Waffles and gnocchi

(A version of material posted to the newsgroup soc.motss in June 1997. Memories of both Ann and Jacques, and food.)

Not longer after Jacques became part of the household, many years ago, he discerned a serious gap in its furnishings. We lacked a waffle iron.

(This was not an accident. Both Ann Daingerfield and I had had run-ins with waffle irons over the years; they stuck, and the waffles pulled apart or burned. So we assigned waffles to the list of things better bought in a restaurant — like bagels and proper French bread and Peking duck [or, for that matter, sweetbreads and fresh pasta and squid and ice cream, which we might want to make on our own every so often, but not as a regular thing] — and so had no use for a waffle iron. A tortilla press, yes, but not a waffle iron.)

But, Jacques objected, his mother made marvelous waffles. And she had two waffle irons, one at home (Mt. Bethel PA), another at the family’s summer place (Bucks Harbor ME). Ann D. and I rolled our eyes up at one another; oh, god, please don’t let us get caught up in Trying to Reproduce His Mama’s Fabulous Recipe, a losing enterprise if there ever was one.

(Despite the best of will on both sides, she’d been through this with me. Well, in my case it was Grandma’s Fabulous Recipe; my mother cooked plain, uninspired food, and as soon as I could I started taking over some of the cooking, but my mother’s mother had a number of specialties, most of them Pennsylvania Dutch things my mother never tried to learn to cook [because they were from down on the farm].  I never asked for them, but Ann thought she ought to try. Actually, we shared the cooking, but  Ann still felt the failures were hers.

And failures they were — the runny shoo-fly pie, the milk pie that never finished setting in the slow oven, but just kept creating a large milky bubble that would slowly slowly get larger and larger, until eventually it popped and a successor bubble began forming — except for the dumplings. My grandmother admitted to Ann that years before she’d stopped making dumplings from scratch but just used Bisquick. This was a bit of a blow, but they certainly were easy to make, and the result was just as I remembered. Elizabeth liked them too. But Ann announced that if these were the way dumplings were supposed to be, she just didn’t get dumplings, and the hell with them.)

Jacques bided his time. He scouted out garage sales and auctions in the area, finding various small treasures in the process. Eventually, inevitably, a waffle iron turned up, and he bagged it and proudly brought it home. Ann and I were cornered.

We tried to make good waffles. We really did. But they stuck. And pulled apart. And burnt.

Defeated, we put the waffle iron in the basement, along with rarely used items and the downwardly mobile — things that were allowed some decent interval of obsolescence until they could be consigned to the Kidney Foundation or the Volunteers of America. By that time Ann had died. I waited until Jacques was away for the summer in Maine, and cleared things out. (J. has the greatest trouble getting rid of things, except by giving them to family or friends. He startled me a few years ago when, confronting a whole walk-in closet of clothes and camping equipment he was undoubtedly never going to use again — it is both a blessing and a curse of a large house that you can store a hell of a lot of stuff — he asked me, fervently, to burn all of his clothes when he died, he had piles of useless things.)

Last fall, housemate Ann Burlingham and J. and our ex-housemate Kim and I started having Sunday brunches. Originally, they were absurdly cross-cultural: culture-clash brunches. Huevos rancheros and fried green tomatoes, that sort of thing. This spring, after J. and I came back from our Californian winter stint, they became more mono-cultural (per brunch), the number of participants expanded, and to accommodate people’s schedules some of the Sunday brunches had to be rescheduled to other times (Saturday morning when Elizabeth was here, Saturday night, Monday night [on U.S. Memorial Day]).

And then J.’s parents came to visit, early in April. (They were coming to see J. after the Great Medical Disasters of the winter, to soothe him, to talk with me, to see if J. could in fact manage this summer in Maine.) J. asked me to ask them to bring a waffle iron (J.’s ability to function on a telephone is limited).  I relayed this to Monique, who said the waffle iron in Mt. Bethel was trash, worthless, only the one in Bucks Harbor was really workable. (Yes, the one in Mt. Bethel stuck!) But she promised to bring The Recipe along.

You see, these are not just ordinary waffles, but raised waffles. They take twelve hours to make, and they’re fluffy, not chewy.

From  Jacques’s viewpoint, his mother has five special recipes. Two of them — the apricot crisp cookies and the (yellow) fruitcake — are irrelevant to our story, because every time J. leaves Monique for our place, and every time she comes to our place, she supplies us with significant amounts of these two. Actually, J. adores the apricot crisp cookies, and who wouldn’t, but though he likes the fruitcake well enough it’s not  one of his special things.

That leaves the raised waffles, the bread (even J. realizes making bread is a hassle, so he hasn’t been pushing this one), and, oh my, the gnocchi — semolina gnocchi, not potato gnocchi.

(We go to one northern Italian restaurant after another, in search of true, as J. sees it, gnocchi. Gnocchi de maman. Fabulous places, many of them. but they make their gnocchi with potatoes. Not evil, but not right. Eventually Michael Berch, bless him, finds an Italian restaurant on the S.F. peninsula that sometimes has semolina gnocchi, and Elizabeth and Michael and I go with J., and yes, it’s the right kind of gnocchi. But Not As Good As My Mother Makes. So, with this history, I should want to make His Mother’s Waffles?)

Monique sends me all three recipes — the raised waffles, the bread, the semolina gnocchi (it begins to sound like a religious ceremony). Jacques knows that Monique has done this. He gets the paper out of the recipe box and studies it. He asks me why we can’t cook these things.

Meaning, why won’t I cook these things? This is easy. Because nothing I could do would reproduce your mother’s cooking. Even if it was molecularly indistinguishable from it. I know this, Ann B. knows this, Elizabeth knows this, for goodness sake Monique knows this.

Meanwhile, I’m having Friday lunches with Liz (one of the occasional participants in the Sunday brunches) and need someone to be with J., in case he hears voices, in case he needs help, so Kim — remember Kim? — offers to take J. out for a Thai lunch. After lunch, J. says conspiratorially to Kim that he wants to take her to K-Mart to buy her a waffle iron! Which he does, choosing the least expensive of the four available. Bemused, Kim takes the waffle iron home and calls the rest of us.

The next Sunday, J. is relentless about waffles. You would have thought that world peace depended upon waffles. We are all cornered. and agree to do a Waffle Brunch the next Sunday.

During this week, J. asks every twenty minutes of waking time (or so) about aspects of the waffle event.  Do we have the right kind of butter? Do we have the right kind of flour? Do we have yeast? Do we have enough milk? (J. asks this endlessly. I tell him that we have a whole, unopened, half gallon of milk, but he never gets it.)  He refuses to accept Pam as a lubricant for the waffle iron, because he believes that it’s made from animal fat (Kim is a mostly-vegetarian), and insists on the Crisco equivalent, which I get at the local grocery.

The night before, we are committed to going to a fifth-anniversary celebration of a couple of gay male friends, which means that I either have to do the yeast thing for the waffles before we go, like 6ish, or after we come back, like 11ish, so I opt for the former. J. is convinced that this will ruin the waffles, the batter should be done just twelve hours before, not more than that. I insist on making the batter before we go off to the party, and J. predicts the most dire consequences.

Ok, here’s the recipe, so you can appreciate what’s happening here.

Put in a large mixing bowl: 1/2 cup lukewarm water, 1 pkg yeast. Let stand 5 mins. Add: 2 cups lukewarm milk, 1/2 cup melted butter, 1 tsp salt, 1 tsp sugar. Beat in 2 cups (all-purpose) flour.

Cover the bowl. Let stand overnight or at least 8 hours. Before cooking add: 2 eggs (J. insists they must be well beaten, so I did that), pinch of baking soda.

The flour was one of the things J. worried about: did the recipe need special flour? special butter (Venezuelan beaver butter, say)? special eggs (from virgin eider ducks, say)? special milk (Patagonian sheep’s milk, say)?

[On egg-beating, John Gintell writes:

Try separating the eggs and beating the whites. It adds dramatically to the lightness of the batter. You have to be careful when you fold in the egg whites that they get done evenly since pockets of eggwhite aren’t very tasty, but you don’t want to do it vigorously or they collapse.

I reject this amendment, however friendly. I don’t think I’d want waffles any fluffier than these. Any fluffier and they’d start lifting up the top of the waffle iron, like a berserk foodstuff trying to escape into the kitchen.

Jacques and I disagree about many things, but on the question of whether Monique’s (or Harriet’s or whoever’s) raised waffle recipe is authoritative, we stand as one. (Well, actually like normal people we eat our waffles sitting down.)]

In any case, we are all seized by dread, by the idea that there is no way in the world that what we do is going to satisfy Jacques.

On the morning, Kim turns up with the waffle iron, a Teflon number that she has already seasoned according to its official instructions (and has indeed made some ordinary waffles on, just to be sure it works). We make waffles. Well, Kim makes waffles. The machine is inclined to have its READY button go off before the waffles are actually ready, so in the end Kim has to stand in the kitchen doorway to prevent J. from coming in and seeing the green light on the machine while it finishes making waffles.

[Jack Hamilton asks

Are there waffle machines with lights that really work? I’ve never encountered one. The lights seem to be a rough guide, at best.

I haven’t encountered one either. I wonder why they bother. This particular machine, being at the low end of the waffle iron line, doesn’t even have an on/off switch. You plug it in, it’s on. You unplug it, it’s off.

Alas, so far as J. is concerned, it makes only two waffles at a time. This means that J. gets to eat his first waffles before anyone else has any — he is, after all, the Waffle Boy — and that it’s a long time before the waffle cook gets any. Both things upset J. terribly. His ideal waffle iron would make a dozen at a time, so we could all enjoy our waffles in synch.

Dan Bidwa writes about waffle irons:

I don’t think it has anything to do with the low/high endiness of the waffle iron. My parents’ iron, which is at least as old as I am, has a dial to adjust the temperature (although, since there’s essentially only two useful positions, “on” and “waffle”, oh, and “off”, I don’t  know what the point is). The waffle irons Brian and I have (same Italian waffle iron, only one’s in chrome and one’s in black, and that’s what you get when you buy gifts for each other and then incorporate households) aren’t particularly cheap, but they don’t have any switches at all. They’re also the best waffle irons I’ve ever used, and two waffle irons does make multi-person wafflings much easier. Actually, I take that back: the best waffle iron I’ve ever had was this one that was made in (I’m guessing here) the 1940s or so — it looked like a UFO, had one big heating element on a pivot, and a door on each side of it, so you could pour one waffle, lock the lid down, flip the whole mess over, and pour another waffle on the other side. It was beautiful. It also turned itself into a heap of melted slag the first time I plugged it in, but that doesn’t detract from its title-holding status.]

[Jack Hamlton also asks:

whether the waffle iron you ultimately used makes Real American Waffles or those furrin things it pleases people to call Belgian waffles. I’m convinced that no one would eat them if weren’t for the air of European superiority conjured up by the name. The squares are too big to hold the proper amount of topping, and they expose too much of the waffle to air, allowing it to get cold faster.

RAWs, of course. With little depressions. Not that I have anything against Belgians. Some of my best friends are Belgians. Our housemate before Kim was/is Belgian.  Jacques’s nephew Tom is a resident alien in Brussels, which makes him sort of semi-Belgian.]

Back in the kitchen, I make dilled shrimp in cream sauce, for those who want something non-sweet on their waffles. It is absolutely delicious.

Later, this weekend (for a second round of waffles), I make saumon fromage. J. refuses all these marine possibilities and sticks to maple syrup. In fact, he refuses the maple syrup in Ann B.’s metal container, which he views as poison, but enjoys the maple syrup his parents brought us, which comes in a ceramic container (though both come from New York State).

Three small appendices to the tale of the waffles, each with a small sting in it.

First, it turns out that, according to J.’s mother, the recipe isn’t hers at all; it’s J.’s ex-wife’s. At first, J. refuses to believe this, but then he says that if it came from Harriet she got it out of a book. And then he goes back to thinking it’s his mother’s recipe. (Everyone tends to believe what they’d like to believe, but for Jacques this is a major strategy for living.)

Second, last Saturday night, the night before the second waffle-making, Jacques fussed at me: don’t make the batter so early this time, you’ll ruin it, the way you did before.

The way i did before? I shout, all unhinged.

Yes, he explains, the first waffles came apart into a top half and a bottom half, and that was because you made the batter too far in advance, even though I warned you about that.

Now, I swear, and so do Ann B. and Kim and Norma (somehow these brunches have turned into Two Gay Men and a Bunch of Hot Bi Babes), that those first waffles were flawless. but J. remembers them as wrecks — tasty wrecks, but wrecks nonetheless — undoubtedly because that’s what he expected (see first appendix, above). Sigh. But to placate him, I wait until 10 p.m. to make the batter — a double recipe, since a single recipe was just not enough last time.

Third, all through the first waffle brunch, J. interjected various odd and hard-to-interpret observations, like “they hammer a pipe in”. Well, all of his conversation is pretty much like this; it’s something of a game to figure out what he’s talking about and respond appropriately (Elizabeth calls this conversational handball). It almost never has anything to do with what other people are talking about; instead, it’s about what J. is thinking about, or it arises from one of his creative mis-hearings (which means that at root it’s about what he’s thinking about). In this case, it quickly became clear that everything he said had to do with maple syrup, which made the game of conversational handball ridiculously easy to play.

On the other hand, it made the course of the conversation very odd. The rest of us would be talking about ebonics or soc.motss or arugula or postcards or whatever, and J. would say something, and then we’d all talk about maple syrup briefly, then shift to some new topic or back to an old one, until J. spoke again and we had another maple syrup moment.

The outcome. The waffles did not stick. They did not spring out of the waffle iron like crazed creatures. They were fluffy and totally yummy.

Jacques pronounced them perfect. And wanted more when we finished up the one batch of batter (so we made him some ordinary, no-wait, waffles, which he ate but pronounced chewy and distinctly inferior to His Mother’s Fabulous Waffles as made by me and Kim).

Until a few weeks later, when, as I have already reported, he recollected the first waffles as pulling apart (though even then he had nothing but praise for their taste). But, basically, I consider myself to have gotten through a difficult ordeal unscathed.

I thought they were just marvelous myself.

Now to the gnocchi. The semolina gnocchi.

The waffle story connects to the gnocchi story via the fifth-anniversary celebration of our friends Tim and Greg (mentioned above). What Jacques and I took as a present for them was a copy of The Pasta Bible (by Christian Teubner, Silvio Rizzi, and Tan Lee Leng (very definitely multicultural), an extremely sensual book, with stunning photographs. (Kim says it is the first cookbook to turn her on; she kept giving little gasps of pleasure as she paged through our copy). And it has a two-page spread on, yes, semolina and polenta gnocchi (meaning semolina gnocchi and polenta gnocchi, not gnocchi made from semolina and polenta together).

Jacques kept our copy, open to these pages, on the dining room table for several days, re-read them frequently, and pointed them out to me hopefully every so often. I suppose he hoped that I was on a roll, that having agreed to make his mother’s (or whoever’s) fabulous raised waffles, I would move on to her gnocchi and her excellent bread. I thought he should have counted himself lucky that i was willing to risk even one of these.

In any case, PB gives two recipes: for polenta gnocchi with bacon and gorgonzola (which fascinates me, but is of no interest to Kim, who’s a vegetarian-though-marine-creatures-are-ok-but-bacon-is-right-out, or to Jacques, who’s not fond of blue cheeses) and for gnocchi alla romana, which is what caught J.’s eye. (PB gives the recipe using polenta, but says that these gnocchi are traditionally made with semolina, which can be substituted for the polenta. The polenta version of both recipes includes the ominous sentence “When the mixture begins to thicken into a smooth mass, the task becomes more arduous, since it will take about 20 minutes [during which the cook must stir constantly] for the polenta to cook.”)

For the gnocchi alla romana, you flatten the cooked [in salted water] polenta into a sheet about 3/8 inch thick (I would imagine that this translates some metric thickness in the Roman original), let it cool, cut ovals out of it with a cookie cutter, “layer the ovals in a buttered baking dish so that they overlap like roof tiles” (there are plenty of pictures, so that you can see just how far your version is from the one they’re trying to get you to do), sprinkle with a lot of grated parmesan cheese over them, pour herb butter on them, bake them in a 425-degree oven for 11 minutes (I can hear Jacques saying, “exactly 11 minutes — no more and no less!”), and brown them under the broiler.

Meanwhile, Monique and I have been corresponding, and she’s sent me her gnocchi recipe. Actually, to confuse things further, she’s sent me two gnocchi recipes, “gnocchis Italians” from Clementine [Paddleford] in the Kitchen (I assume the bizarre name is Clementine’s doing, not Monique’s) and something entitled “MST’s version”. Neither of them much resembles the PB gnocchi alla romana; they’re both richer and (I would imagine) better.

Now I’m going to post these recipes, in the hope that people out there will try them out and report back to me.  (Ok, it’s entirely possible that no one in soc.motss is anywhere near as fanatic about gnocchi as Jacques is. On the other hand, there are a lot of readers, a few of whom might have stuck it out this far into this posting.)

Clementine’s:

Cook 1 pound of italian semolina (or white corn meal [oh wow! white corn meal was a staple of Ann Daingerfield’s Kentucky cooking]) in 6 cups of liquid (half water, half milk, adding a little salt). When cooked remove from fire and add gradually 3 beaten eggs. Add about 1/2 cup grated parmesan or a little more Coon cheese and mix thoroughly. Spread this on a bread board in a layer about 1/2 inch thick [cf. 3/8 inch, above] and let cool. When cold and firm, cut in squares [cf. ovals, above]. Place these in a shallow baking dish [Clementine assumes you know enough to butter the baking dish first, and she gives you no guidance as to how to arrange the squares in the baking dish]. Dot with butter. Sprinkle with [more] grated cheese. Brown in oven [you’re supposed to be able to select the temperature and time on your own] and serve. If you prefer [I detect a slight sneer here] cover with a cream sauce containing grated cheese and brown.

[A digression on Clementine, with comments from Lee Rudolph.

Lee writes, “I am not sure how “[Paddleford]” got into this.”

Oi. The curse of memory. I have never owned a copy of CitK; Ann Daingerfield got copies out of various libraries (in Princeton, Cambridge, Urbana, Amherst, Chapel Hill, and Columbus) when she wanted to consult it. (No, I don’t know why we never bought one.) All I know about it is what Ann told me — or, actually, what I remember about what Ann told me. That’s where “Paddleford” came from. Maybe I’m conflating the Clementine of CitK with another Clementine, who was a food writer, like on the New York Times. I don’t know.  (inchoherent babbling noises)

Lee goes on:

By the last chapter of my copy of Clementine in the Kitchen by “Phineas Beck” (Samuel Chamberlain) (seventh printing, 1952), C. has married a French-Canadian housepainter named Armand (“Saying good-bye to Clèmentine was not easy for the Becks. We had hoped to lessen the ordeal by a mere gay handshake at the wedding, but Clèmentine, with her inborn French instinct for the fitting ceremony, had herself set the stage for the formal farewell.”) whose Acadian family name (not given) surely could not have been Paddleford. The spelling (if not, perhaps, the grammar?) of the name of the recipe, in the book, is orthodox French: “gnocchis italiens”.  (What are the French supposed by their authorities to do with imported words that have come pre-inflected in the style of their native languages? I seem to remember “les spaghettis”, too.)

Yes, les spaghettis. A bilingual double plural. Whoopee!

“Gnocchis italiens” I would have understood, even though it has some entertainment value. Probably, Monique was suffering from English interference in her French-adapted Italian. (By the way, they all speak Italian too, thanks to the year J.’s dad had a Fulbright in Italy.)]

Monique’s version:

2 cups milk, 2 cups flour [presumably semolina], 1/2 pound grated cheese (Swiss, parmesan, etc.), 1/2 cup butter, 2 or 3 eggs [notice how relaxed this recipe is]. Melt butter in boiling milk. Proceed as in pâte à choux i.e. drop in the flour stirring vigorously. When mixture make[s] a ball, remove from fire. Add 3/4 grated cheese. When cool add eggs [presumably beating them first]. Let dough rest for ca. 6 hrs. then roll out into “loaves” about 1 in. wide and 3/4 in. high [the PB bacon-gorgonzola recipe has you shape the dough into smooth loaf-like ovals in a moistened palm]. Poach in boiling water. Bake in buttered baking dish with more grated cheese or white sauce…til brown.

I never did attempt this for Jacques. He went to Maine that summer (1997), and the next (though that was, in retrospect, a mistake). He came back from Maine to California (not Ohio) in 1998 and went into the dementia care facility not long after he got to Palo Alto.

5 Responses to “Waffles and gnocchi”

  1. France Says:

    In Italy, by gnocchi we mean potato gnocchi, unless otherwise specified. If prepared with anything else, they are called gnocchi di X. Semolina gnocchi are called gnocchi di semolino in Rome and gnocchi alla romana elsewhere. We don’t say polenta gnocchi but gnocchi di farina gialla (“made with corn meal”).

  2. Frank Butterfield Says:

    This post is astonishing, baffling, provoking, and thoroughly endearing. Thank you!

  3. St. Pancake’s Day « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] (Antic posting on waffles and waffle irons, not to mention gnocchi, here.) […]

  4. Old recipes III: milk pie « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] memory of milk pie from an earlier posting: … my mother cooked plain, uninspired food, and as soon as I could I started taking over some […]

  5. Chicken and waffles | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] on veal or chicken velouté). And quite a few types of seafood. In the waffle adventures reported here, I made both dilled shrimp in cream sauce and some variant of saumon fromage (which is, […]

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