When I go to the Grand Century Mall, the sweet, coconut-ty fragrance of baking waffles often beckons me to the bakery at the front of the shopping center, located at Story and McLaughlin, the heart of the Vietnamese-American community in San Jose, California. A young woman usually stands by the electric Belgian waffle iron and quietly pours the batter in, waits for them to cook and then gracefully lifts them out of the iron. They briefly cool and then are sold to some lucky patron eagerly standing by.
Unlike American waffles, Vietnamese waffles are not eaten with syrup. (Where would you find maple syrup in Vietnam?(!)) Rather, they're enjoyed out of hand like a large, lightly sweet cookie that's crisp on the outside and tender on the inside. You could say that Vietnamese waffles are more like thick versions of Italian pizzelle cookies, which thin and crisp. However, pizzelle-like cookies are also made in Vietnam, so maybe it's better to just give these waffles their own separate category.
Note that in the U.S., electric waffle irons are used whereas in Vietnam, street vendors employ hand-held cast iron molds that cook over a charcoal brazier. The vendors sit on a small stool on the sidewalk and make up their treat.
I never thought of making Vietnamese waffles at home until Jason emailed asking for a recipe. This led to a small binge (are there such things as 'small' binges?) of waffle making and eating in the past few days. I fed them to unsuspecting dinner guests for dessert and my husband and I snacked on them too. There were lots leftover -- it's hard for me to throw away food, even batches that don't work out -- so I froze them for a Vietnamese version of "L'eggo my Eggo." (That's a phrase from old Eggo waffle commercials!)
Through several trials, I discovered that whipping up the egg white, which is easiest and fastest with a hand-held electric mixer, yields a thick batter and lighter texture. For a leavening, either baking soda and cream of tartar or baking powder may be used. Some people argue that the soda and cream of tartar yield a crispier texture, but I'm on the fence on that one. The reheat perfectly and actually crisp even more.
Makes 3 or 4, depending on size of waffle iron
1 scant cup bleached, all-purpose flour
7 to 8 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch
Scant ½ teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda plus 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar, or 1 teaspoon baking powder
1 egg, separated
1 cup coconut milk, Chaokoh or Mae Ploy brand preferred
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla or pandan (la dua) extract
1. Heat the waffle iron and have an electric mixer handy. In a bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, cornstarch, salt, soda and cream of tartar (or baking powder). Use the whisk to combine the egg yolk, coconut milk, butter, and extract of choice.
2. Add the liquid ingredients to the dry ingredients and use a rubber spatula to gently stir. Switch to a folding motion toward the end to incorporate all the flour. If the resulting batter looks lumpy, that's okay. Expect the batter to be thick. Avoid over-stirring, lest the batter becomes over worked and yields a chewy, tough waffle. Set aside momentarily
3. Use the electric mixer to beat the egg white for about 1 minute, or until it holds a 1 ½-inch peak. (See photo.) It will look solid white. Use the rubber spatula to gently fold in the egg white.
4. Spread a decent amount of batter onto the waffle iron, stopping short of the far outer edges since the batter will spread once the top is lowered. (I often don't fill up all the holes and let gravity distribute the waffle.) Cook the waffle until golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Darker waffles will be crisper (and stay crisper) than lighter ones. Aim for medium-brown, not light tan.
5. To remove the waffle, I use a pair of bamboo chopsticks to pry and lift the waffle from the iron. Place the waffle (which will be slightly soft) onto a cooling rack, where it will crisp up. Break up the waffle and enjoy warm. They'll soften as they sit but may be reheated to a crisp in the toaster oven.
Note: These waffles may be cooked beforehand, store in a plastic zip-top bag, and reheated in at 350F toaster oven until warm and crisp. They freeze well too.