You’d think that, in that Great Toast Revival of the past year, Americans would have pounced on the cheese toast with a flavor boost called Welsh rarebit. It’s one of the most delicious, filling, economical-yet-luxurious types of toast one can make. We’ve yet to see an avocado-toast-style rarebit revival and no associated flood of Instagram posts that ooze melting cheddar.
It could be the result of Anglophobia, which is evident regarding culinary issues. “We get something of a bad rap for cooking British food in New York,” said chef Ed Szymanski, the London-born co-owner of the hot spots Lady Dame and the newly-opened Lord’s located, which is located in Greenwich Village.
Welsh rarebit is one of the most enduring things Mr. Szymanski features on the more contemporary menu at Lord’s and may be the key to an alteration in perception. “It’s basically beer cheese, which is popular in the U.S. It’s just the English way to do it,” Szymanski said. “You certainly grow up in the U.K. eating cheesy things on toast when your parents aren’t home.” That was the way I grew up when I was growing up living in New York, too: A kid can melt a piece of cheese on bread.
Welsh Rarebit does demand just an extra effort. Mr. Szymanski described making the cheese-based toppers: “You start with flour and butter until you get a thick roux, and then you add Guinness until you have a thick Guinnessy paste, and then you add cheese.” The resulting sauce is spiced with mustard (the spicy powdered variety it is, please, produced by Colman’s), Worcestershire sauce, mustard, and some chili in Tabasco and cayenne.
Learn how to make Classic Welsh Rarebit a la St. John below. PHOTO: F. MARTIN RAMIN/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, FOOD STYLING BY KIM RAMIN
For more context, I contacted Nicola Miller, who regularly offers a scholarly perspective on British cuisine in her monthly newsletter “Tales From Topographic Kitchens.” “Unlike cheese on toast, rarebit’s topping is made in a pan before being poured over toasted bread and then grilled until it is bubbling and blistered,” Ms. Miller said. “It is a little more complicated and one of the tests of a good cook.”
While chefs have used it in some of London’s finest eateries, Welsh rarebit is, at its core, not a pretentious dish. But it’s not for children either. “It’s proper home cooking, or that’s what the execution of a rarebit feels like to me, because you start by making a roux, which can be tricky,” Ms. Miller said. (As to the dish’s complicated lineage, I’ll point to “Rarebit’s impostor Syndrome,” below.)
Although mastering making a roux can be pretty straightforward, Debora Robertson, author of the cookbook “Notes from a Small Kitchen Island” (May 23rd, Michael Joseph), said that not all home cooks historically would have taken the time to prepare. In an email, she recalled that her grandmother, an ethnically diverse Welsh family, cooked her infamous roux “just loosened with a little milk and dotted with butter, maybe with a few splashes of Worcestershire sauce.”
Today the roux-based rarebit served at the restaurant of Fergus Henderson St. John, a London landmark, is the one Mr. Szymanski describes as “a lot of people’s north star.” This is the recipe he developed the Lord’s version on. However, he employs regional Sourdough “that makes the product taste slightly different from what you’d have at a place in London.” He also blends the cheddar with Alpha Tolman from Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont, that “adds a creaminess to the proceedings.” It’s also delicious. I like the Anchovies cured in olive oil.
The chef. Henderson’s recipe also can be topped with toppings. You could try salted leeks, caramelized onions, sauerkraut, or kimchi. Szymanski endorses folding crab or lobster meat into the sauce to make it more attractive. He also offered a different, enlightening concept: “Folded into mashed potatoes, it would be like a British version of pommes aligot.”
If the idea of making a roux shakes you or you’re overwhelmed, I’ll share a quick fix I found in “The Ivy: Restaurant & the Recipes” by A.A. Gill. The recipe doesn’t require precooking the sauce. Instead, it makes use of egg yolks to bond the cheese. The first time I tried it, I was disappointed. I am slightly light on the cheddar and the seasonings, so I adjusted the recipe according to my personal preferences. I am trying to understand why this delicious, easy-to-make snack isn’t going to be the talk of your community.
RAREBIT’S IMPOSTOR SYNDROME: Experts weigh in on a dubious etymology
Does it mean rabbit?
“English Food “English Food” (1974), English cookery writer Jane Grigson describes the term rarebit as a “false etymological refinement.” She also offers recipes to make “Welsh Rabbit,” restoring what she believes is the proper–if the name, but one that is misleading. (Rabbit is never an ingredient in any recipe.)
Is it Welsh?
Cheddar, an eminently English cheese, is the norm for rarebits. It is mentioned in “First Catch Your Peacock,” an essential guide to Welsh cuisine. English writer Nicola Miller observed that a soft, Welsh cheese could have been featured in very early rarebits (or proto-rarebits). “The Welsh would barter for Cheddar with the neighboring English, to their east,” Ms. Miller explained. “And so rarebit started to evolve.”
A fellow English food journalist, Debora Robertson, added two-pence: “I don’t know if we actually consider it to be Welsh especially, but it is. It’s just as likely to find it on the menu on a menu in England as you would in Wales. Also, it’s much more likely prepared using English cheddar cheese.”
Cheater’s Welsh Rarebit
- Three large egg yolks
- 1 Tablespoon Worcestershire Sauce
- One tablespoon of Colman’s Dry Mustard
- At a minimum, six drops of Tabasco
- 2 ounces ( 1/4 cup) Guinness
- Ground nutmeg (optional)
- Freshly ground black pepper and salt
- 8 ounces aged English-style cheddar grated
- 3 ( 1/2-inch thick) pieces of Pullman or country loaf
- Chives or chopped parsley to garnish (optional)
- Preheat oven to 350°F. In a medium bowl, mix in all the ingredients for the topping, except cheddar. Add nutmeg to taste or salt and pepper. Stir in cheddar.
- Spread the bread out on a baking sheet. Bake in the oven until lightly toasty, around 8 minutes. Repeat flipping the bread till lightly toasty on the reverse side, around 7 minutes. Broil the oven. Spread one-third of the topping on each slice and distribute it equally.
- Broil until golden, approximately one and a half minutes. Add herbs If you’d like. Serve bubbling hot.