Here in the exhibition kitchen at the Taste of Belgium, Jean-François Flechet’s restaurant located in Over the Rhine, the historic German neighborhood of downtown Cincinnati, kitchen staff pour thin batter over crepe makers. The delicate crepes are then filled with an exotic (to a non-Belgium like me anyway) selection of fillings including roasted peppers, onions, Provolone and goetta, an oats, beef, pork and spice concoction which has a rather ominous beginning (more about that later) as well as a delicious mixture of lavender sugar and lemon.
While crepe batter sizzles, the thick dough used to make the sweet and dense Liège waffles the restaurant is best known for is added to 60 pound waffle makers designed by Jean-François for this exact job. Unlike the pancake like American waffles, these are thick and when Jean-François hands me one, I eat it like a donut, enjoying its vanilla flavor enhanced by the caramelized sugar coating. Besides the three waffle makers, all of which are in operation, stacks of waffles are wrapped in cellophane waiting to be sold. But order them here and you choose a topping – Ohio maple syrup with hot sauce and a spicy chicken cutlet in homage to the chicken and waffle dish said to have originated for late nighters wanting dinner and breakfast as well as one with Nutella with sliced bananas.
But waffles and crepes aren’t all that’s on the menu Jean-François’s charming restaurant housed in two renovated and joined Victorian era buildings dating back to 1870. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, offerings also include Boulets Liégeois (meat balls), Fondu Parmesan, Moules Frites (mussels and fries), Filet Américain (steak tartare) and Carbonnades - a six hour stew of beef braised in Belgium beer.
Jean-François, who grew up near Liège, Belgium, didn’t come to America to make waffles. Instead, a decade ago he was at the University of Pennsylvania working on a PhD in economic s and then moved to Cincinnati to work for a market research company. A trip home and the smell of Liège waffles led him on the road to reproduce these wonderful concoctions in Cincinnati. He first started selling them at the Findlay Market, the venerable year round market that first opened in 1855, and is just a few blocks away from his restaurant.
“Crowds would line up for over an hour to buy his waffles,” my friend Ali Hobbs tells me. And so before long, Jean-François had set up another stand at the Hyde Park Farmers Market before opening Taste of Belgium a few years ago.
As for goetta (pronounced get-uh), local lore has it that back in the days when Cincinnati was a big slaughter house center, after a day of butchering workers would strew oats on the animal remains before sweeping them up. Someone got the idea of cooking the oaks and meat rather than throwing it away, thus creating goetta, sometimes referred to as Cincinnati caviar. Whether the story is true or not, goetta, often compared to scrapple, is definitely a local favorite and even has its own festival, the annual Goettafest.
Today the goetta eaten around the world doesn’t come from the slaughterhouse floor but instead from Glier's Goetta, a third generation family owned business and the largest producer of goetta in the world (they sell about a million pounds of the stuff annually). The company, housed in a history 1880 building is located in Covington, Kentucky, just across the Ohio River and part of the Greater Cincinnati Area.
1 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/4 cup scalded whole milk at 110-115 degrees
2 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons of water at 110-115 degrees
2 cups King Arthur Bread flour
1 large room temperature egg, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon light brown sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
8 1/2 tablespoons soft room temperature unsalted butter
1 tablespoon honey
2 teaspoons vanilla
3/4 cup Belgian Pearl Sugar
Place yeast, milk, and water into the work bowl of a stand mixer. Stir for a few seconds to moisten the yeast. Add the egg and 1/3 of the total flour. Mix to blend. Scrape down sides of bowl.
Sprinkle remaining flour over the mixture, but do not stir it in. Cover and let stand 75-90 minutes (at the end of that time, you’ll notice the batter bubbling up through the cover of flour).
Add brown sugar and salt to the work bowl of a stand mixer. Mix on low speed – just to blend.
With machine on low, add honey and vanilla. Then add 2 tablespoons of butter at a time. Mix 4 minutes at medium-low speed; scrape down sides once or twice in that period. Let the dough rest for 1 minute and then continue to mix for 2 minutes. If you measured your ingredients perfectly, the dough will be sticking to the sides of the bowl in the last minute of mixing and then, in the last 30 seconds of so, will start to ball-up on the paddle. If this does not happen, let the dough rest for 1 more minute and mix for another 2 minutes.
Scrape the dough into a large bowl, sprinkle lightly with flour, cover with plastic wrap and let rise at room temperature for 4 hours. This step is crucial for developing the flavor.
Refrigerate for 30 minutes. This is essential. The yeast respiration must be slowed before continuing. Stir the dough down (meaning: gently deflate the gases from the dough, by pressing on it with a rubber spatula), scrape it onto a piece of plastic wrap, and then use the spatula to press the dough into a long rectangle. Fold that rectangle over on itself (by thirds – like a letter) so that you have a square of dough. Wrap it in plastic, weigh it down a bit and refrigerate overnight.
The next day, place the cold dough (it will be quite firm) in a large bowl and add all of the pearl sugar to a bowl. It will seem like a lot of sugar, but it’s supposed to be :) Mix it into the dough by hand until the chunks are evenly distributed. Once mixed, divide the dough into 5 pieces of equal size.
Shape each chunk into an oval ball and let it rise, covered loosely in plastic wrap for exactly 90 minutes.
If you have a professional waffle iron – one that’s cast iron and weighs over 20 pounds -- cook at exactly 365-370°F. (the maximum temperature before sugar begins to burn/) for approximately 2 minutes. Give each waffle a few minutes to cool slightly before eating. No syrup or toppings are needed, unless you’d like to add some fruit or a dusting of powdered sugar; they’re quite sweet on their own.
For those with a regular waffle iron, heat to 420°F., place the dough on the iron, and immediately unplug it or turn the temp dial all the way down. Otherwise, the sugar will burn.