Thursday, April 28, 2016

Caroline's Welsh Rarebit

A Regency era favorite snack, lunch or dinner!

So, Welsh rarebit. Kind of a weird sounding food, isn't it? I know I had no idea what it was when I was younger, and just from the word alone, I totally assumed it had something to do with meat. Probably rabbit, especially because sometimes you'll see it spelled "rabbit" on menus or in books. In reality, this is usually a vegetarian dish that has nothing to do with rabbits, and there are a couple different versions of it, most of which are named after different regions of the United Kingdom. What they all have in common is that they're essentially toasted bread with a hot, delicious cheese sauce, spread or just plain old slices of cheese placed on top, and that makes this right up my alley.

I know, I know, I just did a post about grilled cheese. But this is definitely going to be different from just about any grilled cheese you've ever eaten, and it's different in a good way. Promise.

Toasted cheese on bread, in all its forms, has been a snack people have enjoyed for a long, long time. No one knows who the first genius was to put these two together and get the cheese all nice and melty, but I'd think we all owe them a great debt.

Welsh rarebit has similarly murky origins. No one's really sure if it's even Welsh or not, and apparently, there's some debate about if Wales has its own cuisine in the first place. I guess because of their close association with English food pretty much from the get go, there's some debate about any dishes being authentically Welsh. Apparently, this toasty treat gets its name because it's either based on a traditional Welsh snack (the Welsh are fond of cheese), or because "Welsh" became a way for English people to describe a dish that was either foreign or inferior, which is just rude. Apparently, the dish was originally called a rabbit, and rarebit came about afterward, and no one really knows how or why. Just one of those culinary mysteries, I guess!

Traditionally, a Welsh rarebit has some combination of eggs, some kind of spice or flavoring element, and a whole lot of cheese, all of which is served over nice, toasted bread. Some people change this up by adding onions, or leave everything out except the cheese and bread. Although there doesn't seem to be a dish that's just called rarebit, there are also several variations of rarebit: English rarebit is when you drizzle some wine on the toast before putting on the cheese, Scotch rarebit apparently is just bread and cheese, and so on and so forth. Rarebit with an egg on top is called a buck rabbit, and putting a tomato in the mix is a blushing bunny.

Although the dish probably has a longer, unwritten history, it starts popping up in cookbooks in the mid 1700's, and remained a popular treat during the early 1800's. At the time, Rarebit was considered both an indulgent meal, and something that was basically just quick tavern fare, meaning people have been thinking of grilled cheese the same way we do basically since the dawn of time. Kind of a comforting thought that stuff like this has been around and well loved for such a long time, right?

As it turns out, the version of Welsh rarebit I'm going to make today - or something very close to it, anyway - was a particular favorite of Jane Austen's, which made it seem like the perfect topic for a Caroline hosted post. I feel like an explanation as to why probably isn't necessary, but indulge me anyway just in case.

For most people, when you think "Regency", you immediately think of Jane Austen. Her stories and the movies based on them have come to symbolize the era the same way Downton Abbey or Titanic embody the Edwardian age for the general public. Funnily enough, I actually have never read any of her books in full, for class or for pleasure, so while I do like the aesthetic of the time period, I don't have any real enthusiasm for Pride and Prejudice.

That said, Jane Austen is a pretty cool person. In an era where women weren't considered useful for much other than making babies and looking pretty, she was well educated and wrote several novels, which while originally published anonymously is still pretty impressive. The books were well read during her lifetime, but didn't really attract serious literary attention until after her death. Ever since the Victorian period, she's grown increasingly popular and has assembled quite a fanbase for herself, some of whom call themselves "Janeites". Several reenactment societies and other organizations based on, inspired by, or enthusiastic about Jane's work and life exist, some of which host fancy Regency style teas and balls. They sound like a lot of fun, and I have to admit, despite not being a particular fan of the author, I'd like to be able to check one of these out someday.

I was first clued in to this dish being a favorite of Jane Austen's thanks to The Supersizers go Regency, an episode of the very entertaining and informative British TV show about what it was actually like to live and eat during various points in (mostly) British history. You can find most of the episodes on YouTube, and I believe they're free on Hulu as well. In the episode, hosts Giles Coren and Sue Perkins are served rarebit - with wine poured over the toast - as a late night dinner, and Sue comments that it was one of Jane Austen's favorite meals. She alleges that eating the cheese right before bed would give Jane crazy nightmares, which livened up her otherwise boring life, and while I'm not sure that's true, I also wouldn't totally disbelieve it, either. The Regency was kind of boring.

Curious to see if Sue's fun fact was really true, I did some digging around the internet to see if I could find anything to back it up, and I did! Dining with Jane Austen has a bunch of great information about what kind of food Jane would have enjoyed with her family and at all the fancy social events she would've attended. One of them is a recipe for toasted cheese, which was included because Jane mentions that the dish was prepared especially for her when she was traveling with her family. Most people have taken this to mean that it was a particular favorite of hers because it was specially made because of her, and so I'm satisfied that the Supersizers did their homework on this one. Not that they usually don't.

This particular recipe (adapted from a period recipe) instructs you to take four thick slices of bread and butter them. My prepared tray could only hold three slices, and I used brioche because brioche is delicious. I also recently had a grilled cheese that used brioche and had apple butter smeared on it, so I was kind of inspired.

Okay, time for the topping. This is a pretty basic Welsh rarebit, so all you need is two eggs, four ounces of shredded cheddar cheese and two teaspoons of coarse mustard. This all gets mixed together, and then spooned onto the buttered side of the bread.

And then everything gets stuck under a broiler just long enough for the cheese to get brown. Historically, people could achieve this texture by holding a hot salamander over the plate with the rarebit. I watched mine like a hawk because this can burn quickly, and I really didn't want to throw this out and start again. It's a lot of cheese!

You eat it right out of the oven, and Dining with Jane Austen recommends serving it with a simple salad or soup. I was lazy, and just ate mine by itself.

Honestly, I really wasn't sure what to expect. I really don't like undercooked eggs, and I was worried a couple minutes under the broiler would be enough to toast the cheese, but not cook out the eggyness of the eggs. I mean, come on, as much as I liked James Bond's favorite eggs, I always prefer cheese on bread to eggs with a little bit of cheese on bread.

Fortunately, my fears turned out to be totally uncalled for. This was very cheesy and super tasty. The mustard added an interesting element, too. Not too in your face, but tasty, and definitely different from the very vanilla grilled cheeses I usually indulge in. I really couldn't taste the eggs at all, honestly. The cheddar cheese kind of smothered the egg flavor, but made the cheese under the browned top a bit more runny, like a cheese sauce. It's a really rich dish, but definitely something I'm happy to eat as a 21st century diner. My brother had some with me too, and also thought it was good and had "nice toasty flavor". Sums it up pretty well, I think!

So, that's Welsh rarebit: an open faced grilled cheese that might or might not be Welsh, but was definitely something Jane Austen liked to eat. Even though Caroline lived across the ocean from Jane, she probably would have enjoyed snacking on this just as much as the famous author did, and I bet her mom and grandma liked it, too. It's really easy to make, easy to clean up after, and is definitely filling. Win, win, win! Try it for yourself and let us know how it turns out!

What's your favorite style of rarebit?


  1. Replies
    1. Me too! I've been craving it these last couple days. Too long since I've had some nice melty cheese.

  2. I love this dish--anyway that it is made. Stouffers use to sell a frozen version of the 'sauce'--it can be hard to find nowadays.

    Also, speaking of Austen, have you watched 'Austenland'? I enjoyed it. Keri Russell is in it and she goes to a Austen getaway. Pretty good flick.

    1. I haven't! Thanks for the recommendation! :D

  3. I'm of Welsh and British descent but still haven't tried this, although we all love cheese in our house! Your blog looks adorable; I just found it today, through "The doll mag" link.

    1. Thank you! Hope you enjoy, and I always welcome other people's opinions on stuff I've made, if you ever give it a shot yourself. c:

  4. Caroline looks lovely! Sorry I missed out on trying this. I have always been intrigued. Maybe next time.

    1. I'd be more than happy to make it again! :D

  5. I made this for evening food today and it was so fine. Will probably be better with actual butter and thicker bread, but mmmfph. Delicious and good on low energy days. I shall have to make it again.

    (reposted because whoops, not my blog, language levels.)

    1. I'm glad you liked it! It really is good for days when you don't feel up to doing much else. Grilled cheese I find high maintenance sometimes because you need to keep flipping it to make sure it doesn't burn, but this you just watch and let the oven do all the work.