My grandmother’s jaffle iron weighs about 2kg. It was made (forged might be a better term) in the 1950s, possibly by some sort of blacksmith. The wooden handles have been buffed smooth by generations of jaffle-making hands. It’s the one thing in my kitchen I’ll never throw away.
It’s also circular. None of your newfangled square jaffles here, thank you very much. Over the years it’s built up a lovely patina of scorch marks, scratches and unidentifiable grunge – the ghosts of toasties past. Bread emerges UFO-shaped, covered in golden, concentric crop circles. The fillings inside reach the approximate temperature of the sun, guaranteed to sizzle tastebuds at 50 paces.
You don’t see jaffle irons around much any more. Breville’s electric variant hunted them to near extinction in the 1970s. When it launched the Snack n Sandwich in 1974, Breville claims to have sold 400,000 units and reached 10% of Australian households in this first year. But modern camping stores are still keeping the tradition alive: jaffle irons are the only toasted sandwich machine that can fit in a backpack and won’t melt in a campfire.
“It’s a travesty they’ve disappeared,” says chef Dean Little from Melbourne’s Half Acre. “We didn’t have one of the cast-iron ones growing up. Ours was that retro electric variant with the nylon cable; you had to use your whole body weight just to close the handle.”
Little’s go-to jaffle has always been “unadulterated bolognese – no pasta, just the sauce”. For him, the mark of a true jaffle is those gnarly, pressure-sealed edges. “You need those nasty corners – nasty in the best way – when the sauce oozes out the sides and goes super caramelised.”
For Daniel Wilson, chef and co-founder of Huxtaburger, jaffles were a regular Saturday lunch item.
“I’d play rugby in the morning and come home and have two,” he says. “One would be an egg jaffle – although I’m a Kiwi, and we call them toasted sandwiches over there – and I remember the trick was always getting that yolk right. When you cut it, you had to stand the jaffle up on its edge so the yolk didn’t run out.”
Wilson also swears by a combination of creamed corn and cheese, a mixture Anthony Femia from Melbourne fromagerie Maker and Monger endorses too.
“Our Hafod Welsh cheddar with creamed corn is an absolute stunner,” says Femia. “The secret ingredient is some smoked jalapeno sauce.”
There isn’t much Femia doesn’t know about cheese or toasting it. Maker and Monger sells what are widely regarded as some of Melbourne’s best toasties, scientifically optimised in the J Kenji López-Alt tradition, right down to the pH level of cloth-wrapped cheddar.
But they’re very definitely toasties, not jaffles, and Femia says there’s a good reason for that. The one time jaffles were on the menu (vegan ones, in collaboration with chef Shannon Martinez), he says: “We needed like eight of those tiny Breville machines out the back, chewing up our electricity … If someone can invent an industrial jaffle-maker for under a thousand bucks, sign me up.”
One chef who actually favours the old-school jaffle iron model is Michael Li, now sous chef at Melbourne’s Old Palm Liquor. In 2018, Li was heading up the kitchen at Chinese diner Super Ling, and created what became a minor culinary sensation in Melbourne: the mapo tofu jaffle.
Picture a golden discus of white bread, dusted with chilli powder and filled with sticky, Sichuan-spiced minced pork, fermented bean paste and tofu. Li estimates he cooked about 10,000 mapo tofu jaffles during Super Ling’s run – patiently standing over a wok flame, turning the iron eight times a minute, then finishing them in the oven.
“That’s the only problem with jaffle irons: they can burn if you don’t do it right,” says Li. “I tried to make one in an apartment once and it fucking set everything on fire.”
There is one rule that unites many jaffle enthusiasts: no tomato. Wilson is firm on this: “It reaches that nuclear temperature.” Femia agrees: “You won’t taste anything for a week.”
But beyond this, a jaffle is a blank canvas, its potential limited only by the human imagination. Femia talks wistfully of wild pine mushrooms, leek, thyme and fontina cheese. Wilson has dabbled in leftover pasta carbonara (“It’s pretty gutsy: carb on carb”). Little swears by a sweet variant with Nutella and marshmallows.
By comparison, my nan’s signature jaffle was practically austere: a single free-range egg, the yolk molten and Berocca orange, lightly seasoned with salt and pepper, and cracked between two slices of buttered white bread. I ate it straight from the iron, crusts and all.
• This article was amended on 5 June 2023 to remove references to James Shackell’s jaffle maker being made of cast iron.