FOOD AND FILM: FIRST COW AND OILY CAKES

First Cow © A24

by Zoë Elton

Two things that keep me sane during lockdown: watching movies, especially those that nurture the spirit; and trying out recipes, especially those that are comforting in their indulgence.

Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow hits the spot for me on both counts. It’s a film made by a true artist, whose work I trust and am happy to surrender to. And, in the film, Cookie (John Magaro) makes oily cakes—these yummy-looking, doughnutty, fried and honey-slathered delectables made with secret ingredients and bootlegged milk—that he and his partner King Lu (Orion Lee) sell on the street. In this mid-1800s outback community in Oregon, their oily cakes cause quite the stir. I wanted to know the recipe, and asked friends at the film’s distributor, A24, if they might share its secrets.

So here, for your comfort and indulgence, is the famous First Cow Oily Cake recipe!

Insider note: They decided to go with instant yeast for the actual props, though you can make a period-accurate sourdough version of it pretty easily as well — just use 130g of active sourdough starter in place of the yeast, cut the flour down to 3.5 cups, and, instead of kneading, let the dough rest in a warm kitchen for 3–4 hours before frying.

And: when you make them, please post pictures and tag us (@cafilminstitute) and the film (@firstcowmovie)!

OILY CAKE RECIPE

INGREDIENTS:

  • 1 and 1/8 cup whole milk, warm
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 2 1/4 teaspoons (one package) Instant Or Active Dry Yeast
  • 2 whole large eggs
  • 1 and 1/4 stick unsalted butter (10 tablespoons), melted
  • 4 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • Shortening/oil for frying
  • Honey for drizzling on top

DIRECTIONS:

  • Warm milk to ~105º, then move to a large mixing bowl and add sugar and yeast. Stir to dissolve, set aside.
  • Beat eggs with melted butter, then pour into the mixing bowl containing the milk and yeast mixture.
  • Stir in flour and salt, adding 1 cup of flour at a time until just combined. Turn dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 3–5 minutes. The dough should be soft and slightly sticky.
  • Heat oil in a skillet or dutch oven — cast iron works nicely — to 350º. Using two spoons, make golf ball sized balls of dough and drop directly into the fry oil, cooking for 45–60 seconds per side.
  • Drizzle with honey and serve hot.

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