Should it be Welsh Rabbit, or Welsh Rarebit? Either way, are these the same as Cheese on Toast? I’m afraid that you can spend hours googling and going through old recipe books and not get a clear answer. Actually, you will get lots of clear answers, with various degrees of huffiness (of the “I’m right and every other author is wrong…” type) but sadly they will often contradict each other.
So, while there is certainly no overall consensus, it does seem to me that “rarebit” is a latter-day rationalisation, and that “rabbit” was indeed the original form, as there exist ancient recipes for “Scottish Rabbit” and “English Rabbit” along with the Welsh, most referring to versions of cheese on toast with or without additional ingredients.
Why “Rabbit?” Frankly, the implied insult that the Welsh were so poor that they couldn’t afford rabbit, so ate cheese on toast as a substitute is not only patronising, but doesn’t hold water. I can see no way that melted cheese on toasted bread resembles rabbit in appearance or flavour, and surely, in all but the most metropolitan areas, rabbit has been a cheap and easily available meat for centuries. Perhaps there is an old word in the Welsh language for variants on cheese toasties that sounds a little like rabbit, and has subsequently been anglicised. Perhaps there was a tradition of using cookie-type cutters on toasted snacks to amuse the kids, and the rabbit-shape predominated at one time. If you have any ideas or theories, please feel free to comment below.
Is there is any real difference between “Rabbits” and Cheese on Toast? Although you can find many recipes and methods where one is a synonym for the other, most often “Welsh Rabbits/Welsh Rarebits” involve first making a cheesy sauce, frequently incorporating mustard and beer, which is then poured onto toast and grilled, whereas Cheese on Toast is usually just what it says: toast simply topped with uncooked sliced, crumbled or grated cheese, and then grilled.
Two basic recipes and methods follow for “Welsh Rabbit” and for Cheese on Toast. Many recipes for either suggest buttering the toast before adding the topping: I prefer not to, but it’s up to you.
The Toast: traditionally, the bread will be thick “doorstep” slices of day-old crusty white farmhouse-style bread, but there is no reason that you shouldn’t use whatever bread you enjoy eating or have to hand – granary, wholemeal, sourdough breads, rolls, baps, baguettes, ciabatta etc. But please not horrible white “plastic” supermarket sliced white, unless that is your particular perversion, in a “childhood favourite/guilty pleasures” kind of way.
Preheat the grill/overhead broiler to its full temperature before you start.
Toast the bread, and leave to cool on a rack, which will enable it to release any steam and crispen up a little. I prefer to only lightly toast what is to become the “cheesy” side, as I don’t particularly like the corners and other exposed bits to become black and carbonised by the time the topping has grilled. For some, semi-burned bits are a treat: so whatever you like.
Cheese on Toast: grate or crumble enough cheese (whatever cheese you like) to generously cover the slice(s) of toast. Remember that grated cheese will heat through and melt better than chunks or slices, but will also cook down. Top the slice(s) of toast, and pop under your (preheated) grill/overhead broiler. Keep an eye on it: it’s ready when the cheese has melted and has some golden brown spots and patches.
Welsh Rabbit Basic Sauce: (enough for four average slices of toast)
1 teaspoon (or a good pinch or two) dry English Mustard powder (see note below)
5fl oz/150ml milk
6oz/175g grated cheese (a good tangy cheddar or similar)
5fl oz/150ml beer – a good ale, preferably; if not whatever tasty beer you have
Several good dashes (around two teaspoons) of Worcestershire Sauce
Salt and pepper
Two egg yolks, beaten
(Note re Mustard: if using a ready-made, i.e. “wet” mustard, rather than the powdered form, add to the mixture and stir well just before spreading on the toast. “Made” mustard can lose some of it’s flavour and volatility during cooking.
Melt the butter in a heavy-based pan over a medium heat, add the flour and mustard powder, stir well and cook for a minute or two. Add the milk in several stages, whisking continuously. Bring just to the boil, then immediately reduce heat to minimum (use a heat-diffusion mat if necessary) and continue to cook gently for ten minutes or a little longer, until any “raw flour” taste has gone. Remove from the heat, and stir in the grated cheese. Boil the ale and Worcestershire Sauce until greatly reduced – down to about a tablespoonful or two, then add to the cheese sauce, mixing well.
Check for seasoning: you may not need much if any salt due to the cheese and Worcestershire sauce, but be generous with the pepper.
Whisk in the egg yolks, spread the mixture on the toast and grill until bubbling hot with golden brown patches. Serve immediately, piping hot.
Whichever of the above methods you chose, I see no reason not to ring the changes (I often do) and add ingredients such as chopped ham, cooked bacon, salami, chorizo or cooked chicken, finely chopped or sliced onion, garlic, tomatoes, anchovies, fresh/dried herbs or whatever you like. Which only goes to beg the question: apart from the base, could we not consider the Welsh Rabbit/Cheese Toastie to be a northern European version of Pizza? Or, indeed, the other way around; Neapolitan Rabbit, anyone?