In Medieval France, wafers were known as oublies (from the Greek obelios – meaning a flat cake cooked between metal plates). The wafer makers (or oubloyeurs) would often slip five of these oublies together and sell them as a tidy bundle.
Over time, wafer batter became thinner, producing an airy, lightweight cookie that was rolled into a cylindrical shape by curling around a wooden rod or rolling pin while still warm. Once cooled it was like a petite, crispy-textured crepe or cannoli. In the nineteenth century it became popular to serve these feather-like delicacies alongside cool, creamy ice cream and rich puddings. A prime example of this typical pairing can be seen on James Parkinson’s Thousand Dollar Dinner menu in 1851. Wafers a la Francaise (French wafers) were included as part of the pastry course at this seventeen-course feast. Their crunchy texture perfectly complemented the velvety coconut pudding, lemon pudding, blanc mange and Italian cream also served in this course.
The wafers served by Parkinson were likely very similar to those featured in The Complete Confectioner, the cookbook published by his mother Eleanor in 1844. The ingredient list for Eleanor's wafers is short and sweet: basically just flour, sugar, butter, milk, egg and orange-flower water, which gives the wafers a light, delicate taste. No need for leavening since they were not expected to rise. It is interesting that she mentions that the batter could be tinted, as I didn’t see that in any other period recipes. In the 19th century, natural colorants were obtained from plants and spices such as saffron and marigold (to make yellow), spinach and raw coffee grains (to make green), and the dried, pulverized bodies of an insect called the cochineal (to make red).
Eleanor’s recipe is as follows:
“Wafers.—four ounces of sugar, four ounces of butter, eight ounces of flour, the yolk or white of one egg, and half a tea-cupful of milk or water. Melt the butter in the water; mix the egg, sugar and flour together, adding, by degrees, the melted butter and water; or, instead of the butter, it may be made into a thin batter with cream, and a little orange-flower water, or any other essence, to flavour it. The mixture may be coloured. Make the wafer-tongs hot over the hole of a stove or clear fire. Rub the inside surfaces with butter or oil, put in a spoonful of the batter, and close the tongs immediately; put them on the fire, turning them occasionally until the wafer is done, which a little practice will soon enable you to ascertain; roll the wafers on a small round stick, stand them on their ends in a sieve, and put them in the stove to dry; serve them with ices.”
I adapted her recipe to modern specifications, swapping the wafer iron for parchment lined cookie sheets.
- 8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter
- ½ cup milk
- 2 egg whites
- ½ cup sugar
- 1 cup flour
- 1 tablespoon orange-flower water (or rose-water, lemon essence or vanilla)
Heat oven to 350 F and line cookie sheets with parchment paper. Set aside. Have ready some rolling pins, bottles or thin glasses (I used champagne flutes). Melt the butter and combine with the milk. Whisk the egg whites until frothy and then stir in the sugar and flour until well mixed. Add the butter/milk mixture a little at a time, and then stir in the orange-flower water. The batter should be thin, like a crepe - if it seems too thick, add a little more milk to thin it out. Drop tablespoons of the batter one at a time onto the paper-lined baking sheets. Spread each portion with a spoon or tip of a knife to a diameter of about three inches. Bake for 10- 12 minutes until cookies begin to brown around the edges, rotating once during baking. While still warm, carefully remove from the baking sheet and drape over the rolling pin, bottles or glasses so that they curve around the container, creating a rolled shape. When cool, transfer the rolled wafers to a wire rack to harden completely. Serve with ice cream or pudding.
Today French wafers are also called tuiles (the French word for tile), named after the curved roof tiles that top picturesque homes throughout the French countryside. I tried a recipe for almond tuiles from the Joy of Cooking: All About Cookies by Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker, Ethan Becker (see photo below). Here's a link to the recipe courtesy of fellow blogger The Bumbling Chef - delicious!