Rarebit, or more properly Welsh rarebit or Welsh rabbit, is a delicious dish with an interesting name and fascinating history. Made with melted cheese and other ingredients and served hot over toasted bread, rarebit is tangy, rich and savory – a classic comfort food.
While there are many variations, nearly every modern version of the venerable dish includes two ingredients: cheese and mustard. Many recipes include beer; others do not. In contrast to the European fondue, which calls for Swiss cheese, Welsh rarebit is typically made with Cheddar cheese.
Various recipes for Welsh rarebit include the addition of ale, mustard, ground cayenne pepper and Worcestershire sauce. The sauce may also be made by blending cheese and mustard into a white sauce of butter, flour and milk or cream. Our version uses all of these ingredients, plus another not usually seen in other recipes – morel mushrooms.
A venerable dish with an interesting name
The origins of the name are cloudy, but it’s clear that the dish has existed in some form for a very long time. Some suggest that Welsh Rabbit began with a Welsh dish of baked cheese or that the dish was attributed to the Welsh because they were considered particularly fond of cheese.
The word rarebit seems clearly to be a corruption of rabbit. The first recorded use of the term “Welsh rabbit” occurs in 1725 with the variant term “Welsh rarebit” appearing some 60 years later. There is no evidence of the word rarebit occurring other than as a variation of Welsh rabbit. These days, the word “Welsh” is frequently dropped altogether with the word “rarebit” alone used in place of the original name. Why the name “rabbit?” Nobody seems to know, although speculations abound.
Rarebit in early 20th century pop culture
Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, a newspaper comic strip by American cartoonist Winsor McCay, was first produced in 1904, a generation before Surrealism burst onto the scene and unleashed the subconscious on an unsuspecting public. The strip had little continuity, apart from one recurring theme: a character would have a bizarre, quasi-hallucenogenic dream, usually after eating Welsh rarebit. Invariably, the character would awaken from the dream, regretting having eaten the rarebit.
Regrets? As Frank Sinatra sang, we have a few. But we have no regrets about our love for the many versions of Welsh rarebit, a dish that we intend to visit again and again.
This “rare bit” also makes an excellent sauce for vegetables and fish, or a delicously savory dip. Cold leftover rarebit (if there is any) makes a great sandwich spread too.
- 2 ounces fresh morel mushrooms, cleaned and sliced or 1/2 oz dried morel mushrooms, reconstituted, drained & sliced * (see below)
- 3 Tbsp unsalted butter
- 3 Tbsp flour
- 1 Tbsp Founders Dirty Bastard Mustard
- 1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
- sea salt & freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 cup dark beer
- 1 1/2 cups milk
- 8 oz grated sharp cheddar cheese
- 1/8 tsp cayenne pepper (optional)
- 2 Tbsp snipped chives for garnish (optional)
Melt the butter in a medium sized saucepan over low heat and add the morels. Cook for 2 or 3 minutes or until lightly browned and slightly softened.
Sprinkle in the flour, stirring to mix well. Reduce the heat slightly and continue to cook for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring gently. In a medium bowl, mix together the milk, mustard, Worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper and beer.
Pour in the milk mixture and continue to stir until the sauce begins to thicken. Stir in the grated cheese little by little, stirring constantly until the cheese melts and the sauce is thick and smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Stir in the cayenne pepper, if using.
Ladle the rarebit generously over toasted bread, English Muffins or homemade croutons and pop under a preheated broiler for 1 -2 minutes or until the sauce is bubbling and slightly browned. Garnish with an additional sprinkle of cayenne and some snipped chives, if desired. Serve immediately. Sweet dreams!
* If fresh morels are out of season, substitute 1/2 oz dried morels. Reconstitute by putting the dried morels into a small bowl and pouring over very hot water, sufficient to cover them. Allow to soak for 15 – 20 minutes or until soft and pliable. Drain well, reserving the soaking liquid for other uses, such as soups or sauces. Rinse the reconstituted mushrooms well under cool running water to remove any remaining grit or debris. Drain again, pat dry and use.
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