Rarebit

Duration: 15 minutes
Recommended Ages: 7-12 with supervision and assistance, 13+ with minimal or no supervision
Description: Broil up the taste of an 18th century tavern with this cheesy toasted bread.

Colonial Cooking

Rarebit is a dish that American colonists brought over from the British Isles.  Its name seems to be a corruption of a dish called “rabbit.”  Dishes made of rabbit meat were common in England.  But, confusingly, neither “rabbit” nor “rarebit” was made from an animal.   There are many variations on the dish, but all of them include cheese and bread.  In cookbooks,  each recipe is slightly different: some have sauces, some are cooked with different techniques.  All look equally tasty.  One of the earliest references to this type of food was in the 1725 journal of poet John Byrom, who mentioned having “Welsh rabbit and stewed cheese.”  It appears he enjoyed this dish when eating out, as he mentions eating it at taverns.  

Tavern food was frequently made early and left to sit all day, often cold.  (Imagine what a piece of roast beef might look like 5 or 6 hours after sitting on a counter.)  In contrast, since this dish could be made quickly–for one person or for several people—rarebit was often made-to-order.  All kitchens in the 18th century had at least a small fire going all day. Tavern kitchens especially needed to be ready to provide for guests coming through at all hours.  With a dish like rarebit, many of the pieces could be prepared in advance and assembled and heated up fast.  Perhaps George Mason ordered some rarebit at a tavern when he traveled to Williamsburg at the beginning of the Revolution or when he went to Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention.  

Some of the instructions for how to make rarebit are really fascinating.  Cookbook author Hannah Glasse recommends toasting the cheese prior to laying it on the toast.  This was likely achieved by slicing the cheese very thickly and using a toasting fork to hold it in front of the fire.  People in the 18th century used toasting forks for all sorts of food, from muffins to cheese.  We don’t recommend this method for modern kitchens; it can be very messy for those who haven’t practiced.  Check out our adaptation and try either Welsh or English Rarebit.

Toasting Fork. Hearth Kitchen, George Mason's Gunston Hall.

To make a Welsh 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.

To make an English Rabbit

Toast the bread brown on both sides, lay it in 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 very thick over the bread, put it in a tin oven before the fire, and it will be toasted and browned presently. Serve it away hot.

Hannah Glasse. The Art of Cookery Made Plain & Easy. 1796.

Adaptation

2 slices of bread per person
1 Tbsp of wine per person or 2 tsp of mustard per person
2 oz  per person of hard cheese such as cheddar

1. Prepare a broiler pan or other metal baking pan by covering it with a layer of foil.
2. Slice your cheese very thinly and set aside for later.
3. Toast your bread, getting it as dry as possible, without getting it too dark.  Place your slices of toast on a plate or pan, and pour the wine over them or spread your mustard across the surface.  If you’re using wine, allow it to absorb for a few minutes.
4. Place your slices of toast onto your prepared pan.  Preheat your broiler.
5. Layer cheese onto each slice of bread until the whole surface is covered.  It’s okay to overlap slices, but you don’t want to have very thick layers.
6. Broil the toast until the cheese bubbles and browns, about 3 minutes.
7. Serve hot or at room temperature.