The toasted cheese sandwich is a staple long beloved by moms everywhere: quick and cheap to make, tasty, and generally acceptable to even the pickiest kid. Back in the halcyon ’80s, my grandma used to make me a toasted cheese and a cup of Mrs. Grass chicken soup and then send me outside to play with my GI Joes.

The tastiness and utility of toasted cheese did not pass unnoticed in the 18th Century, though back then the sandwich was open-faced. It still survives in the modern era under its 18th century name: Welsh Rabbit, the origin of which is uncertain. It’s possible that it might have come from “rare-bit”, since only an extremely imaginative Welshman would mistake the flavor for that of a rabbit. 

Like roast beef and plum pudding, the Rabbit was also something of a British cultural feature as well as a tasty meal. Regional variations existed for each of the three kingdoms of Great Britain (England, Scotland, and Wales). I decided to try all three and see which would prove supreme. Hannah Glasse’s 1745 recipes don’t need much modification; all you need to do is use your broiler or toaster instead of an open hearth.

You’ll need:

  • Crusty bread, sliced. Whole wheat is both more accurate and better for you.
  • Good firm English cheese, such as Cheddar, Stilton, or Lincolnshire Poacher. Parmesan, while not English, is also acceptable; it traveled and kept well, and sometimes even showed up in military stores.
  • unsalted butter
  • English mustard (the powdered kind)
  • Red wine
  • White wine 

To Make a Welch Rabbit: Toast the bread on both sides, then toast the cheese on one side, lay it on the toast, and with a hot iron brown the other side. You may rub it over with mustard.

Easier modern version: toast your slice of bread, top with cheese and sprinkle with mustard. Pass under broiler till cheese is browned and bubbly.

Verdict:The toasted cheese baseline. The main attraction of the Welch Rabbit is the sharpness of the mustard. Good if you like strong flavors.

To Make a Scotch Rabbit: Toast a piece of bread very nicely on both sides, butter it, cut a slice of cheese about as big as the bread, toast it on both sides, and lay it on the bread.

Easier Modern Version: As per Welch Rabbit, but butter your bread prior to adding the cheese for the final toast and omit the mustard.

Verdict: Even in the 18th Century, “Scotch” is synonymous with “Lots of Cooking Fat”. This one tastes the most like the toasted cheese I remember from my childhood.

To Make an English Rabbit: Toast a slice of bread on both sides, then lay it on a plate before the fire, pour a glass of red wine over it, and let it soak the wine up; then cut some cheese very thin, and lay it thick over the bread, and put it in a tin oven before the fire, and it will be toasted and browned presently. Serve it away hot.      

Easier Modern Version:As Welch Rabbit, but soak the bread in 1/4 cup red wine before toasting the final time.

Verdict: Man, this one is good. The wine gives the bread a nice chewy texture, and the flavors are a natural match. If you want a simple but period recipe to impress people with, this is the one.

Or, do it thus: Toast the bread and soak it in wine, set it before the fire, cut your cheese in very thin slices, rub butter over the bottom of a plate, lay the cheese on, pour in two or three spoonfuls of white wine, cover it with another plate, set it over a chafing-dish of hot coals for two or three minutes; then stir till it is well done and well mixed: you may stir in a little mustard; when it is enough, lay it on the bread, just brown it with a hot shovel. Serve it away hot.

Easier Modern Version: Toast your bread as per Welch Rabbit. Melt your cheese in a double boiler with about 1 tbs butter and 2 tbs white wine per 8 oz of cheese. Add mustard to taste. Pour over bread and then toast until just browned.

Verdict: The most work for the best taste. Don’t try this one without a double-boiler or you’ll be scraping burned cheese off your pot for a long time.

One nice thing about this recipe is that we have an existing modern version to demonstrate how tastes have changed or stayed the same:

Welsh Rarebit With Beer (courtesy Colonial Williamsburg Tavern Cookbook)

  • 1 tbs unsalted butter
  • 1 lb grated sharp Cheddar cheese
  • 3/4 cup beer, divided
  • dash Tabasco
  • 1 tsp dry mustard
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • 1 tsp cornstarch
  • Toast

Melt butter in double boiler over hot, but not boiling, water. Stir in cheese and all but 1 tbs beer. Stir until cheese melts. Add remaining beer, mustard, salt, Tabasco, and Worcestershire sauce.

Beat egg in small bowl with cornstarch and stir into cheese mixture. Cook, stirring often, till thickened, about 3-5 minutes. Serve immediately over toast. 

Rabbit at its Welch-est. 

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