There's an interesting compilation of bound and unbound material in the archives of the Museum of Brooklyn Art and Culture (the name I have given to my personal collection of artifacts), which I like to call the Labrador Farm Cook Book. The fragments are gathered together among and between the pages of a volume entitled "Labrador Farm Book of Rules." The contents, however, are not rules, but recipes, many handwritten, others clipped from newspapers or magazines. The oldest fragments are from the 1940s, but it would appear that handwritten pages of the volume date from the late 1960s.
Nestled in the foothills of New Hampshire's White Mountains, Labrador Farm was the country home of the family of William Glackens, the early 20th Century painter who is better known as one of the "Ash-Can" school of artists, this name having been given to it by critics who looked down upon the artists' practice of painting scenes of everyday American life, particularly street scenes. William and his wife Edith Dimock had two children, Ira and Lenna. Lenna married but she and her husband died in relative youth. Ira married Anne (Nancy) Henshaw Middlebrook, a Brooklyn woman, and both lived into their eighties. Ira and Nancy are definitively connected to the codex mentioned above by their handwriting styles and autographs. Indeed there is evidence they intended to publish it. Many of the recipes are assigned authors and dates, or citations when they are gleaned from published sources. Ira himself had authored a number of books before his death in 1990, including a famous account of the eight artists that formed the group among which his father was counted. He also wrote a biography of an opera singer, produced a novel and a history of the United States. So it would be no surprise if he and his wife planned to publish a cook book. Certainly during their many travels through Europe, one of their favorite pastimes was dinning out, as can be gleaned from journals both left behind that include detailed documentation of their repasts. And so we have reflected in the pages of this cook book a degree of culinary sophistication that many of us only aspire to.
However, there are a few recipes contained therein which are within the reach of the rank amateur, and it is among these that I have begun to try my hand. To my surprise, each recipe that I have tackled has emerged as a culinary success, judging from the reaction received from third parties upon ingestion of the final product. For example, I recently made yeast rolls, something my wife and I truly enjoy.
The recipe, hand-written in this case upon a decorative index card, is as follows (unedited):
3 Cups flour
1 cup warm water
1 pk. dry yeast
1/4 cup oil
1 Tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. salt
"Put 2 cups flour in bowl and set aside. In blender, put yeast, water and 1 cup flour, cover and blend 20 seconds. Add remaining ingredients + blend til smooth. Pour over flour, mix well- but do not knead. Cover and let rise 1 1/2 hours, Punch down. Arrange in small round cake pans, six rolls in each greased pan. Put soft butter lightly on top. Cover and let rise 45 minutes. Bake 25 minutes at 375 degrees F. Makes 12 rolls."
Of course I did not follow all the instructions slavishly, but tailored them to the technology at hand. Preferring to avoid the noise and mess generated by a blender, I relied instead on spatula, spoon and old fashioned elbow grease. Having no cake pans, I merely stretched the dough into a long cylinder and cut it into 12 disks, each of which I laid upon a greased sheet of aluminum foil. This seemed to work well. My oven has only a broiler. The bottom of the oven is soiled with previous attempts at baking, and activation of the lower burner inevitably generates a huge amount of smoke, so until I hunker down to clean it, it cannot be safely operated. In order to recreate a baking rather than a roasting effect, I placed the unbaked rolls as far to the bottom of the oven as possible. This seemed to work.
Let's remember that the oven transports heat to the item to be cooked by three different means: convection, conduction, and radiation. Conduction occurs when the air in the immediate vicinity of the gas burner is heated and the heat is transferred to adjacent portions of the air, in much the same way as hot coffee, when poured into a ceramic mug, gradually transmits the heat from the inside of the mug to the outside. Convection occurs when air currents transport heated portions of the air to a new location, and these portions mix with the cooler air. Heat radiation, however, is similar to light. It can travel through a vacuum like the sun's rays travel through space, and its intensity decreases as the second power of the distance from the source, meaning that doubling the distance will reduce the radiative power of the heat to 1/4, and tripling it, to 1/9. While the gas burner at the roof of the oven does not constitute a point source where this so-called "inverse square" relationship holds strictly, it may be thought of as being composed of many such point sources, and from this assumption, the decrease in heat radiation as a function of the distance can be calculated. The general idea, though, is that radiative heat decreases markedly with the distance from the burners, while heat from conduction is pretty much uniform after it reaches equilibrium inside the oven. Therefore, one will obtain a decidedly less intense but uniform heat by placing the rolls at the bottom of the oven. Most readers will not encounter this problem, they being in possession of cooking facilities far more advanced than my own.
My wife Junalyn told me she enjoyed the rolls, and I noticed that, after eating her first, she took a second, and then a third. It might be worth mentioning that she is from the Philippines, where the main staple is rice. To introduce her to bread, let alone to get her to like it, was no easy feat. Then, of course, there is the natural impulse to be critical of one's spouse. To receive a positive response from her regarding the rolls must indeed be counted as a measure of success. I too, having never made yeast rolls—although in my boyhood did try my hand at making bread—was surprised to have engineered from the above-listed ingredients a very competitive product. It looked, felt, and tasted like bread! But was it bread?