If a food historian ever wanted to be certain of filling an entire PhD thesis with the story and preparation of just one dish, then he/she would struggle to do better than write about Welsh rarebit.
The dish appears to start out life as Welsh ‘rabbit’ in Hannah Glasse’s 1747 book The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. In her recipe, Welsh rabbit was just cheese on toast (i.e. ‘Scottish rabbit’) with mustard added. The original use of ‘rabbit’ may come from the idea that this cheap dish (that actually has a lot in common with käsefondue) was said to be ‘as good as any rabbit.’ The term ‘rarebit‘ came along much later, and was possibly used to ensure that nobody became in any way confused that cheese on toast contained actual rabbit. The word ‘rarebit‘ does not exist in the English language in any other context.
There are a few ways of going at Welsh rarebit. One is to melt butter and cheese, flavour it with the usual schmoo and then thicken with egg yolks. This is fraught with risk as the cheese splits easily unless lemon is added in the way you might for a cheese fondue. The eggs can also scramble in the wrong hands.
The path to certain Welsh rarebit success is to start with a Mornay sauce made with beer or stout and with more cheese than is usual (to make it thicker and cheesier). That is pre-flavoured, cooled, and spread over toast that is then grilled. This is the method used by both April Bloomfield and Fergus Henderson. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall uses a thicker béchamel base for the Mornay sauce and does not cool. Our version is the same idea as that of Bloomfield and Henderson, but we offer the idea of tabasco, and maintain our own basic béchamel recipe.
When making this recipe, there is a critical piece of science that needs to be looked after. When cheese is melted (particularly Cheddar), it can easily split into oils and solids, resulting in a gritty slurry. When making fondue, the cheese is emulsified using acidic wine. When making mayonnaise, a similar emulsion is achieved by the initial addition of mustard. For a rarebit mixture, the emulsifying agents come from both the mustard and the malt vinegar in the Worcestershire sauce. This is why some people (vegetarians) who elect to skip the Worcestershire and then complain that their sauce was rubbish would do well to examine the science of emulsification as keenly as their diets. The emulsifying agents must be added before the cheese. If you are a veggie use vinegar or lemon.
You can watch April Bloomfield make her Welsh rarebit here:
- 15g (1 tbsp) butter
- 15g (1 tbsp) flour
- 250ml (1 cup) stout or English ale, warmed
- A long slug of Worcestershire sauce (see article above) and more to drizzle
- Dash of Tabasco sauce (optional)
- 1 tsp English mustard
- Large pinch of cayenne pepper
- 450g Cheddar cheese, grated
- 8 thick slices of bread toasted on both sides, or 4 big slices taken from the equator of a loaf, also toasted.
First make a beery Mornay sauce. Melt the butter in a small saucepan and add the flour. Combine and cook on medium for 1 minute. Gradually add the ale a half-ladle at a time and mix into the roux until a smooth, glossy sauce is achieved.
Add a really long slug of Worcestershire sauce, the tabasco, mustard and cayenne. This step is critical because the mustard and the Worcestershire sauce contain the key acidic emulsifying agents required to emulsify the cheese without it splitting.
Add the cheese handful-by-handful and melt into the sauce over a low-to-medium heat. This will take a while, but you will end up with a very thick sauce that barely falls off the whisk. Pour and scrape the sauce into a shallow dish, cover and refrigerate to almost set (30 mins).
Heat a grill to high.
Place the toast on the grill bars, and spread sauce over nice and thick. Make sure the edges of the toast are completely covered to prevent catching. Grill on high until bubbling merrily and just browned. Indent the surface of the cheese with a sharp knife at 1 cm intervals and sprinkle over more Worcestershire sauce so it runs into the cracks.
Drink pairing: stout or proper English ale.