Cheesy whatsits; At last, great Welsh cooking

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The Independent Culture
We like to cook with cheese, we Brits. So, of course, do the Italians, Swiss and French - think of fonduta, raclette and croque monsieur, to name three renowned examples that are, respectively, a celebration of three particular cheeses: fontina, raclette and gruyere. Fonduta is the Italian version of the Swiss fondue, most often celebrated with the addition of thin slices of fresh white truffle; raclette is Swiss, and is simply the cheese itself, gently heated in a great half wheel, the molten curds scraped onto small new potatoes and eaten as just that; and croque monsieur uses ham and gruyere in a sandwich: when fried, results in the most famous French sandwich we know.

So it is with some dismay that, when it comes to cooking with cheese in Britain, often the nearest we get to it is: "...and sprinkle with the grated cheese and put under the grill until melted and golden brown." For years, that has been the concluding phrase of many recipes, mine included.

This cloak of melting curd can hide a multitude of sins. The "layer bake" - which I have ranted about before on these pages - is one that immediately springs to mind. You know, the broccoli and tuna; smoked mackerel and sweetcorn; courgette and diced chicken; all these, without exception, are showered with grated cheese. Any old cheese will do is often the advice here, regardless of the fact that it will make an already hideous combination of ingredients taste even worse.

The melting of cheese is something that needs to be carefully thought about. Some just don't manage themselves very well when heat is applied, whereas others just lie there and take it. Commercially produced mozzarella is possibly the most promiscuous of all. The merest breath of heat will cause it to go pluergh... Then it gets all strung up as the heat intensifies and, finally, if left to cool, it reverts to a more rubbery state than it started out in. Of course, it doesn't taste of much, this mass-market cow-curd - I sometimes wonder why it is regarded as cheese at all. It bears as much relation to real mozzarella as Lymeswold once did to cheese.

True mozzarella, the one made of buffalo milk from in and around Naples, is quite another thing. At its best, this whiter-than-white wet ball could almost be described as bouncy milk. It has the faintest trace of acidity, a dairy sweetness and a smell that is possibly the milkiest sniff since mother. When mozzarella is this good, it seems a crime to cook it, Sliced into three, dressed with excellent olive oil and seasoned with Maldon sea salt and freshly ground pepper, it is, quite simply, a ravishing plate of food.

There are, however, two cooked cheese dishes, both Welsh as it happens, that we can truly call our own - and be proud of: Welsh rabbit and Glamorgan sausages. Incidentally, it is curious that, along with the curry d'agneau at La Coupole in Paris that I briefly lighted upon a few weeks ago, the other oddity on the menu there is Le Welsh rarebit.

The following rabbit recipe is a mixture between the filling of the tosta, a very special version of croque monsieur at Harry's Bar in Venice, the very English rendition from Simpson's-in-the-Strand, and one from my very good friend and cookery book collaborator, Lindsey Bareham. The Glamorgan sausage has no meat in it, by the way, it is just shaped that way; a perfect and very good dish for the vegetarians amongst you.

Welsh Rabbit, serves 2

50g mature Cheddar or Gruyere cheese, grated

25g butter

1 tsp English mustard

2 splashes of Worcester Sauce

3 drops Tabasco

2 tbsp Guinness

2 egg yolks

2 thick slices of bread

cayenne pepper

Place the butter, mustard, Worcester Sauce and Guinness in a small pan and heat through. Add the cheese, stirring as it melts, without letting the mixture boil. Remove from the heat and leave to cool. Whisk in the two egg yolks. Toast the bread on one side, spread the untoasted side thickly with the mixture and cook under a pre-heated grill until blistered and bubbling. Dust with cayenne and serve immediately.

Glamorgan sausages, serves 4

This recipe comes from Jane Grigson's English Food.

150g/5oz grated Caerphilly or Lancashire cheese

110g/4oz fresh white breadcrumbs

2 tbsp, finely chopped spring onion or small, tender leeks

3 egg yolks

1 heaped tbsp chopped parsley

12 tsp fresh thyme leaves

1 level tsp mustard powder

salt and pepper

1 egg white, loosely beaten

extra breadcrumbs

oil for frying

Mix the cheese, breadcrumbs and spring onion or leek. Whisk the yolks, herbs, mustard and seasoning together - use about 1tsp salt, and plenty of pepper - and add to the breadcrumbs and cheese to make a coherent mixture. If the breadcrumbs and cheese were dry-ish, you may need another yolk or a little water, before everything hangs together as it should. Divide into 12 and roll each piece into a small sausage about 5cm/2" long. Dip into egg white, roll in the extra breadcrumbs and fry in the oil until golden.

Cheese croustades, serves 4

These fabulously rich and savoury crisp bread boxes are the ultimate in textural contrast: soft and oozing cheese sauce within a thin wall of what is essentially fried bread. The making of the boxes is a little tedious, but the result is well worth the effort.

1 large sandwich loaf, at least one day old

110g/4oz butter, melted

500ml/18fl oz milk

1 small onion, peeled and chopped

1 crumbled bay leaf

2 cloves

6 peppercorns

2 sprigs thyme

12 chicken stock cube

65g/212 oz butter

65g/212 oz flour

1 heaped tbsp Dijon mustard

1 tsp English mustard powder

salt and cayenne pepper

150ml/14 pt double cream

150/5oz grated Lancashire or Cheddar cheese

2 tbsp freshly grated Parmesan

Pre-heat the oven to 375F/190C/gas mark 5. Remove the crusts from the bread and cut the loaf into 8 roughly equal cubes (they should measure about 4-cm/2" square). Leave to dry out on top of the stove for half an hour. Meanwhile, put the milk, onion, bay leaf, cloves, peppercorns, thyme and stock cube in a pan and bring to a simmer. Cook gently for 5 minutes, turn off the heat and cover. Leave to infuse for 20 minutes.

Now, back to the bread. Cut out the middle of the bread cubes with a very sharp small knife, running the knife as far as you dare against the walls of the cube. Lift out the bulk of the bread, and scrape away the rest with the point of the knife until you end up with a bread box (use the discarded bread for breadcrumbs). Brush the inside and outside of the boxes liberally with the melted butter (melt more if needed), place on a cake cooling rack suspended over an oven tray and put in the oven. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until golden brown all over. Remove from the oven and place on kitchen paper to drain off any excess grease.

Back to the filling: melt the butter in a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan and add the flour. Make a roux and strain over the flavoured milk, whisking as you go. Cook gently over a low light until thick and smooth. Allow to cook very slowly - preferably over a heat-diffuser pad - for about 10 minutes. Add the mustards and seasoning, cream and cheese, and stir in. Continue cooking for a further 3-4 minutes until glossy and smooth.

Increase the oven temperature to 425F/220C/gas mark 7. Take the bread boxes and spoon the sauce into each one until full to the very brim. Allow to settle for a moment, and put onto an oven tray. Sprinkle over the grated Parmesan and put back in the oven for 5-7 minutes, or until the cheese is golden and melted and the sauce is bubbling slightly.

Leave to cool for a couple of minutes and serve two for each person, garnished with some crisp watercress. If serving as a first course, make sure the principle dish is something light

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