.
Bake in a preheated waffle iron until brown and serve immediately.
Yields 6 waffles.
Nutritional analysis per serving: 313 calories, 14 grams fat, 38 grams carbohydrates, 9 grams protein, 96 milligrams cholesterol, 550 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber, 40 percent of calories from fat.
--"Joy of Cooking" by Irma S. Rombauer and Marion Rombauer Becker (Scribner, $30)
In her book "CookWise" (William Morrow, $30), the delightfully down-to-earth food scientist and cooking authority Shirley O. Corriher credits "the best waffles I have ever had" to Marion Cunningham.
Fragrant with yeast, these waffles come out of the iron amazingly crisp. Although the batter must be made the night before, it has the advantage over most other waffle batters of storing well in the refrigerator for several days (use a large container, because it will expand).
1 package (21/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast
1/2 cup warm water (115 degrees)
2 cups warm whole milk (115 degrees)
1/4 pound (1 stick) or less butter, melted
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups bleached all-purpose flour
2 large eggs
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
Sprinkle the yeast on the warm water in a very large mixing bowl and let stand for 5 minutes. Add the milk, butter, sugar, salt and flour and beat until smooth. (A hand beater does this well.) Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let stand overnight; if your house is no warmer than 70 degrees, you can leave it at room temperature; otherwise, refrigerate.
When you are ready to cook the waffles, preheat the waffle iron and beat in the eggs and baking soda. The batter will be very thin, and most waffle irons will need 1/2 to 3/4 cup batter. Bake in hot waffle iron until brown and serve immediately.
Yields 8 waffles.
Nutritional analysis per serving: 277 calories, 15 grams fat, 28 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams protein, 93 milligrams cholesterol, 470 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber, 49 percent of calories from fat.
-- "CookWise" by Shirley O. Corriher
2 eggs, slightly beaten
13/4 cups milk
1 cup cake flour or 7/8 cup all-purpose flour
21/2 teaspoons double-acting baking powder
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup stone-ground yellow cornmeal
5 tablespoons melted bacon fat or other shortening (butter is fine)
Combine the eggs and the milk.
In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt. Add the cornmeal. Combine the dry ingredients with the liquid in a few quick strokes. Blend in the bacon fat or butter. Bake in a preheated waffle iron until brown and serve immediately.
Nutritional analysis per serving: 315 calories, 14 grams fat, 38 grams carbohydrates, 8 grams protein, 79 milligrams cholesterol, 495 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber, 41 percent of calories from fat.
-- adapted from "Joy of Cooking"
For the sugar-and-spice set, this fragrant batter is darker and thicker than regular waffle batter, and the waffles don't cook up as crisp as other versions. Make them thin -- use a metal spatula to spread them gently over the grids -- and bake them to a very dark brown; don't take them out early or they will be limp.
4 tablespoons ( 1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon double-acting baking powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon ground ginger
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon dried mustard
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
3/4 cup firmly packed dark-brown sugar
11/2 cups buttermilk
1/4 cup unsulfured molasses
2 large eggs, separated
4 tablespoons ( 1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, spices and sugar to combine.
In another bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, molasses and egg yolks.
In a clean, dry bowl with a clean, dry beater, whip the egg whites until they hold firm peaks.
Blend the buttermilk mixture into the dry ingredients with a whisk, stirring just until the mixtures are combined. Stir in the melted butter; then gently fold in the egg whites.
Bake in a preheated waffle iron until very dark brown; serve immediately.
Makes 8 waffles.
Nutritional analysis per serving: 311 calories, 8 grams fat, 54 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams protein, 71 milligrams cholesterol, 449 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber, 22 percent of calories from fat.
-- adapted from "Waffles From Morning to Midnight" by Dorie Greenspan (William Morrow, 1993)
I'm always thrilled when I encounter savory waffles on the menu of a nondiner restaurant, but it rarely happens. One happy exception was the restaurants of St. Louis-based American regional cuisine advocate Richard Perry, who used to top herbed waffles with this cheesy sauce, or sometimes with creamed smoked chicken and morels, at his much-missed Richard Perry Restaurant in St. Louis and Cafe Deluxe in Cincinnati.
Perry adapted his recipe for Yorkshire buck, an English dish in the same family as Welsh rarebit, from Rex Stout's fictional detective Nero Wolfe, who ate it atop a split English muffin spread with Dijon mustard and topped with a poached egg and bacon. For brunch, Perry would sometimes make a similar construction with basil waffles, poached eggs and Canadian back bacon.
1 tablespoon butter
1 pound sharp Cheddar, grated
1 cup dark ale
1 egg
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon dry mustard
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 dashes Tabasco sauce
Melt the butter in the top of a double boiler. Add the cheese, and as it begins to melt, add the ale slowly, stirring constantly. Beat the egg and add along with the remaining ingredients. Continue to stir until the mixture is smooth. Keep the mixture hot.
If desired, fry slices of Canadian back bacon and poach eggs, making a "Benedict" with the waffle, eggs, bacon and Yorkshire buck sauce.
Serves 6 as a topping for waffles.
Nutritional analysis per serving: 351 calories, 28 grams fat, 3 grams carbohydrates, 20 grams protein, 116 milligrams cholesterol, 632 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber, 73 percent of calories from fat.
-- Richard Perry
Here's a really elegant topper for savory waffles that was sometimes on the menu at Richard Perry's restaurants. Perry used morel mushrooms, which are seasonal and wildly expensive, but we've adapted it withthe more easily found and more affordable shiitake, cremini or oyster mushrooms, or a mix of whatever "wild" mushrooms are available at the market. You can also use smoked turkey, or even ham, instead of smoked chicken.
1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup diced onion
2 tablespoons diced green pepper
1 tablespoon diced pimento
1 cup fresh wild mushrooms, sliced or roughly chopped
2 cups heavy cream
2 tablespoons dry sherry
1 cup diced smoked chicken
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
Melt the butter over medium heat in a skillet or saute pan; add the onion, green pepper and pimento and saute until soft; add the mushrooms and cook lightly.
Add the heavy cream and sherry; reduce until thick. Lightly stir in the smoked chicken; season with salt and pepper.
Serves 8.
Nutritional analysis per serving: 328 calories, 32 grams fat, 3 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams protein, 118 milligrams cholesterol, 235 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber, 88 percent of calories from fat.
-- adapted from Richard Perry

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