If you say “Welsh” when speaking of food, probably the first thing to come to mind is Welsh rabbit, a tasty treat that usually consists of toast topped with a cheddar sauce flavored with Worcestershire sauce and dried mustard. Of course, a few of you will have thought “Welsh rarebit.” But interestingly, “rabbit” is the older name of the dish. There are also Scottish, English, and Irish rabbits, all featuring in some way cheese on toast.
The Oxford English Dictionary dates the emergence of the term “rabbit” in this connection to 1725. It places “rarebit” 60 years later. So even though “rabbit” is older, “rarebit” is certainly well established.
There is some debate as to why the name “rabbit” was used for this dish, as well as why “rarebit” was later introduced. The most likely explanations, according to historians, are that “rabbit” was introduced in the same way we might use “steak” when speaking of something not made of meat, such as a “tofu steak.” However, it is unknown whether this was used as a slur against the Welsh, who might have been too poor to get a rabbit for dinner, or a stiff upper lip among the Welsh, making light of adversity during a time of want. As for “rarebit,” that was apparently just a way that the Brits could make it sound more upper crust once the dish became widely popular. (And how could cheese and toast not become popular—cheap enough for the poor and flavorful enough for the gourmets—unbeatable combination.)
The Welsh passion for cheese extends beyond rabbits. In fact, the Welsh are known for their love of cheese, and that is demonstrated in this egg dish. The leeks also contribute to making this very Welsh. The leek is, in fact, the national symbol of Wales, like the shamrock of Ireland or thistle of Scotland. (It is to this that Henry V refers when he speaks in Shakespeare’s play of putting a leek in his cap.) As with any recipe of ancient pedigree, there are as many variations of Welsh eggs as there have been cooks who have prepared it. None are bad, but the one below is the cheesiest I’ve encountered. (You could actually leave out the leeks, if you don’t fancy members of the allium family, and it would still be both tasty and authentic.) Enjoy.
1-1/2 cups shredded mild cheddar cheese
4 small to medium leeks
salt and pepper to taste
(See notes below if you haven’t worked with leeks before.) Slice the leeks thinly. Melt 2 Tbsp. butter in a saucepan, add leeks, and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Cover with a lid, reduce heat, and cook for 5 minutes more, until softened. Season lightly with a bit of salt and freshly ground black pepper. Set aside.
Preheat oven to 325˚ F.
Generously butter the insides of four ramekins or other ovenproof bowls (one cup or more capacity). Sprinkle 1/4-cup of cheese in the bottom of each ramekin. Divide the leeks evenly among the four ramekins, and spread this out on top of the cheese. Break the eggs, one at a time, into a saucer, and then slip the egg over the leeks in the ramekin, taking care to not break the yoke. Put two eggs in each ramekin, and sprinkle with a bit of salt and a few grinds of black pepper. Divide the remaining cheese among the four ramekins, sprinkling it over the egg.
Place ramekins in the oven (if your ramekins are very full, or just to make it easier to get them out of the oven when done, place them on a cookie sheet first) and bake for 20 minutes or until the eggs are cooked and cheese is melted. Serve at once.
Serve with toast wedges to dip into the egg yolks and melted cheese. Serves four.
Notes: If you’ve never worked with leeks before, they take a little more effort than onions. Because of the way they grow, they often have dirt or sand inside. So your best bet is to remove the outer layer, rinse the leek, remove the tough, dark-green tops and roots at the bottom, then split the leek for most of its length (say, to within an inch or two of the bottom), and fan it open to make sure there isn’t any sand hiding inside. (Sand wouldn’t be at the very bottom on the inside, but it can be farther down than you’d expect.) Rinse, and then you’re ready to go. Also remember that different amounts of leek get sliced for different applications. For this dish, both white and pale green can be used, but there are fancy dishes where only the white is used. But leeks are very tasty and worth the effort.
©2008 Cynthia Clampitt