Cheese on toast is something I usually keep for days when the nights draw in. I am not sure there is such a thing as bad cheese on toast. It matters not whether it is made with white bread and stale cheddar or is something you take more seriously, matching the right bread with the right cheese and treating it as a work of art.
But the idea of soft, almost molten cheese and crisp toast is too good to keep for frosty nights alone, and I sometimes make a lighter version with softer cheeses, open textured breads and fresh herbs. Using a goat's cheese, so much more sprightly than a lump of even the tastiest cheddar, gives the snack a piquancy that appeals in warmer weather. Pale, soft cheeses – ricotta, the chèvre and buffalo mozzarella – are less rich than the firmer ones we mostly use for a Welsh rabbit, or rarebit. Anything mild and milky gets my vote.
I make my cheese on toast with any bread that happens to be around, but a crusty white or sourdough loaf seems to be best. It has an honesty to it that I like. But once we untie the chains of tradition, anything is possible. A lighter bread, say a ciabatta or a baguette, will make the snack less heavy. Last night I knocked up a version with thick slices of mozzarella on a wedge of ciabatta, then trickled over a blended sauce of green herbs and olive oil – basil, always happy in the company of that particular soft white cheese, and a little parsley and capers. Nothing, in fact, that wouldn't have been in a classic Italian salad. Once on its bread, the whole thing felt right.
My need for a slightly different version took me to piling slices of sharp, grey-rinded cheese and wafers of crispest pancetta on a slice cut from a baguette. The bacon and cheese married just as well as they always do, but on this occasion I made a sort of savoury spread for the bread, softening very finely chopped onions with some hashed pancetta and parsley, then tucking it under and over slices of mild, weeping goat's cheese. The elements couldn't really fail, and it was probably less trouble than a traditional croque monsieur or Welsh rabbit but had a contemporary feel and was less cloying.
I can trace my need for some sort of toasty cheese fix to the day my mother cut up soldiers of toast for me and spread them with Dairylea. Talk about love at first bite. The recipe itself may have moved on more than a bit, but to this day there are few things I like to hear more than the sound of crunchy toast and oozing cheese. I still order Welsh rabbit in restaurants if it's on the menu. (Still around if you know where to look.) Cheeses may change, and the bread moves on, but I suspect cheese on toast in some form or another will always be with us. No matter how simply or fancifully we interpret it.
Mozzarella herb toasts
If mozzarella doesn't seem right for you, then use ricotta or taleggio, or indeed any cheese that will melt smoothly.
Makes 2 large toasts
broad beans 100g podded weight
buffalo mozzarella 1 ball
For the dressing:
garlic 1 small, sweet clove
parsley 4 or 5 sprigs
dill 5 sprigs
chives 6 thin stems (and perhaps a few flowers)
Pod the beans and cook them in deep, lightly salted boiling water for 6 or 7 minutes until tender, then drain in a colander. If they are very small and sweet, leave them as they are, but if they are larger than a fingernail, pop the cooked beans from their skins.
Make the dressing: peel the garlic, remove the leaves from the parsley, roughly chop the dill fronds and the chives, and mix with the parsley and garlic. Process or blend with a little olive oil until you have a rough sauce. If you have any chive flowers, mix them in as well.
Toast the bread lightly on both sides. Slice the mozzarella thickly and place on the slices of toasted bread. Toast lightly until the mozzarella becomes almost liquid. Add some of the dressing and the broad beans, letting any extras fall on to the plate. Eat while the toast is warm.
Goat's cheese and pancetta toasts
I use a sourdough stick for this, swapping the cheeses depending on what is available. A fairly young cheese with a soft, bloomy rind is ideal for melting. If you don't have pea shoots to hand, then try adding finely shredded spinach leaves.
Serves 1 as a light lunch
baguette or sourdough stick 4 slices
pancetta 3 thin rashers
goat's cheese 30g
For the spread:
onion 1 small
butter 1 tbsp
sage leaves 2 small
parsley leaves from a couple of sprigs
pea shoots a small handful
Make the spread: peel the onion and dice it very finely, then finely chop the pancetta. Warm the butter in a shallow and preferably nonstick pan and add the pancetta, then crumble or finely tear the sage leaves and stir them in. Grind in a little black pepper and cook over a low heat for 7 or 8 minutes until the onion is pale gold, soft and sweet, and the fat on the pancetta is golden brown. While the onion is cooking, finely chop the parsley and stir in.
Toast the bread lightly on both sides. Grill or fry the rashers of pancetta for a minute or so until crisp and curly, then drain on kitchen paper. Add the pea shoots to the warm onion mixture then spread generously on one side of each piece of toast, placing the slices on a grill pan as you go. Grill for a couple of minutes, until the spread is warm and starting to sizzle. Slice the goat's cheese into finger-wide strips, place on the toasts with the beans and the pancetta, and eat immediately.