Welsh rabbit redux

One more try at the Welsh rabbit. Photo by Wendi.
One more try at the Welsh rabbit. Photo by Wendi.
Months ago, one of the first recipes we tried for this blog was Welsh rabbit (or rarebit), an old-fashioned dish I’d always been curious about but never tried. It did not turn out well. But it seemed clear (to me, at least) that it was a comedy of errors on our part (including the death of our oven in mid-cook, and our failure to deal with it correctly) that probably led to the recipe’s failure, and I vowed to try it again. Now I have a working stove and oven, so the time seemed to be right.

In the comments for the last Welsh rabbit post, reader Lynn wrote:

Do try the rarebit again…it is delicious. I serve it over a bowl of nice bread, cut as for fondue, with steamed broccoli and some nice red bell pepper strips. Quick, pretty inexpensive and really good on a winter night.
Here are my notes: Use a double boiler and cook out the roux first, beat the egg into the beer and thin the roux with this, then melt in the cheese. Foolproof.

We took her advice, using our recipe but her directions. The ingredients were the same, except that we used Buzzsaw Brown Ale instead of Newcastle. We used a metal bowl as a double boiler, and this time the rabbit sauce was dead easy to make and no trouble whatsoever. Lynn was right!

Although we now have a working oven again, I was taking no chances — I just toasted the bread in the toaster this time, playing it safe.

For a side dish, I served a salad with a sweeter balsamic vinaigrette dressing to balance out the salty savoriness of the Welsh rabbit. It worked perfectly.

Kristen wasn’t here that night, and is skeptical that the Welsh rabbit can be good after all, so I’ll be making this again for her to try. The men in the house loved it, though.

The lighting wasn’t great by this time of night (do all the other food bloggers do their cooking in the daytime or something?), but I did get a picture of the finished product:

Welsh rabbit -- in poor lighting

Compare this with the picture here, and it’s obvious this was a much more successful experiment. Thanks, Lynn!

The Welsh Rabbit experiment

The finished product; not very pretty, but it tasted good -- to some of us
The finished product; not very pretty, but it tasted good -- to some of us
(This is part 2 of the Welsh Rabbit story. See Part 1 for the background.)

Kristen and I gathered at the house tonight to make our Welsh Rabbit. Kristen brought Caesar salad to eat along with the “rabbit.” Jason was there to help eat the food.

The recipe we decided to use, as I mentioned earlier, was from the Good Housekeeping Woman’s Home Cook Book, exactly 100 years ago in 1909. They claim that all the recipes in that book are triple-tested, so we are hoping that this well-tested recipe works for us. Here it is:

A Really Digestible Welsh Rarebit

Melt one tablespoon of butter, add one-fourth of a teaspoon of salt and paprika, half a teaspoon of dry mustard and one-third of a cup of ale or beer. Stir constantly, and when hot, put in half a pound of cheese cut into small pieces. As it gradually melts it may thicken, for no cheese is exactly alike in the amount of liquid it requires. If it seems too thick, add more beer. If the rarebit is preferred creamy instead of stringy, add one beaten egg just before serving. The paprika in this recipe makes the cheese mixture perfectly digestible. If the regulation toast is not at hand for serving rarebit, pour it over saltines.–I. G. C.

This is not too difficult a group of ingredients to assemble. For the cheese, we picked up some Coastal Rugged Mature English Cheddar Cheese at Costco, and it’s really tasty stuff. Yum. For the ale, we got Newcastle Brown Ale. For the toast, we had some rolls from the local bakery — probably not exactly what was intended, but they were fresh and seemed as if they’d make fine toast. I got all the ingredients together, sliced the rolls and put them on a baking sheet, turned on the oven to toast the rolls, and was ready to start cooking.

Some ingredients waiting to be made into tasty sauce
Some ingredients waiting to be made into tasty sauce

I melted the butter, and then added the spices and beer. So far, so good. I wanted to get the rolls toasting so they would be perfectly toasted right about the time the sauce was done. But first, I put the cheese in the pan. This was probably a miscalculation. As I stirred the cheese, Kristen opened the oven to put the rolls under the broiler, and… the oven was cold.

Broken, that is. The knob had been turned on correctly, but nothing happened. I continued stirring the cheese, and the sauce looked about perfect… but we had nothing yet to pour it on. Jason came in and twiddled with the oven and got it to come on. Then it turned itself off. Then Jason got it to go back on again. The rolls were finally toasting… and right before our eyes, the cheese sauce started to separate. We cooked it too long, I think.

We added the beaten egg as the recipe optionally calls for, but we still had an ugly-looking stringy mess. Smelled good, though.

Shortly after we poured it on the toasted rolls, sort of. The thickest parts sort of glopped on. Kristen said it was “unappetizing.” We dished up our salads and settled down to eat.

The verdict:

Wendi: Thought it was ugly, and obviously not what it was supposed to look like, but it actually tasted pretty good anyway. Kind of salty, though. Would be willing to try it again.

Kristen: Hated it. Would not try it again. Thought it was too salty.

Jason: Liked it and would definitely eat it again. Enjoyed the leftover brown ale with it, too.

If I try this again, and I probably will, I will probably just toast the bread in a toaster, and heat the sauce under much lower heat, so it would not cook as quickly. Since it was a chafing-dish meal in the first place, I really should have done that all along. (What was I thinking? This was pure cook’s error. I would have gotten away with it if not for those meddling kids if I’d taken the sauce off the burner as soon as it looked right, though.) Also, I would probably not add all the salt in the beginning, and would salt to taste a bit later, which might help with the saltiness Kristen and I noticed. The aged cheddar seemed particularly salty in flavor to start with. This may be something that varies with different cheeses, I think. Other recipes I’ve seen include a little flour; I wonder if that would make the sauce a bit more manageable.

Having anchovies in the Caesar salad with it did not help as far as saltiness is concerned! Something to balance out the salt would be nicer as a side dish. Maybe a sweeter salad dressing?

I think one of the reasons that this dish has fallen by the wayside in recent years is the fussiness of making the cheese sauce. The average American household, sadly, is probably more likely to open a can, or just have a toasted cheese sandwich when it comes down to it.

(Psst — here’s a page with some lovely photos of what the Welsh Rabbit should really look like. If I’d gotten ours off the burner a little sooner, it would have looked like that too.)

“Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend”

Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend, a classic comic by Winsor McKay
"Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend," a classic comic by Winsor McKay

Welsh Rabbit, or Rarebit, isn’t quite as obsolete as some of the recipes we’re interested in trying. After all, you can still buy it from Stouffer’s. Alton Brown made it on Good Eats. And, while researching this post, I found that a recipe for it was printed on the New York Times website just a couple of weeks ago. It’s supposedly common British pub food. But here, in America’s Pacific Northwest, it’s rarely seen. I’ve certainly never seen it on a menu, whether in a restaurant or a pub. All I really knew about it was that it involved cheese somehow, and had a reputation for causing bad dreams after eating it.

In the vintage cookbooks we’ve been exploring lately, Welsh Rabbit is ubiquitous (though usually called Rarebit), and several variations of the dish may be found. My grandma’s Kitchen Guide cookbook from the early 30s (maybe earlier — the book has no copyright date) has Welsh Rarebit, Spaghetti and Olive Rarebit, Mexican Rarebit, English Monkey (for the name alone, we are totally going to try this one), and Tomato Rarebit. Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking School Cook-Book from 1896 adds Oyster Rarebit to the list. Mrs. Seely’s Cook Book from 1914 adds other recipes in the same genre: Golden Buck, Gherkin Buck, and Swiss Rarebit. These recipes, usually prepared in a chafing-dish, were commonly part of the “Sunday night” family meal, and were particularly valued during World War II, when meat was scarce. Though rarebit has not entirely disappeared from modern cookbooks, it is certainly less commonly eaten in the US than it once was.

This is a shame, since anything that basically consists of cheese and beer and toast is pretty much going to be a hit with a fairly large segment of the US population. What’s not to like, right?

We could go way, way back in history for this one, if we wanted to. Here’s an 1824 recipe from A New System of Domestic Cookery Formed Upon Principles of Economy and Adapted to the Use of Private Families, by Maria Eliza Ketelby Rundell:

Welsh Rabbit

Toast a slice of bread on both sides, and butter it; toast a slice of Gloucester cheese on one side, and lay that next the bread, and toast the other with a salamander; rub mustard over, and serve very hot, and covered.

But, instead, we’re going back exactly 100 years, to resurrect a 1909 version of this recipe, from the Good Housekeeping Woman’s Home Cook Book. (Thanks to Karen for sending me a PDF copy of this cookbook!) We’ll try it this evening, so stay tuned for a follow-up post with the results.