Thursday, January 31, 2008
Welsh Rabbit, Welsh Rarebit
Always searching for a happy, late-night snack, I recently turned my attention to Welsh Rarebit, primarily because I'd never had it before. I'm not Welsh.
I'd heard tell of rarebit, garnering sufficient information to know that rabbit meat was not involved, yet not enough to understand that this was not some vegetarian variation on S. O. S. , also known as chipped beef on toast. I was certain of two things: 1) bread and cheese were involved and 2) the Welsh were not being flattered in the naming of this dish. I did a little research.
Yes, it was cheese toast and, no, praise for Welsh culture was not intended. Though ostensibly an English dish (other British and European cultures have their own versions), the original name of the dish was Welsh Rabbit. In England, rabbit was considered poor man's meat so, in a rather clever, back-handed way, naming the dish "Welsh Rabbit" suggested that, not only were the Welsh poor, as they were, but too stupid and/or lazy to go out and capture their own prey, thus having to satisfy their hunger with bread and cheese. It's 18th Century insult food. But it's good, both as an insult and as a dish.
Sometime in the late 19th Century, some forward thinking, politically correct person or personess took pity upon the poor Welsh and softened the name by changing it to Welsh Rarebit, taking with it much of the bite. In a sense, making it blander than it need be.
Personally, I think the Welsh are doing just fine. How can one not love a culture that has given the world Tom Jones, Dame Shirley Bassey, and countless vowel-shy place names that no one but an insider can pronounce? And I would argue that this dish is for the lazy. Lazy is a grilled cheese sandwich. Think of this as a grilled cheese sandwich that requires a bit more effort.
Welsh Rarebit with Apples
The rarebit recipe is taken directly from New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman, a.k.a The Minimalist. You can go directly to a video of him preparing the dish here, which is what made me want to make it in the first place. In fact, I spent so much time sitting at my desk, watching his videos I got very little done that day. I've always enjoyed reading him, but I am now an even bigger fan of his as a result of seeing him on camera.
There are a great number of variations on the rarebit-like, cheese on toast theme. I have chosen to prepare Bittman's because, apart from being extremely simple to prepare, it has a little spicy kick. I added sliced apples because I like apples, which is reason enough.
For the Rarebit:
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon dried mustard
a healthy pinch of cayenne pepper
1/2 bottle of good, dark English beer, like Guiness Stout
a few generous shakes of Worstershire sauce
1 pound excellent English cheddar, grated
For the Rest:
1 loaf of good, hearty wheat or white bread. I do not recommend sliced sandwich bread. The results will depress you.
1 tart, sweet apple, sliced thinly. I used Pink Lady, because I like their flavor, they're available and I loved the pop duo as a child. Granny Smith will do, too.
1 bunch scallion, chopped
In a saucepan large enough to contain all of the ingredients, melt butter over medium low heat and add flour. Cook the mixture, stirring with a wooden spoon, until it is dirty blonde in color and smells faintly nutty.
Add mustard and cayenne pepper, then pour in the beer, stirring all the while. Add Worstershire sauce (if you add the sauce before the beer, the sauce will burn, sending up blackish flecks as you stir, so I do not recommend it). Now add the cheese and keep stirring until your efforts result in a smooth cheese sauce.
Pour into a bowl, large ramekin, or containing vessel of your choice. The rarebit sauce will cool into a solid mass, looking just like a cheese spread, which is precisely what it is. The sauce will keep covered in your refrigerator for several days, which is precisely the idea-- it's ready for you at a moment's notice.
When the moment has notified you sufficiently, slice your crusty bread to its desired thickness, place on a sheet pan and put it under a broiler. If you place the bread slices under your broiler and you notice that no change has occurred to them in several minutes, make sure your broiler's heating element is turned on-- listen to the voice of experience. Toast the slices well on one side, remove the pan from the oven and turn the bread over, replacing them under the broiler and toasting them less thoroughly than you have the previous side-- this will be the upside to your rarebit.
Spread a little of the now-solidified cheese onto your toast. This will adhere your apple slices to the bread. Arrange apple slices over the cheese.
At this point, I like to warm up a bit of the sauce in my microwave on low, to make it softer, therefore easier, to spread over the apple slices. Cover the apples generously with the cheese. Place the hopefully well-constructed toasts under the broiler. Do not remove them until the cheese bubbles and browns. If you have a conventional, broiler-on-the-bottom oven and your kitchen floor is clean enough, I might suggest lying down on the floor with one hand propping up your head and the other clad in an oven mitt, leaving the door of the broiler open a bit in order to get a good view of the action. If you are prosperous enough to have two oven mitts, I would suggest wearing the second one on the hand that supports your head for added comfort.
Remove the toasts from the oven when they have reached the desired doneness, transfer to a serving plate and sprinkle with the scallions. If you eat them immediately, the cheese will very likely burn the roof of your mouth. The time it takes to walk to you refrigerator, grab a beer and pop it open is sufficient cooling time.