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Waffling Around: Behind the Counter at Bonte

Everything you ever wanted to know about Belgian waffles.

Summer Sundays beg for a leisurely late-morning brunch to be enjoyed outside, and serve me a mimosa, some breakfast meat and a fruit-topped waffle and I'll be your friend forever. With waffles on the mind, I made a trip to Bonte Wafflerie & Cafe in downtown South Orange to learn more about that lovable ridged breakfast treat.

According to Kate Habershon's book "Pancakes and Waffles," the word "waffle" comes from the French for honeycomb. “The style varied from region to region in France, from light and crisp, to heavy and buttery,” Habershon says. “But it is the Belgian version which is probably the most popular these days: with its crisp crust and silky interior, it is waffle perfection, and has found its way to all corners of the world.” About 16 months ago, with the opening of Bonte, South Orange became one of those corners.

Nutley residents Brian and Liz Boele knew they wanted to start their own business and were looking at different opportunities. Brian is a firefighter and Liz came from real estate, and when they came upon a classified in the Star-Ledger about the Bonte franchising opportunity, they knew they had found the perfect fit. They fell in love with the concept, surprised that the popular Belgian fast food—served from carts, stands and walk-up windows throughout the country—hadn't really taken off in the U.S.

Bonte, a small Philadelphia-based company, currently has three franchised locations and three corporate locations. When asked why they chose food service, Brian let out a hearty laugh and quipped, “Because my parents didn't warn me not to.”

Brian and Liz spent a year scouting locations and looked at places like Summit, but they were more interested in a town that was up-and-coming and on the rise. They knew a few people in South Orange and really liked the diversity, the mix of businesses downtown and the urban atmosphere. When they visited South Orange, they saw that Ambiance was moving and going under new ownership, so they walked in, asked if they had a new tenant for the space, found out they didn't, proposed the concept and drew up a lease. The rest, as they say, is history.

The waffle recipe that Bonte uses comes directly from a Belgian waffle street cart owner. It's all quite authentic—even the pearl sugar they use is imported from Belgium. The Boeles even took an exploratory trip to Belgium before the South Orange Bonte opened to experience Belgian waffles firsthand.

Interestingly, Belgian waffles differ greatly by region. Practically every town has their own way of making them, and Brussels waffles, for instance, are more batter than dough, tend not to be stuffed and are even made with a different kind of sugar. Bonte's Belgian sugar waffles are made specifically in the Liège style.

Bonte manager and barista Abi Mihel took me behind the counter. A Seton Hall graduate student who finished her program this month, Abi has been with Bonte since before it opened and formerly worked at the now-closed Goat Cafe across the street. She's a big fan of the waffles and doesn't think she could ever grow sick of them. With my jaw on the ground, I asked her how she stays so fit: “This job keeps me on my feet,” she said, grinning.

Much like bread baking, there's a bit of a difference making waffles commercially and at home, though there were certainly tips to glean. The big difference is that Bonte uses dough whereas most people would use batter at home.

When working with waffle dough, the heat of the iron is most important. The first thing Abi does when she opens the shop is turn the waffle irons on and get them preheated. The cast-iron equipment stays on throughout the day, maintaining the 200 degrees it takes to cook the dough through in two minutes. Bonte also stuffs the waffle dough with the add-ons of your choice, something that cannot be done with batter (except for folding in chocolate chips or the like).

Bonte makes two different kinds of waffles, a sweeter version most commonly ordered and a more savory, biscuit-like waffle that's used for breakfast sandwiches. Alas, I wasn't able to squeak out a dough recipe. Especially due to their franchising agreement, the recipe is proprietary and has to remain super-duper top secret. But I was able to pick up the techniques.

The process starts the day before, when the dough is made and allowed to rise. It sits in the fridge  overnight and is rolled into balls the next day. Beyond that prep, each waffle is made to order.

Customers have the choice of adding extras to the basic waffle, including white dark chocolate, dark chocolate, bananas, strawberries, blueberries, walnuts and my personal preference, pecans. Abi flattened out the dough slightly, forming a nest with a cavity in the center. In went the topping, and then the dough was rolled into a ball to disperse the ingredients. She then tossed it in the Belgian pearl sugar to give it an extra sweetness—but don't worry, you can feel free to order your waffle without the extra sugar if that's not your style. Then it goes into the waffle iron and comes out with a very professional-looking waffle fork. Finally, the iron is scraped clean; those sugar granules often escape and burn in the machine if they're not attacked vigilantly with the scraper.

The waffles end up golden on the outside, soft on the inside, denser and more flavorful than American waffles and with a natural sweetness to them. With such great flavor, I say you don't need the traditional coating of sugar, especially if you include fruit or chocolate, which will lend their own sweetness to the dish. As Abi says with a warm smile, the waffles end up “soft, crispy... and delicious.”

Interested in making your own? You should have no problem finding a basic waffle batter recipe in a book or on the Web if you choose not to go the dough route. I haven't found one yet that's particularly better than any others. You can then go sweeter with chocolate, roasted nuts, fruit, whipped cream or ice cream (yeah, Bonte does that too!), or go a bit more savory, topping the waffle with eggs, bacon, sausage, cheese or crème fraîche. You can take Bonte's lead and cut the waffle in half, turning it into the shell for a breakfast sandwich. And you can cook your waffles on an electric iron, though I prefer cast-iron ones. Keep an eye out at garage sales and you may score yourself a nice cheap one.

Mostly, though, I really like stove-top irons. Aside from the benefit of cooking on a flame instead of in a small appliance that you have to clear space for and plug in, the stove-top irons tend to have deeper and bigger groves.

Is a waffle not enough of a pick-me-up for you? Go ahead and get a caffeine jolt alongside your waffle. Bonte uses a small coffee bean company that provides organic, fair trade, hand-picked beans that are roasted the day that Brian orders them. Bonte is my steady go-to joint for a hot cup of joe.

As Abi was showing me around behind the scenes, she greeted practically every customer by name. I was impressed, though not entirely surprised. Whenever I visit, she has usually already started pouring my large to-go coffee by the time I get to the counter. There's also a possibility of cafe tables popping up outside if everything works out with permits, furniture and setup.

I, for one, will likely be caught strutting down South Orange Avenue on a Sunday morning with a fresh Belgian waffle tucked inside the classic to-go envelope in one hand and the mandatory cup of hot coffee in the other.

Ben Salmon is a former literary agent and the owner of Kitchen a la Mode: Accessories for Cooking & Entertaining in the heart of downtown South Orange. Each week, his local food column at Patch explores the food and drink scene in South Orange, Maplewood and Millburn.


Have an idea for something you'd like me to explore? E-mail me. I'd love to hear from you.

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