I want to talk today about wafer paper. Wafer paper is ‘a preparation of paste in thin sheets, used in cookery and pharmacy’ (OED.) To get the pharmaceutical use out of the way first, so we can focus on cooking wafer paper was apparently used to wrap nausea-inducing medicines in order to assist their ingestion.
The usual use of wafer paper today is in the form of thin translucent sheets of rice starch which dissolve almost instantly on the tongue. It has been used since at least the early eighteenth century to line the tins on which macarons are baked, thus sticking to their sugary little bottoms and adding an interesting texture to the eating experience. Another form – slightly thicker and more like very thin noodles in texture - is used to make the well-known and delicious rice paper rolls of Vietnam.
I have written about wafer paper in two previous posts. The first was about a ‘new’ fad in London in 1906 of providing dinner guests with an edible bill of fare. The second showed that the concept was in fact not new at all and had been used to great effect over half a century before, by the famous Victorian chef Alexis Soyer. In 1846 Soyer greatly impressed the visiting Pasha of Egypt with an elegant Pineapple Cream decorated with his (the Pasha’s) ‘edible portrait’ painted on wafer paper. The dish was a sensation at an already magnificent over-the-top catering event.
There is always something new to discover about even the most unpromising topics. I was reminded of my previous posts when I happened across the instructions for making wafer paper (from fine wheat flour) in a domestic encyclopaedia, and thought I would share it with you.
Wafers. (In cookery.)
Prep. Make fine flour, dried and sifted, into a smooth thin batter with good milk, or a little cream and water; add about as much white wine as will make it thick enough for pancakes, sweeten it with a little loaf sugar, and flavour it with powdered cinnamon. When thus prepared, have the wafer-irons made ready, by being heated over a charcoal fire; rub them with a piece of linen cloth dipped in butter; then pour a spoonful of the batter upon them, and close them almost immediately; turn them upon the fire, and pare the edges with a knife, if any of the batter oozes out. A short time will bake them, when the irons are perfectly heated. The wafers must be curled round whilst warm when they are for ornaments. ‘Wafer paper’ is prepared in a similar way to the above; but when intended to be kept for some time, the milk must be omitted. Used by cooks, &c.; and, recently, as an envelope for nauseous medicines.
Cyclopaedia of Practical Receipts and Collateral Information (1872) by J. & A. Churchill.
Whether you choose to make your own edible paper, or would rather visit your nearest Asian grocery (the best source for rice paper), the following recipe sounds delicious.
Whisk up the whites of four eggs, and put in the yolks of three, with a quarter of a pound of powder sugar, whisk this together well, then put in as many almonds, cut very fine into strips, as will make it quite stiff, but let the almonds be very dry, then cover the plate, or wire, with wafer paper, and dress them in small heaps, as pointed as you can; take them in a slack oven; when coloured, they are done; take them out, and let them stand till cold, then trim the wafer paper round them, but let it remain at the bottom.
The Italian Confectioner: Or, Complete Economy of Desserts, ... (London, 1820)
by William Alexis Jarrin.