Welsh rarebit is the best cheese toast around—here’s how it came to be, how to make it, and why it’s called that (or sometimes, Welsh rabbit).
According to Wikipedia, there is a 16th century joke whose punchline claims that there are no Welshmen in heaven because they were lured outside of the pearly gates by cheese.
Now, I’ve never taken a DNA test, but turns out I’m 100 percent on board with this. Even having never done the requisite swab, I would bet on Welsh heritage by the simple fact that I’ve been eating cheese sauce on toast since I was young, in what I just thought was an ingenious and elegant grilled cheese variation on my mother’s part. I was approximately now years old before I realized that this brilliant but simple concoction is Welsh rarebit, national comfort food of Wales.
“Yep, that’s rarebit,” confirms Carrie Spiller, co-owner and co-chef of Snowdonia, New York City’s only Welsh-inspired pub, when I explained the beloved cheesy toast dish from my childhood. This oddball moniker—rarebit—is believed to be a bastardization of the word “rabbit,” given to this typically vegetarian peasant dish that had nonetheless robust flavors. (Wales also claims a poor man’s “sausage”—glamorgans—also made from cheese. So yes, these are my people.)
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“Welsh food is comfort food” states Snowdonia’s menu, and Spiller explains what makes it so: “It’s really about using good, fresh ingredients that are handy and that you don’t have to go out of your way for. And just putting it all together in a hearty, tasty way.”
Case in point: rarebit, not-your-average cheese toast, which you should nonetheless be able to assemble out of ingredients currently in your kitchen.
“The traditional rarebit is sloppy,” says Spiller. “It’s typically a cheese sauce, like a béchamel, and you can flavor it from that point however you wish, but it is over toast.”
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In keeping with the laid-back, “whatever is on hand” idea, Spiller makes no demands about specific styles or brands, save a few guiding principles: “A bold porter really gives it a bottom. A really nice base. Cheese should be sharp. You want that flavor of the cheese to come through. We have a cheese mix, including a hard cheese, a softer cheese, and a couple of sharp cheeses, so it’s about flavor and texture.” Bonus points for a Welsh cheddar such as Collier’s, but again, use what you’ve got.
Traditionally, the rarebit would employ a robust brown bread, grain bread, or even soda bread. Soda breads are common in the UK and surrounding environs, as hearty staple breads that come together quickly since they utilize baking soda, which relies on acid and heat to rise, rather than yeast, which relies on time.
Related Reading: What is Soda Bread and Is it Really Irish?
If you’re going for full Welsh immersion, “The other traditional dish that we have is the laverbread,” Spiller explains. Laverbread is a loose interpretation of bread, and is more of a patty formed of oatmeal and seaweed, taking advantage of that which is in abundance in a coastal nation. “It really satisfies,” encourages Spiller.
Seaweed, or dulse, can even be incorporated into a traditional bread or soda bread recipe, but in keeping with the what-you-have-on-hand mindset, presuming you don’t necessarily keep seaweed in your kitchen, whatever bread is in your basket will work just fine.
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My childhood version of rarebit most closely resembles this one by Framed Cooks, where tomatoes and bacon share the toast with the cheese sauce, but its humble roots make no such demands, and the official definition ends with cheese on toast. But all people, Welsh and otherwise, can make it their own.
“Just add a flavor layer,” suggests Spiller. “So what do you have? Whatever it is, you just make it work.” As befits a quirky Astoria pub, where “Labyrinth” was playing on the TVs, silverware is available in a repurposed haggis can, and the back bar is adorned with the longest word in Welsh, (Llanfairpwllgwngyllgogerychwyrndrobwyllllantysiliogogogoch), Snowdonia’s rarebit comes with a plethora of gastro pub toppings: candied maple bacon, roasted red peppers, and olive tapenade.
“That’s what we came away with in Wales,” concludes Spiller. “Use what you have. And just find an interesting way of putting it together.”
In New York, visit Snowdonia for a taste of rarebit, glamorgans, and laverbread, or send us photos of your own rarebit @chowhound.
Header image courtesy of Rob Lawson/Getty Images.