What’s a great snack for a winter afternoon? Welsh rabbit, the homey, everyday cousin of fancy fondue and party-time nachos. It’s quick, easy, gratifying and fun to play around with.
The concept is elemental. The first rabbits recorded, in the early 18th century, were simply bread and cheese toasted separately before the fire on long forks and then slapped together to make a sort of Welsh quesadilla. (Because nobody’s sure how the dish’s name came about, some people later decided, for no good reason, to call it “rarebit.”)
When the dish became popular in London clubs and taverns, utensils called cheese toasters showed up. The first ones were simply pans on long handles. Later cheese toasters were, in effect, chafing dishes heated with boiling water.
Now cooks could start elaborating on that melted cheese topping with all sorts of flavorings -- cream, Port (for the “English rabbit”), anchovies (for the “Scotch woodcock”) and so on. Because people usually drank ale with Welsh rabbit, ale crept into the topping, and the best-known recipes call for ale and dry mustard.
In this country, Prohibitionists seem to have had a problem with the ale. At some time between the 1890s and the 1920s, a recipe arose that substituted canned tomato soup for ale, giving rise to the pink rabbit or blushing bunny of many a nursery lunch.
I take Welsh rabbit and its whole clan seriously, so I have a Welsh rabbit philosophy. Call me crazy, but I think it was a mistake for ale to get involved in the topping. Keep your ale on the side, say I, where its bittersweetness can act as a foil to the cheese, rather than turning it into a monochromatic sludge (which the sulfurous note of mustard does nothing to improve).
In my opinion, thickening a rabbit with flour usually makes it unacceptably stodgy. If your cheese topping is too runny, maybe it’s because you’ve put in too much liquid. And I find the versions made with cream and eggs a bit rich for a snack. Go ahead and serve them at dinner, and explain yourself to your doctor later.
One of the 18th century touches in rabbit-making was browning the surface of the cheese. If you were rich, you owned a utensil called a salamander, a big lump of metal on a long handle that you could heat red-hot in the fireplace and hold over your rabbit until the surface bubbled. People who didn’t have a salamander used a heated shovel.
These days, many restaurants (and some extreme-foodie kitchens) have special broilers called salamanders for browning dishes such as creme brulee. They work fine for Welsh rabbit, and so do ordinary oven broilers and toaster ovens.
I happen to believe most rabbits are improved by slight browning.
Apart from the enjoyable flavor that results, broiling guarantees that the dish is good and hot. A cold Welsh rabbit is a melancholy thing.
Go ahead, play around
Melted cheese is rich and forgiving, so rabbit is hospitable to experimentation. I didn’t want to use ale, so I tried onion juice, which has a wonderfully friendly aroma (though your eyes may water as you make it). It was an elegant and satisfying combination. Plain old cheddar worked fine with onion juice, but further experimentation showed that a more aromatic cheese such as Camembert can serve even better.
Another substitute for ale is sour cream, which adds richness and a subtle tartness. Cheese and sour cream made me think of Mexican food, so how about adding salsa? Unfortunately, the result was bland and runny, not the sort of nacho-rabbit cross you might expect. Chipotle chiles, on the other hand, made a memorably hot, smoky-flavored rabbit.
While I was fooling with sour cream and chiles, I thought of making a curry rabbit, but something seemed to be missing. It was chutney, of course. The raj rabbit was born.
Finally, having had my share of blushing bunnies as a nipper, I felt entitled to add more grown-up ingredients to nudge the tomato soup version out of the nursery food category. Chives and a free hand with the Worcestershire sauce did the trick.
Still, no matter how much we experiment, we should never lose sight of what Welsh rabbit is: a quick, simple, unpretentious, immediately satisfying snack. You can play with it -- throw on some bacon or chopped ham, if you want -- but don’t elaborate on it too much. No long list of ingredients, please, and preferably nothing you have to make a special trip to buy. If you insist on using a rare cheese in Welsh rabbit, whip up a fondue instead.
After all, if you want to go to that much trouble, you might as well just make dinner.