Last week I described common sealing wafers and discussed some of the social rules about using them to seal letters in Jane Austen’s era. After learning about these once-ubiquitous little pieces of Regency life, I just had to try making my own.
It’s been quite an adventure, let me tell you! The extant recipes for wafers, like many culinary recipes of this period, don’t provide measurements and are short on detailed instructions. They are not aimed at people like me who don’t already know exactly what a wafer should look and feel like. I have done a lot of experimentation with different tools, techniques and formulations that I won’t detail here- I’m going to focus on what has worked best for me so far. It’s still a work in progress!
The recipe in the New Family Receipt Book of 1811 (NFRB) has the most detail and was often reprinted in other collections. I compared it to other recipes and descriptions from various time periods, and it seems to be a bit of a “kitchen sink” recipe: it includes all of the ingredients mentioned elsewhere and more. The most basic formula for wafers appears to be simply flour and water- the same recipe as the wheat paste still used by conservators and crafters for sticking paper together today.
See, for example, this 1902 book about making all kinds of adhesives. The author admits that wafers “are articles comparatively unknown to the present generation,” but provides a little information about making them anyway- out of flour, water, and coloring alone. He has vivid childhood memories of eating a bunch of colored wafers and seeing the doctor afterward due to the variety of poisonous colors used in them!
Anyway, my hunch is that the expert techniques and specialized tools of the industrial wafer-makers allowed them to get good results with the simplest recipe. I would guess the more elaborate NFRB recipe was designed to help DIY enthusiasts get results at home. I decided pick and choose additional ingredients from the NFRB recipe based on their properties rather than using them all.
Flour: I used the unbleached All-Purpose flour I have on hand for baking (1 in the picture above). It’s the one ingredient (besides water) that every recipe has in common.
Gum Water: Gum arabic is a plant-derived gum that gets sticky easily with moisture, so it’s a good addition to a lickable adhesive. Since gum arabic was sold coarsely ground or in lumps in the 18th and 19th centuries, it was commonly dissolved in water before being added to other recipes- like the “gum water” in the NFRB recipe. I used finely ground gum arabic (2), so I didn’t need to make gum water first. Gum arabic is used today to thicken ink, add gloss and body to watercolors, and in some cosmetic formulas, so it’s not hard to find from caligraphy suppliers, art stores, and natural cosmetics suppliers.
Isinglass is a very pure form of fish gelatin, originally derived from the swim bladders of sturgeon. It has a long history of use as glue as well as a clarifying agent in the beer and wine industries. Like gum arabic, dry isinglass glue rehydrates quickly. Since both ingredients seem to have similar properties, I decided to use gum arabic (which I have on hand) and omit isinglass (which I don’t). If you want to try it, check your local home-brew supplier.
Glair or egg white is often used by illuminators to help stick gold leaf to manuscripts (after it has been aged- I skipped that step). Since I want to “cook” my wafers like the professionals did rather than slowly dehydrating them, I don’t think egg will add useful stickiness. But after some experimentation, I decided to whip the egg white to a foam and use it to incorporate stable air-bubbles into the paste mixture, making the finished wafer lighter and easier to moisten (3).
Yeast: Although no rising time is indicated in the NRFB recipe, it’s possible that the yeast was added to lighten the batter with bubbles of gas. I decided to leave it out and let my egg white foam do that job.
Colors: I decided right away not to use toxic mineral pigments like the traditional vermilion, especially since I’m making wafers in my home kitchen! I tried a few different methods of non-toxic coloring, including yellow turmeric from my spice rack, red pigment based on iron oxide (4), and food coloring (5). They all worked well, although the combinations could get odd. When I used both turmeric and red iron oxide to try to approximate the brilliant orangey red of vermilion, I ended up with a batter that smelled vaguely of blood and curry. That experiment also included a lot of unbeaten egg-white that made the resulting wafer very rubbery. I dubbed that batch “the weirdest pancakes ever made”.
Tools and Techniques: The NRFB recipe suggests drying the mixture on flat tin plates in an oven, while the professionals used hinged “wafer tongs” heated over a fire. The tongs probably looked a lot like waffle irons of the same time period. I wanted my wafers to look like the professionally made ones, but a wafer iron is not easy to find! There are some stove top irons for making pizzelle and ostie (Italian pastries closely related to wafers), but none without some kind of waffley pattern. I eventually hit upon a makeshift solution: my own trusty cast iron skillet and a cast iron bacon press with a flat bottom (6). I heated both of them on my electric stove set a little above “Low”, greased them with butter, and used them to make thin pancakes that cooked quickly and had shiny, crisp surfaces on top and bottom (7). Higher heat browned and then burned the pancakes.
Since industrially made wafers were circular, I used round leather-punches (8) to cut individual wafers out of the pancakes. The wooden block pictured is a handy surface to punch into. Many sizes of wafer were available in the period- according to a conservation report on an Irish archive of documents dated 1818-1853, the wafers used ranged from 1.3 cm to 3 cm in diameter, or about half an inch to 1 1/8 inches. I used a 5/8 inch punch and a 7/8 inch punch. I found that if I let the pancake get too crispy, the wafers would crumble when I tried to punch them out. I had the best luck with thin pancakes that retained a little bit of moisture. I punched the circles out while they were still warm and then let them finish drying out on paper towel, which also absorbed any remaining grease.
Here’s the recipe that has worked the best with my tools and techniques, although I will continue to fine tune it:
Recipe for Sealing Wafers
Makes 3-4 thin pancakes, which yield a few dozen wafers (depending on the size of your punch)
1. Mix 3 Tbsp white flour with 1 Tbsp gum arabic powder (and any dry pigment you want to use).
2. Combine thoroughly with 3 Tbsp water, then let sit for at least a few hours to let the gum and starch hydrate.
3. Stir in any liquid coloring you’re using.
4. Separate one egg, discarding the yolk. Beat the egg white until white and foamy and the whisk makes soft peaks. Take 3 Tbsp of egg foam and gently fold it into the batter.
5. Pre-heat the skillet and bacon press to between Low and Medium Low (you’ll need to experiment with what’s right for your stovetop). I cover a second burner with foil and heat it up as well, then place the bacon press there to stay hot while I’m working with the batter.
6. Wipe a little butter on the pre-heated skillet with a paper towel and spread a heaping Tbsp of batter in the middle. Wipe a little butter on the bacon press and press it down onto the batter. Cook until the thin crepe has a crisp surface on both sides, but isn’t hard all the way through. If it begins to brown or burn, your temperature is too high. Punch or cut wafers from the pancake while still warm.
Does making wafers from scratch seem too involved, but you still want to give them a try? I admit it is a little odd to put so much time and effort into recreating an item that was the cheap, quick and easy alternative to sealing wax! I also experimented with a few methods of “faking” wafers with modern materials. Here are two which worked:
The word “wafer” can refer to a number of confections and pastries, some of which are very closely related to sealing wafers. Flying Saucers, also sold in the US as Satellite Wafers, are one of those confections! They aren’t very common in the US, but are popular in the UK and the Netherlands. I caught sight of these candies (1) at my local international market and had to see if the wafer they’re made from would seal a letter- and it does! The saucer shape is made up of two domed sheets of light, starchy wafer that melt in your mouth. Inside is sour sherbet powder or candy beads.
To make sealing wafers, I use scissors to cut the seam holding the saucer together (2), then I eat the candy inside (3)- this is much more fun than blood-and-curry pancakes! I use the same leather punches to cut perfect circles from the wafers (4), but you could also use scissors. The domed shape of the saucer is more obvious with the large wafer (5), so I prefer making smaller ones (6). The light wafer moistens very quickly when licked, and sticks beautifully! The pastel colors are not the most typical choices for wafers of the 18th and early 19th centuries, but they’re not implausible.
If you’ve seen cookies or cakes decorated with a painting or a photograph, you’ve probably seen wafer paper in action. It’s a very thin, white version of the same starchy wafer that Flying Saucers are made of. Traditionally used as a base for other candies like Italian torrone, wafer paper is now printed with food-safe inks to make those vivid, intricate decorations. I bought a package of blank sheets from an online store that specializes in wafer paper decorations, Fancy Flours. It’s so thin it will practically disappear into moist icing, which makes it a little tricky to use as a sealing wafer. One lick and it turned to goo on my finger! I got better results by doubling up the wafer paper. I brushed one square with a very small amount of water (1), then placed another square on top and rubbed it to get a good seal.
White wafers are perfectly period, but I wanted to try coloring the wafer paper too. Since it reacts so quickly to moisture, brushing on wet food coloring just made the paper melt. In the end, I resorted to alcohol ink (2), which added a lot of color without melting the paper (3). However, alcohol inks are not food-safe so wafers colored with them are not lickable. I used the same leather punches to cut out circles (4), but I imagine paper-punches for scrapbooking would work equally well.
Making or Faking a Wafer Seal
As I mentioned last week, people who used wafers to seal their letters often applied pressure to the moist wafer with a wafer seal. The distinctive hob-nail or waffle pattern of the wafer seal helped the paper bite into the paste. The pattern could be filed into lots of different tools made out of different materials- you can see some antique tools on my Pinterest board about sealing wafers. My husband and I cobbled together a convincing seal with brass parts designed for other purposes and a wooden handle he turned on his lathe. If you’re feeling crafty, you can use a triangular file to add this pattern to a blank seal, a hardwood dowel, or a piece of metal stock.
Luckily, there’s also a historical alternative to the wafer seal! When I look at images of Georgian and Regency letters online, I keep my eyes peeled for the tell-tale marks of the wafer seal. I did a double take when I saw this 1803 letter on ebay: instead of the diamond hobnail pattern, the wafer was pierced several times with a needle or pin! That this was not an uncommon practice is confirmed by an etiquette book of 1833 which states:
It is only conscripts, and peasants, who fold a letter like an apothecary’s packet, who omit to press the wafer with a seal, or secure it by pricking it in every part with the point of a pin.
An American travelogue from 1838 describes a reading a lady’s letter from the 18th century that was sealed in this way:
One little thing about the exterior of her letter bespeaks its feminine authorship, and carries us back as by a magic power, through a hundred years. Some thirty or forty pin-holes are stuck into the wafer of the letter, the fair and worthy writer apparently not having a seal at hand.
A wafer certainly is a “little thing,” but for me it’s those littlest details that carry me “back as by a magic power” through the 200 years that separate us from Jane Austen’s era. However you choose to seal your letters, I hope you’ll give some thought to the humble wafer!