Beelingo.com

Complete Book of Cheese, The

Chapter
Five

Sixty-five Sizzling Rabbits

That nice little smoky room at the "Salutation," which is even now continually presenting itself to my recollection, with all its associated train of pipes, egg-hot, welsh-rabbits, metaphysics and poetry.

Charles Lamb,
IN A LETTER TO COLERIDGE

Unlike the beginning of the classical Jugged Hare recipe: "First catch your hare!" we modern Rabbit-hunters start off with "First catch your Cheddar!" And some of us go so far as to smuggle in formerly forbidden fromages such as Gruyère, Neufchâtel, Parmesan, and mixtures thereof. We run the gamut of personal preferences in selecting the Rabbit cheese itself, from old-time American, yellow or store cheese, to Coon and Canadian-smoked, though all of it is still Cheddar, no matter how you slice it.

Then, too, guests are made to run the gauntlet of all-American trimmings from pin-money pickles to peanut butter, succotash and maybe marshmallows; we add mustard, chill, curry, tabasco and sundry bottled red devils from the grocery store, to add pep and piquance to the traditional cayenne and black pepper. This results in Rabbits that are out of focus, out of order and out of this world.

Among modern sins of omission, the Worcestershire sauce is left out by braggarts who aver that they can take it or leave it. And, in these degenerate days, when it comes to substitutions for the original beer or stale pale ale, we find the gratings of great Cheddars wet down with mere California sherry or even ginger ale—yet so far, thank goodness, no Cokes. And there's tomato juice out of a can into the Rum Turn Tiddy, and sometimes celery soup in place of milk or cream.

In view of all this, we can only look to the standard cookbooks for salvation. These are mostly compiled by women, our thoughtful mothers, wives and sweethearts who have saved the twin Basic Rabbits for us. If it weren't for these Fanny Farmers, the making of a real aboriginal Welsh Rabbit would be a lost art—lost in sporting male attempts to improve upon the original.

The girls are still polite about the whole thing and protectively pervert the original spelling of "Rabbit" to "Rarebit" in their culinary guides. We have heard that once a club of ladies in high society tried to high-pressure the publishers of Mr. Webster's dictionary to change the old spelling in their favor. Yet there is a lot to be said for this more genteel and appetizing rendering of the word, for the Welsh masterpiece is, after all, a very rare bit of cheesemongery, male or female.

Yet in dealing with "Rarebits" the distaff side seldom sets down more than the basic Adam and Eve in a whole Paradise of Rabbits: No. 1, the wild male type made with beer, and No. 2, the mild female made with milk. Yet now that the chafing dish has come back to stay, there's a flurry in the Rabbit warren and the new cooking encyclopedias give up to a dozen variants. Actually there are easily half a gross of valid ones in current esteem.

The two basic recipes are differentiated by the liquid ingredient, but both the beer and the milk are used only one way—warm, or anyway at room temperature. And again for the two, there is but one traditional cheese—Cheddar, ripe, old or merely aged from six months onward. This is also called American, store, sharp, Rabbit, yellow, beer, Wisconsin Longhorn, mouse, and even rat.

The seasoned, sapid Cheddar-type, so indispensable, includes dozens of varieties under different names, regional or commercial. These are easily identified as sisters-under-the-rinds by all five senses:

sight: Golden yellow and mellow to the eye. It's one of those round cheeses that also tastes round in the mouth.

hearing: By thumping, a cheese-fancier, like a melon-picker, can tell if a Cheddar is rich, ripe and ready for the Rabbit. When you hear your dealer say, "It's six months old or more," enough said.

smell: A scent as fresh as that of the daisies and herbs the mother milk cow munched "will hang round it still." Also a slight beery savor.

touch: Crumbly—a caress to the fingers.

taste: The quintessence of this fivefold test. Just cuddle a crumb with your tongue and if it tickles the taste buds it's prime. When it melts in your mouth, that's proof it will melt in the pan.

Beyond all this (and in spite of the school that plumps for the No. 2 temperance alternative) we must point out that beer has a special affinity for Cheddar. The French have clearly established this in their names for Welsh Rabbit, Fromage Fondue à la Bière and Fondue à l'Anglaise.

To prepare such a cheese for the pan, each Rabbit hound may have a preference all his own, for here the question comes up of how it melts best. Do you shave, slice, dice, shred, mince, chop, cut, scrape or crumble it in the fingers? This will vary according to one's temperament and the condition of the cheese. Generally, for best results it is coarsely grated. When it comes to making all this into a rare bit of Rabbit there is:

The One and Only Method

Use a double boiler, or preferably a chafing dish, avoiding aluminum and other soft metals. Heat the upper pan by simmering water in the lower one, but don't let the water boil up or touch the top pan.

Most, but not all, Rabbits are begun by heating a bit of butter or margarine in the pan in which one cup of roughly grated cheese, usually sharp Cheddar, is melted and mixed with one-half cup of liquid, added gradually. (The butter isn't necessary for a cheese that should melt by itself.)

The two principal ingredients are melted smoothly together and kept from curdling by stirring steadily in one direction only, over an even heat. The spoon used should be of hard wood, sterling silver or porcelain. Never use tin, aluminum or soft metal—the taste may come off to taint the job.

Be sure the liquid is at room temperature, or warmer, and add it gradually, without interrupting the stirring. Do not let it come to the bubbling point, and never let it boil.

Add seasonings only when the cheese is melted, which will take two or three minutes. Then continue to stir in the same direction without an instant's letup, for maybe ten minutes or more, until the Rabbit is smooth. The consistency and velvety smoothness depend a good deal on whether or not an egg, or a beaten yolk, is added.

The hotter the Rabbit is served, the better. You can sizzle the top with a salamander or other branding iron, but in any case set it forth as nearly sizzling as possible, on toast hellishly hot, whether it's browned or buttered on one side or both.

Give a thought to the sad case of the "little dog whose name was Rover, and when he was dead he was dead all over." Something very similar happens with a Rabbit that's allowed to cool down—when it's cold it's cold all over, and you can't resuscitate it by heating.

BASIC WELSH RABBIT

No. 1 (with beer)

2 tablespoons butter
3 cups grated old Cheddar
½ teaspoon English dry mustard
½ teaspoon salt
A dash of cayenne
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
2 egg yolks, lightly beaten with
½ cup light beer or ale
4 slices hot buttered toast

Over boiling water melt butter and cheese together, stirring steadily with a wooden (or other tasteless) spoon in one direction only. Add seasonings and do not interrupt your rhythmic stirring, as you pour in a bit at a time of the beer-and-egg mixture until it's all used up.

It may take many minutes of constant stirring to achieve the essential creamy thickness and then some more to slick it out as smooth as velvet.

Keep it piping hot but don't let it bubble, for a boiled Rabbit is a spoiled Rabbit. Only unremitting stirring (and the best of cheese) will keep it from curdling, getting stringy or rubbery. Pour the Rabbit generously over crisp, freshly buttered toast and serve instantly on hot plates.

Usually crusts are cut off the bread before toasting, and some aesthetes toast one side only, spreading the toasted side with cold butter for taste contrast. Lay the toast on the hot plate, buttered side down, and pour the Rabbit over the porous untoasted side so it can soak in. (This is recommended in Lady Llanover's recipe, which appears on page 52 of this book.)

Although the original bread for Rabbit toast was white, there is now no limit in choice among whole wheat, graham, rolls, muffins, buns, croutons and crackers, to infinity.

No. 2 (with milk)

For a rich milk Rabbit use ½ cup thin cream, evaporated milk,
whole milk or buttermilk, instead of beer as in No. 1. Then, to
keep everything bland, cut down the mustard by half or leave
it out, and use paprika in place of cayenne. As in No. 1, the
use of Worcestershire sauce is optional, although our feeling is
that any spirited Rabbit would resent its being left out.

Either of these basic recipes can be made without eggs, and more cheaply, although the beaten egg is a guarantee against stringiness. When the egg is missing, we are sad to record that a teaspoon or so of cornstarch generally takes its place.

Rabbiteers are of two minds about fast and slow heating and stirring, so you'll have to adjust that to your own experience and rhythm. As a rule, the heat is reduced when the cheese is almost melted, and speed of stirring slows when the eggs and last ingredients go in.

Many moderns who have found that monosodium glutamate steps up the flavor of natural cheese, put it in at the start, using one-half teaspoon for each cup of grated Cheddar. When it comes to pepper you are fancy-free. As both black and white pepper are now held in almost equal esteem, you might equip your hutch with twin hand-mills to do the grinding fresh, for this is always worth the trouble. Tabasco sauce is little used and needs a cautious hand, but some addicts can't leave it out any more than they can swear off the Worcestershire.

The school that plumps for malty Rabbits and the other that goes for milky ones are equally emphatic in their choice. So let us consider the compromise of our old friend Frederick Philip Stieff, the Baltimore homme de bouche, as he set it forth for us years ago in 10,000 Snacks: "The idea of cooking a Rabbit with beer is an exploded and dangerous theory. Tap your keg or open your case of ale or beer and serve with, not in your Rabbit."

The Stieff Recipe     BASIC MILK RABBIT

(completely surrounded by a lake of malt beverages)

2 cups grated sharp cheese
3 heaping tablespoons butter
1½ cups milk
4 eggs
1 heaping tablespoon mustard
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
Pepper, salt and paprika to taste—then add more of each.

Grease well with butter the interior of your double boiler so that no hard particles of cheese will form in the mixture later and contribute undesirable lumps.

Put cheese, well-grated, into the double boiler and add butter and milk. From this point vigorous stirring should be indulged in until Rabbit is ready for serving.

Prepare a mixture of Worcestershire sauce, mustard, pepper, salt and paprika. These should be beaten until light and then slowly poured into the double boiler. Nothing now remains to be done except to stir and cook down to proper consistency over a fairly slow flame. The finale has not arrived until you can drip the rabbit from the spoon and spell the word finis on the surface. Pour over two pieces of toast per plate and send anyone home who does not attack it at once.

This is sufficient for six gourmets or four gourmands.

Nota bene: A Welsh Rabbit, to be a success, should never be of the consistency whereby it may be used to tie up bundles, nor yet should it bounce if inadvertently dropped on the kitchen floor.

Lady Llanover's Toasted Welsh Rabbit

Cut a slice of the real Welsh cheese made of sheep's and cow's milk; toast it at the fire on both sides, but not so much as to drop (melt). Toast on one side a piece of bread less than ¼ inch thick, to be quite crisp, and spread it very thinly with fresh, cold butter on the toasted side. (It must not be saturated.) Lay the toasted cheese upon the untoasted bread side and serve immediately on a very hot plate. The butter on the toast can, of course, be omitted. (It is more frequently eaten without butter.)

From this original toasting of the cheese many Englishmen still call Welsh Rabbit "Toasted Cheese," but Lady Llanover goes on to point out that the Toasted Rabbit of her Wales and the Melted or Stewed Buck Rabbit of England (which has become our American standard) are as different in the making as the regional cheeses used in them, and she says that while doctors prescribed the toasted Welsh as salubrious for invalids, the stewed cheese of Olde England was "only adapted to strong digestions."

English literature rings with praise for the toasted cheese of Wales and England. There is Christopher North's eloquent "threads of unbeaten gold, shining like gossamer filaments (that may be pulled from its tough and tenacious substance)."

Yet not all of the references are complimentary.

Thus Shakespeare in King Lear:

Look, look a mouse!
Peace, peace;—this piece of toasted cheese will do it.

And Sydney Smith's:

Old friendships are destroyed by toasted cheese, and hard salted meat has led to suicide.

But Khys Davis in My Wales makes up for such rudenesses:

The Welsh Enter Heaven

The Lord had been complaining to St. Peter of the dearth of good singers in Heaven. "Yet," He said testily, "I hear excellent singing outside the walls. Why are not those singers here with me?"

St. Peter said, "They are the Welsh. They refuse to come in; they say they are happy enough outside, playing with a ball and boxing and singing such songs as 'Suspan Fach'"

The Lord said, "I wish them to come in here to sing Bach and Mendelssohn. See that they are in before sundown."

St. Peter went to the Welsh and gave them the commands of the Lord. But still they shook their heads. Harassed, St. Peter went to consult with St. David, who, with a smile, was reading the works of Caradoc Evans.

St. David said, "Try toasted cheese. Build a fire just inside the gates and get a few angels to toast cheese in front of it" This St. Peter did. The heavenly aroma of the sizzling, browning cheese was wafted over the walls and, with loud shouts, a great concourse of the Welsh came sprinting in. When sufficient were inside to make up a male voice choir of a hundred, St Peter slammed the gates. However, it is said that these are the only Welsh in Heaven.

And, lest we forget, the wonderful drink that made Alice grow and grow to the ceiling of Wonderland contained not only strawberry jam but toasted cheese.

Then there's the frightening nursery rhyme:

The Irishman loved usquebaugh,
The Scot loved ale called Bluecap.
The Welshman, he loved toasted cheese,
And made his mouth like a mousetrap.
The Irishman was drowned in usquebaugh,
The Scot was drowned in ale,
The Welshman he near swallowed a mouse
But he pulled it out by the tail.

And, perhaps worst of all, Shakespeare, no cheese-lover, this tune in Merry Wives of Windsor:

'Tis time I were choked by a bit of toasted cheese.

An elaboration of the simple Welsh original went English with Dr. William Maginn, the London journalist whose facile pen enlivened the Blackwoods Magazine era with Ten Tales:

Dr. Maginn's Rabbit

Much is to be said in favor of toasted cheese for supper. It is the cant to say that Welsh rabbit is heavy eating. I like it best in the genuine Welsh way, however—that is, the toasted bread buttered on both sides profusely, then a layer of cold roast beef with mustard and horseradish, and then, on the top of all, the superstratum, of Cheshire thoroughly saturated, while, in the process of toasting, with genuine porter, black pepper, and shallot vinegar. I peril myself upon the assertion that this is not a heavy supper for a man who has been busy all day till dinner in reading, writing, walking or riding—who has occupied himself between dinner and supper in the discussion of a bottle or two of sound wine, or any equivalent—and who proposes to swallow at least three tumblers of something hot ere he resigns himself to the embrace of Somnus. With these provisos, I recommend toasted cheese for supper.

The popularity of this has come down to us in the succinct summing-up, "Toasted cheese hath no master."

The Welsh original became simple after Dr. Maginn's supper sandwich was served, a century and a half ago; for it was served as a savory to sum up and help digest a dinner, in this form:

After-Dinner Rabbit

Remove all crusts from bread slices, toast on both sides and soak to saturation in hot beer. Melt thin slices of sharp old cheese in butter in an iron skillet, with an added spot of beer and dry English mustard. Stir steadily with a wooden spoon and, when velvety, serve a-sizzle on piping hot beer-soaked toast.

While toasted cheese undoubtedly was the Number One dairy dish of Anglo-Saxons, stewed cheese came along to rival it in Elizabethan London. This sophisticated, big-city dish, also called a Buck Rabbit, was the making of Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street, where Dr. Johnson later presided. And it must have been the pick of the town back in the days when barrooms still had sawdust on the floor, for the learned Doctor endorsed old Omar Khayyam's love of the pub with: "There is nothing which has been contrived by man by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern." Yet he was no gourmet, as may be judged by his likening of a succulent, golden-fried oyster to "a baby's ear dropped in sawdust."

Perhaps it is just as well that no description of the world's first Golden Buck has come down from him. But we don't have to look far for on-the-spot pen pictures by other men of letters at "The Cheese," as it was affectionately called. To a man they sang praises for that piping hot dish of preserved and beatified milk.

Inspired by stewed cheese, Mark Lemon, the leading rhymester of Punch, wrote the following poem and dedicated it to the memory of Lovelace:

Champagne will not a dinner make,
Nor caviar a meal
Men gluttonous and rich may take
Those till they make them ill
If I've potatoes to my chop,
And after chop have cheese,
Angels in Pond and Spiers's shop
Know no such luxuries.

All that's necessary is an old-time "cheese stewer" or a reasonable substitute. The base of this is what was once quaintly called a "hot-water bath." This was a sort of miniature wash boiler just big enough to fit in snugly half a dozen individual tins, made squarish and standing high enough above the bath water to keep any of it from getting into the stew. In these tins the cheese is melted. But since such a tinsmith's contraption is hard to come by in these days of fireproof cooking glass, we suggest muffin tins, ramekins or even small cups to crowd into the bottom of your double boiler or chafing dish. But beyond this we plump for a revival of the "cheese stewer" in stainless steel, silver or glass.

In the ritual at "The Cheese," these dishes, brimming over, "bubbling and blistering with the stew," followed a pudding that's still famous. Although down the centuries the recipe has been kept secret, the identifiable ingredients have been itemized as follows: "Tender steak, savory oyster, seductive kidney, fascinating lark, rich gravy, ardent pepper and delicate paste"—not to mention mushrooms. And after the second or third helping of pudding, with a pint of stout, bitter, or the mildest and mellowest brown October Ale in a dented pewter pot, "the stewed Cheshire cheese."

Cheese was the one and only other course prescribed by tradition and appetite from the time when Charles II aled and regaled Nell Gwyn at "The Cheese," where Shakespeare is said to have sampled this "kind of a glorified Welsh Rarebit, served piping hot in the square shallow tins in which it is cooked and garnished with sippets of delicately colored toast."

Among early records is this report of Addison's in The Spectator of September 25,1711:

They yawn for a Cheshire cheese, and begin about midnight, when the whole company is disposed to be drowsy. He that yawns widest, and at the same time so naturally as to produce the most yawns amongst his spectators, carries home the cheese.

Only a short time later, in 1725, the proprietor of Simpson's in the Strand inaugurated a daily guessing contest that drew crowds to his fashionable eating and drinking place. He would set forth a huge portion of cheese and wager champagne and cigars for the house that no one present could correctly estimate the weight, height and girth of it.

As late as 1795, when Boswell was accompanying Dr. Johnson to "The Cheese," records of St. Dunstan's Club, which also met there, showed that the current price of a Buck Rabbit was tuppence, and that this was also the amount of the usual tip.

Ye Original Recipe

1½ ounces butter
1 cup cream
1½ cups grated Cheshire cheese (more pungent, snappier, richer,
and more brightly colored than its first cousin, Cheddar)

Heat butter and cream together, then stir in the cheese and let it stew.

You dunk fingers of toast directly into your individual tin, or pour the Stewed Rabbit over toast and brown the top under a blistering salamander.

The salamander is worth modernizing, too, so you can brand your own Rabbits with your monogram or the design of your own Rabbitry. Such a branding iron might be square, like the stew tin, and about the size of a piece of toast

It is notable that there is no beer or ale in this recipe, but not lamentable, since all aboriginal cheese toasts were washed down in tossing seas of ale, beer, porter, stout, and 'arf and 'arf.

This creamy Stewed Buck, on which the literary greats of Johnson's time supped while they smoked their church wardens, received its highest praise from an American newspaper woman who rhapsodized in 1891: "Then came stewed cheese, on the thin shaving of crisp, golden toast in hot silver saucers—so hot that the cheese was the substance of thick cream, the flavor of purple pansies and red raspberries commingled."

This may seem a bit flowery, but in truth many fine cheeses hold a trace of the bouquet of the flowers that have enriched the milk. Alpine blooms and herbs haunt the Gruyère, Parmesan wafts the scent of Parma violets, the Flower Cheese of England is perfumed with the petals of rose, violet, marigold and jasmine.

Oven Rabbit (FROM AN OLD RECIPE)

Chop small ½ pound of cooking cheese. Put it, with a piece of butter the size of a walnut, in a little saucepan, and as the butter melts and the cheese gets warm, mash them together,

When softened add 2 yolks of eggs, ½ teacupful of ale, a little cayenne pepper and salt. Stir with a wooden spoon one way only, until it is creamy, but do not let it boil, for that would spoil it. Place some slices of buttered toast on a dish, pour the Rarebit upon them, and set inside-the oven about 2 minutes before serving.

Yorkshire Rabbit

(originally called Gherkin Buck, from a pioneer recipe)

Put into a saucepan ½ pound of cheese, sprinkle with pepper (black, of course) to taste, pour over ½ teacup of ale, and convert the whole into a smooth, creamy mass, over the fire, stirring continually, for about 10 minutes.

In 2 more minutes it should be done. (10 minutes altogether is the minimum.) Pour it over slices of hot toast, place a piece of broiled bacon on the top of each and serve as hot as possible.

Golden Buck

A Golden Buck is simply the Basic Welsh Rabbit with beer (No. 1) plus a poached egg on top. The egg, sunny side up, gave it its shining name a couple of centuries ago. Nowadays some chafing dish show-offs try to gild the Golden Buck with dashes of ginger and spice.

Golden Buck II

This is only a Golden Buck with the addition of bacon strips.

The Venerable Yorkshire Buck

Spread ½-inch slices of bread with mustard and brown in hot oven. Then moisten each slice with ½ glass of ale, lay on top a slice of cheese ¼-inch thick, and 2 slices of bacon on top of that. Put back in oven, cook till cheese is melted and the bacon crisp, and serve piping hot, with tankards of cold ale.

Bacon is the thing that identifies any Yorkshire Rabbit.


1 of 2
2 of 2