Your Breakfast, My Liege...

For as long as I can remember, I have loved learning about other places and cultures. When I was little, I was obsessed with ancient Egypt and its pharaohs, mummies, and pyramids, and I would beg my mom to take me to the Field Museum to see their interactive Egypt exhibit. Later, I developed an interest in French Impressionist art, and took my first trip abroad with my dad, to Paris, and have been exploring the treasures of Europe ever since. Today, since my finances keep me from traveling as much as I would like, I satisfy my wanderlust with a combination of watching travel programs on television, and trying exotic foods.

Some time ago, I was watching a show about Belgium, and while I can't remember if it was Rick Steves or Samantha Brown, the thing that stood out the most about the episode were the unusual waffles available in the city of Liège. Unlike regular waffles which are made from a thin batter, these featured a thick, yeasted dough, studded with "pearl sugar," or irregular chunks of sugar that haven't been broken into fine granules. When placed on a searing hot griddle, the chunks of sugar melt and turn into caramel, creating both pockets of caramel and a thin, crispy coating of caramelized sugar on the surface of the waffle. Given how much I love caramel, I knew that someday I had to sample one for myself.

At first, I dreamed of visiting Belgium and munching on a piping hot waffle as I strolled the streets of Liège, but as time wore on, the thought of getting to try the real McCoy became an increasingly remote possibility. I considered the idea of trying to replicate them at home, but I didn't have a waffle iron, and the only place I could find pearl sugar was the internet -- two formidable obstacles. One day, however, when I was browsing the tempting wares at Fox & Obel, my favorite gourmet shop, I happened to observe that they carried pearl sugar. Suddenly, I was one step closer, but I was still missing that waffle iron.

When Justin and I decided to move in together, one of the first purchases I made was a new waffle iron, since I had such fond memories of making waffles together when we'd been able to borrow one of our families' devices. Then, when I was pouring over all my years' worth of cooking magazines to clip the interesting recipes in preparation for our move, I just so happened to come across a recipe in Food and Wine for Liège waffles. Surely, it had to be a sign.

Last week, when we went to Fox & Obel to use up our Groupon, I picked up a box of pearl sugar, and this morning, I finally made my dream of Liège-style waffles come true. The waffles were everything I had hoped they would be, from the overtones of caramel, to the shattering crispness of a candy-coated waffle. The dough was sweet and the yeast gave it an excellent, complex flavor. I was in heaven -- until we went to wash the waffle iron.

Since our model doesn't have removable plates, we can't soak the machine in order to clean it, and it was completely caked in baked-on caramelized sugar. We tried pouring oil on it and letting it sit, as per the cleaning instructions that came with it, but all we ended up with was oil all over the counter and the waffle maker, in addition to all the burnt sugar. We tried wiping it with a rag, but the iron's ridges were too deep and narrow to really get our fingers in them. We tried Q-Tips, but they kept breaking and bending under the pressure needed to scrub the sugar off. Finally, after taking many frustrated breaks, I came up with the idea of wrapping a chopstick in a paper towel (to prevent scratching), and using that to chisel off the sugar. It worked like a charm, though it still took a long time to get the infernal device clean.

I was happy to satisfy my curiosity about Liège waffles, but if I ever want them again, I'll have to travel to Belgium for them. Nearly ruining a brand-new waffle iron was enough to dissuade me from ever tackling this recipe again. They were delicious, and I'm happy that I got to have the experience making them, but in the end, they weren't worth all the hours of frustration.

Liège Waffles
adapted from Food and Wine

1 1/2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 3/4 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/3 c. lukewarm water
2 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 c. unsalted butter, melted
1 c. Belgian pearl sugar

1. In a small bowl, whisk the brown sugar and yeast into the lukewarm water and let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes. In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle, mix the flour with the salt. Make a well in the center of the bowl and pour in the yeast mixture. Mix at medium speed until shaggy, about 1 minute. Add the eggs one at a time, mixing for 20 seconds between each. Whisk the vanilla with the 1 cup of melted butter. With the mixer at medium-low, gradually mix in the butter until smooth; the batter will be thick and very sticky. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the batter rise in the refrigerator overnight.
2. Stir the pearl sugar into the risen batter. Cover again and let rest for 15 minutes.
3. Preheat a Belgian waffle iron and spray it with Pam. Gently stir the batter to deflate. Using about 2 tablespoons of batter for each, cook the waffles according to the manufacturer's directions until they are golden and crisp; spray with more Pam as needed. Serve warm.

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