What Wafers?

ingredients laid out for lemon wafers

These are not vanilla wafers. These are not chocolate wafers. These are, I learned as I read the recipe, a different type of sweet. Might Dawson have been using an alternative definition? The Oxford English Dictionary defines wafers as we would today, describing them as “light, crisp cakes” or, in religious contexts, the Eucharistic host (Wafer, 1.a, 2). Dawson’s wafers lack a crucial wafer ingredient: flour. My sous chef and I forged ahead undaunted, but aware that making candy without a thermometer is challenging. More challenging still was our very un-English weather in North Carolina: 78 degrees, 84 percent humidity, and a falling barometer predicting rain. In short, not great candy making weather.

A few things caught my eye as I re-read: removing the wafers from paper using water, and the utter lack of any guidance in terms of the amount of sugar or lemon juice to be used. In the era of parchment paper, Silpats, and any number of nonstick sprays prying items off the pan is generally evidence of our own lack of preparation. For early cooks, however, options likely would have been more limited. Wetting the “rong side” of the paper to release something on its surface seemed like a practical trick that could be applied in other projects. I took the lack of guidelines for amounts as the chance to cook just using my eyes and the feel of the ingredients as we scooped and stirred.

The sugar left me with just a comparison for guidance- “the thickness of hunny.” In the first attempt, I imagined this as runny honey: my first mistake. The ratio of liquid to sugar was far too high. I cooked the juice of a lemon with sugar combined to the “runny honey” consistency in a small, non-stick pan over medium heat on an electric stove. Since I didn’t consider that this might be referring to a butter mint-style candy wafer, I skipped immediately to candy cooked to the hard ball (read: very clear and crisp) state. It is impossible to make this type of candy without boiling the mixture, so after a quick check of the OED to be sure I wasn’t missing some past definition of boil, I chose to ignore that direction. Perhaps she meant not to let it scorch?

This first attempt was a failure, as with the low amount of sugar, the mixture was a thick syrup and would not harden.

Effort two used the same mix but with longer cooking, this time in a metal spoon over the heat (I took Dawson rather literally here, to my peril!). No crisping and still a syrupy mess.

I decided to massively increase the sugar to more of a crystalized honey texture.

Bingo. The third wafer, also made in the spoon, took on some color and had a toffee-like consistency on the paper. Progress. For the next one, I let it go much longer, taking on a distinct golden color. My hope was to judge it to be at the hard ball stage. It’s possible to do this by putting a bit of the mix into cold water to see if a firm ball forms, but I got a bit distracted at this stage and forgot to check. Instead, knowing it takes a while to reach the appropriate temperature, I just let it boil significantly longer, to good effect. The third wafer was truly a crisp caramel sheet, which could be bent and its paper support pinned to give it a curve. This fourth wafer was so nicely crystalized that it slipped rather easily off the parchment lining, though I did paint some water on the back to help it along. This strategy seems promising with sweet foods.

I’m struck, in retrospect, with how much making this recipe today relies on analogy. Because I didn’t have the wafer candy Lisa used as a referent, I ended up with only my knowledge of grain-based wafers to go on, which was completely unhelpful. Since so much is left to prior knowledge, finding the right contemporary model to bridge this lack of period knowledge was crucial. While what I made was edible, tasty even, I think I’d use Lisa’s technique were I to try them again!

A Look Back at Dawson

After a whirlwind of transcribing activity far faster than Florence, the Dawson has complete keyings and we are moving on. But as we leave Dawson for the moment, we wanted to share a video of unboxing the the manuscript in the Folger Library reading room. It’s a lovely, slim volume with several recipes marked with Jane’s name, plus a do-si-dos structure.