The Americana Appeal of First Cow
Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow is a lovely slice of Americana, the story of two men attempting to make their fortune on the frontier in the 1820s by stealing milk from the first cow in the territory to use in their cooking. It stars John Magaro as Otis “Cookie” Figowitz, the baker, and Orion Lee as King Lu, his accomplice. Character actor Toby Jones also appears as Chief Factor, the wealthy man to whom the titular cow belongs.
The movie luxuriates in its slow pacing, but that pacing, when combined with Reichardt’s adept direction, the lush visuals of First Cow’s untamed America, and William Tyler’s experimental synth-country score, casts a spell over the viewer, drawing them into the harsh world of frontier life.
That harshness is what allows Cookie and Lu to make their money—the baked goods they peddle (primarily “oily cakes”) are a small reprieve from the uncertainty of life beyond civilization, something people are more than happy to pay for.
But, while the duo mostly make their money selling oily cakes, that’s not the dessert that most enchanted me while watching First Cow.
There comes a point in the movie when Chief Factor samples the pair’s delicacies—baked, unknown to him, with milk stolen from his own cow—and is impressed by Cookie’s skill. He declares that he can “taste London” in Cookie’s cakes and asks if Cookie could prepare a special dessert for him; Factor has a visitor who likes to joke about the coarseness of frontier life, and he thinks that it would be fun to serve his guest clafoutis and show him that not even the frontier is entirely without culture.
The Call of Clafoutis
If you’re anything like me—an uncultured swine—you may be asking yourself what clafoutis is.
Well, according to Wikipedia, clafoutis is “a baked French dessert of fruit, traditionally black cherries, arranged in a buttered dish and covered with a thick flan-like batter. The clafoutis is dusted with powdered sugar and served lukewarm, sometimes with cream.”
Sounds pretty good, right?
I thought so, so I scoured the web (read: googled “clafoutis” and used the second recipe I saw) and decided to try my hand at baking, something I have absolutely no aptitude for or experience with.
I recruited my girlfriend to help me because: 1.) I don’t have any baking equipment and she does; and 2.) I needed a fall guy (girl) for when things inevitably went wrong.
I chose to use Julia Child’s clafoutis recipe because Meryl Streep once played Julia Child in a movie. The recipe called for simple, accessible ingredients and said it would only take about an hour to make the clafoutis—exactly how much time I was willing to devote to the project.
The ingredients themselves were:
- Butter for pan
- 1 and 1/4 cups whole or 2 percent milk
- ⅔ cup granulated sugar, divided
- 3 eggs
- 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
- ⅛ teaspoon salt
- 1 cup flour
- 1 pint (2 generous cups) blackberries or blueberries, rinsed and well drained
- Powdered sugar in a shaker
The baking process itself involved five simple steps:
- Heat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly butter a medium-size flameproof baking dish at least 1 1/2 inches deep.
- Place the milk, 1/3 cup granulated sugar, eggs, vanilla, salt and flour in a blender. Blend at top speed until smooth and frothy, about 1 minute.
- Pour a 1/4-inch layer of batter in the baking dish. Turn on a stove burner to low and set dish on top for a minute or two, until a film of batter has set in the bottom of the dish. Remove from heat.
- Spread berries over the batter and sprinkle on the remaining 1/3 cup granulated sugar. Pour on the rest of the batter and smooth with the back of a spoon. Place in the center of the oven and bake about 50 minutes, until top is puffed and browned and a tester plunged into its center comes out clean.
- Sprinkle with powdered sugar just before serving.
The Island of Ill-Melting Butter
We ran into trouble almost immediately when we realized that, although my girlfriend had most of the baking equipment we’d need, the actual dish needed to bake the clafoutis was nowhere to be found. We pivoted and decided to use a pan that was clearly intended for baking ham or turkey instead.
While grocery stores around the world sell convenient cans of butter spray to help with buttering dishes, I decided to go old school and purchase a block of butter instead. My girlfriend took charge of melting it and buttering the dish while I prepped the blender for Step 2.
Unfortunately, my choice in butter was less than ideal and even after microwaving it, we were left with a lukewarm blob that wouldn’t spread evenly over our pan.
Our results were probably not what Julia Child had in mind when she said to butter the dish—we had an island of butter that remained obstinately in the center of the pan, and what we did manage to spread was done unevenly.
Nevertheless, we persisted.
Blending a Golden-Brown Sea
Blending went off without a hitch, and I was thrilled that I managed to crack all three eggs without losing a shell in our mixture.
After blending we moved to pour the batter into our pan but realized that our dimensions were off. We’d followed the recipe to the letter, but we didn’t have quite enough batter to pull off the requisite ¼-inch layer of batter and still have plenty left over for later because of our pan’s size. We made do, however, and set what we ended up with on a stove burner set to low.
Once again, the size and shape of our dish threw us off and made it difficult to determine if all the clafoutis was heating up the way it was supposed to.
Step 4 was blessedly simple—tossing berries into a golden-brown sea of batter is a uniquely satisfying experience that I would recommend to anyone. We decided to amend our baking time to 38 minutes because we’d spread our batter so thin, but when we checked our dessert was still doughy so we went another 10 minutes.
Doughy, But Delicious
Because we’d spread it thin, the clafoutis never got past the doughy stage, even with the extra time in the oven. Still, our results were entirely edible—and tasty. Topping the clafoutis with powdered sugar helped with the taste, and if we’d been able to layer our batter thicker our cake’s consistency and flavor would have been even better than it was.
Suffice it to say that if I can be reasonably successful working from this recipe, you can bake an award-winning clafoutis by following the same instructions I did. Most of our issues stemmed from using the wrong type of pan, so if you have a cake dish on retainer, you won’t have any problem whipping up this delightful French dessert.
And remember: serve your clafoutis warm with cream and pair it with a viewing of Kelly Reichardt’s sublime First Cow.