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On the hunt for 16th century Italian Wafers

Some preliminary thoughts on wafers

Recipes are not something that crops up a lot in extant Italian recipe books, although wafers themselves appear in great abundance on Scappi's menus. At this point in time, I assume that the omission from the recipes is because these were largely produced by someone else - maybe by cooks given over solely to the task of making wafers (which would be plausible, given the volumes served), or by the baked goods cooks, or at the least by the credenza kitchen instead of the main one. Really I need to explore the specific kitchens a little more deeply to better develop my thoughts here.

The terminology used when they are mentioned seems to vary. As far as I can tell, this seems to generally divide into straightforward regional spelling variations, and specific types of wafer.

The earliest mention that I have come across to date is in Martino of Como. He provides no recipe for them, but they are included thrice as components in recipes. The first occurence is in his recipe for Marzipan, in which they are used to line the bottom of the pan that the marzipan will be cooked in. He says that they are also called "nevole", which in the footnotes of the translation is explained as a name for wafers made of sugar and flour.1 His second and third inclusions occur in the recipes from the Neapolitan manuscript.2 The recipe for apple tart in the French style is completed by sprinkling the nearly-bakes tart with wafers. Again, these are likely to be the nevole mentioned in the marzipan recipe, as he specifies that these should be made with good sugar. Being Italian, the tart is additionally sprinkled with sugar and rose water prior to serving. The recipe following on from this, for white tart, is likewise sprinkled with wafers - this time powdered - when nearly done.

Incidentally, in both Martino and Rosselli, lasagne is also sometimes used to top pies.

I have not spent much time looking at Rosselli's recipes yet, but he appears not to provide a recipe specifically for wafers. However, like Martino he specifies that wafers should be used as a base for marzipan.3 He refers to these as "cialdoni" or "nocuole" (possibly "notuole" - the type is somewhat unclear), but these also appear to be the same sort of wafer referred to in Martino as he states that they are "fatte col zuccaro" - that is, made with sugar. The difference in usage here is that they are also first bathed in rose water.

Next we come to Messisbugo, who provides a recipe for wafers. However, these he names "Pasta Tedesca", or "German Pastry". At the moment I am wondering what about these makes them German - is it the method, the shapes made, or perhaps the fillings used? Maybe this particular recipe is one that he associates with the regions around his homeland? Or perhaps this is an Italian association with that area? Looking at the menus he provides, it would appear to be something he did not make that often. He mentions these only twice. Once, they appear as "di pasta Tedesca rotonda in fritelline" - round fried German pastries.4 The second time, they are listed as "di varie arme di paste alla Tedesca piene di pastume di marzapane fritte".5

What appears more commonly are the "zaldoni". This is simply a regional variant spelling of "cialdoni", and refers to any generic wafer. One interesting thing to note here is that while the two occurences of pasta Tedesca take place within the main courses of a meal, the zaldoni are always near the end of the menu.

In only one entry, Messisbugo mentions "di neuole, e zaldoni".6 This may indicate that the more generic wafers are savoury, as the sweet are identified separately. But with only one entry distinguishing the two, it would be hard to draw a solid conclusion.

What is astonishing about them is the sheer number that were served. Messisbugo commonly serves 15-18 platings of wafers, in keeping with the proportions served of other dishes in his menus. However, to give an idea of quantities, at one point he inserts a number: "zaldoni numero 1500 in piatti 50".7 That's 30 wafers per plate. Given that a plating was used to serve 4-6 diners on average, that's about 6-8 wafers per person.

I would think that this was a ludicrous quantity, except that these quantities are on the conservative side compared with those given in Scappi's menus where "cialdoni"  or "cialdoncini"8 regularly make an appearance in the final credenza course (which would support my theory that they may be manufactured primarily by the credenza kitchen). However, the quantity served is clearly varies depending on the type of meal, as at one dinner (the main meal) 150 cialdoncini are served in two platings (allowing 12-18 per head), while at a supper (usually a smaller meal, although in keeping with the same number of platings served earlier in the day for dinner) that same quantity is served on five platings - this time allowing 6-8 mini wafer per person.9

There is also probably a difference in size between types of wafer, as Scappi commonly serves the "offelle" at the start of the meal, but in each instance only one of these per person is allowed. These come in a variety of styles, "alla Milanese" and "sfogliate alla Lombarda" perhaps being the most common, although there is clearly huge variety available10.

Scappi harks back to Martino with his recipe for a white tourte, which again calls for a base of wafers.11 However on this occasion, the wafers are first cooked in milk or butter, with instructions on how to prevent them turning into a mush. He also makes use of them as a tray lining in his recipe for dainty biscuit morsels12 - presumably as the aim is to slowly and thoroughly dry these biscuits, using a dry substance to prevent them sticking to the base of the pan, rather than a moist one such as oil or butter, is preferable.

Scappi is the only other cook to provide a recipe for wafers.13

The "offelle" of book five are not what you'd expect from a wafer. Instead of a batter that is put between irons to create a wafer, this is a pastry that is rolled out thinly and filled - much like his recipe for tortellini14 - but then baked instead of fried. They also remind me of his orecchine15, and although those of course are more commonly filled with white dish, or sometimes Turkish rice, they often appear on his menus "piene di compositione d'offelle" - filled with a wafer mixture - which makes more sense when you consider that this particular recipe for wafers has both a filling and an outer. I would assume that the same applies to the egg pies on his menus which likewise sometimes appear with that description. They also remind me rather of Romoli's marzipan biscuits, as the method for making is quite similar, although with those you end up with two circles of pastry sandwiching the filling, which is also quite different.

His recipe in book six is quite a different structure than the one of book five. It falls more into the realm of what I would traditionally think of as a "wafer", and is more closely similar to the earlier Northern European recipes I have read. It gives an option for making the mixture thinner or thicker - apparently dependent on the type (or maybe size?) of irons being used. Unfortunately he doesn't provide instructions for cooking these, beyond "make the rolled wafer". Working from Scully's translation, the English reads as though there is the option for filling them with chicken: "If you want them filled with the breast meat of capon...". However, reading through the entire recipe it becomes apparent that the chicken is actually incorporated into the wafer mixture and cooked as part of the wafer. Checking the original Italian reveals one of the many choices that Scully as a translator has had to make, as the Italian reads "& uolendoli con polpe di petto di cappone..." which translates litterally as "& if you want them with the breast meat of a capon...". The "filling" has been inserted by Scully to make the English read better. It's interesting that Scappi provides a recipe which may incorporate other ingredients for extra flavour or richness (almond milk and egg yolks are also optional additions), yet makes no mention of filling (stuffing) them with other substances. When cialdoni appear on his collation menus, they are always "fatti a scartocci" - that is, made with spices - yet spices are the one thing he doesn't mention in this recipe.

Finally, Scappi also presents another recipe16, strikingly similar to Messisbugo's German Pastries - but in this instance called "Sardinian fruit". Interestingly Scappi's recipe contains a lesser proportion of dairy - and less overall liquid - but is still meant to be a batter. There is also no sugar in Scappi's recipe - although the amount of sugar included by Messisbugo is proportionally small so these are probably not intended to be very sweet. However, both the cooking method and mode of filling are similar, even though their recommended fillings differ.

Scappi of course also provides an image of wafer irons in his book.17 Karen Larsdatter includes a page linking to images of wafer irons on her website, however the majority are German or Northern European in origin. The only extant Italian wafer irons I've come across so far date to the late 15th century, and were made for a wedding.

1 Parzen/Ballerini translation, p87

2 Ibid, pp136-137

3 Rosselli p32v

4 Messisbugo p11v

5 Ibid p11r

6 Ibid p35r

7 Ibid p18r

8 Small wafers

9 Scappi, dinner served April 8 Book IV p169v, and supper served April 15, Book IV p172r

10 "Alla Milanese" is "in the Milanese style", while "sfogliate alla Lombarda" is "leaved in the Lombard style". You also find them occasionally "sfogliate alla Milanese" - which should be self-explanatory. Occasionally they crop up as "Offelle reali" - "royal wafers", or "di pasta reali" - "of royal paste".  Again, his use of "di pasta reali alla Milanese" to describe some should now be self-explanatory. Additionally they can come "sfogliate fatti con butiro" - "leaved, made with butter". Sometimes Scappi will specify that they are served cold, or dusted with sugar.

11 Scappi, Scully's translation, Book V.83 p475

12 Ibid, Book V.237 pp533-534

13 Ibid, Book V.48 pp458-459, VI.141 p588

14 Ibid, Book V.229 p530

15 Ibid, Book V.44 pp455-456

16 Ibid, Book V.146 p499

17 Ibid, Plate 16 p651


Martino of Como, Parzen, Jeremy (trans.), Ballerini, Luigi (ed.), The Art of Cooking: The First Modern Cookery Book (California, University of California Press, 2005)

Messisbugo, Cristoforo: Banchetti composizioni di vivande e apparecchio generale (Lucio Spineda, Venice, 1610)

Romoli, Domenico: La Singolare Dottrina Di M. Domenico Romoli... (Gio. Battista Bonfadino, Venetia, 1593)

Rosselli, Giovanne: Epulario: qual tratta del modo di cucinare ogni carne, vccelli, pesci, & ultra qualita di viuande (Altobello Salicato, Vinegia, 1596)

Scappi, Bartolomeo: Opera di M. Bartolomeo Scappi (Michele Tramezzino, 1570)

Bartolomeo Scappi, Scully, Terence (trans.), The Opera of Bartolomeo Scappi (1570): L'arte et prudenza d'un maestro cuoco - The Art and Craft of a Master Cook (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2008)