It’s been a long time coming—both the digital release of Kelly Reichardt’s Oregon-shot First Cow (streaming today), a gentle, thrilling fable that’s handily the best movie of 2020 so far, and my personal rebrand as a lifestyle blogger. I wrote about First Cow back in March, when it was slated to hit movie theaters nationwide and premiere locally at the Portland International Film Festival. That … didn’t happen, and I’ve since joined the insufferable online cult of people who saw First Cow, loved First Cow, and haven’t been able shut up about First Cow.
Another esteemed member of this club is my friend Sonia, who got her hands on the official recipe for one of the movie’s central fixations: “oily cakes,” the fried pastries that our heroes Cookie (John Magaro) and King Lu (Orion Lee) start making and selling by siphoning milk from a cow that belongs to a British official. She passed the intel on to me, and in the grand tradition of journalists trying to recreate the fast-casual pasta that Robert Pattinson nearly set his London flat on fire making mid-GQ interview, I decided to give it a shot and document the process.
If you’re so moved, play along, and once you’ve fried up some sweet, fluffy, oily goodness, be sure to stream First Cow.
1 1/8 cup whole milk, warm (I don’t trust 1/8 cup as a measurement but this is not the time to get political)
¼ cup sugar
2 ¼ tsp pâte à choux or active dry yeast (I googled pâte à choux for the sake of authenticity and I’m so stressed at the prospect of explaining what I found. It’s…a kind…of pastry? That does the same stuff yeast does? All the recipes I found consisted of the same exact ingredients as the oily cakes, which is poetic, I guess—what makes you rise can be found within you all along, etc.—but I just bought yeast)
4 cups flour
2 whole large eggs, lightly beaten
1 ¼ stick unsalted butter, melted
½ tsp salt
Animal lard, for frying
STEP 1: FIND LARD
The deeply vague, instruction-free recipe ends on an ominous note: “Animal lard, for frying.” No measurements, no indication of how one might go about the frying. I guess I will cross that bridge when I get there. First thing’s first: ask my grown coworkers where I can find lard. “guys where can i get lard,” I posted in our food and drink Slack channel earlier this week, expecting ridicule. Spirits were high, however: I live near a Whole Foods, and my older, more worldly confidants assured me that they would probably stock “spendy lard,” plus the regular stuff.
I walked in with my head high. Looked around for a bit, then caved and asked someone stocking shelves to point me lard-ward. Reader: words cannot describe the shock. “You are the first person who has ever asked me for lard,” she said, and insisted I tell her what it was for. So I humiliatingly IDed myself as a culture writer, collected my shortening, and went on my way.
STEP 2: MAKE A FRENCH 75
We’re not gonna do this sober! One of my weaker twists, which is a shame, but I hit the right lemon/simple syrup ratio and feel set up for success.
STEP 3: INVOKE THE SPIRIT OF KELLY REICHARDT HOWEVER YOU CAN
Not pictured: a nearby Certain Women Criterion Blu-ray.
STEP 4: MAKE THE MILK HOT AND MELT THE BUTTER
My friends and I watched Sex and the City 2 for the first time in nearly a decade last week (and confirmed that it is, without exaggeration, the most evil American film of the 21st century). There’s a moment about halfway through where Carrie asks a hotel attendant (Dev from NBC’s Smash!!!!) to warm some milk for her before bed. “That is so gross, Carrie!” I yelled at the screen. “You are a grown woman!” Oh, how the tables have turned.
I grabbed my gallon of whole milk from the fridge, helpfully inscribed with a cow (shout out to Evie, the titular first cow that producers Neil Kopp and Anish Savjani described as “the most disciplined actor on set”), and heated it up on medium-low for about 5 minutes. I thought about putting it in the microwave but decided that felt too low rent. Then I microwaved the butter because consistency is not one of my strengths!
STEP 5: BEAT THE EGGS … LIGHTLY
I guess “beat” just means “whisk,” but whenever a recipe asks me to “beat” eggs, I think about Egg Beaters™, some weird egg substitute that invaded like 40 percent of my mom’s conversations with her in-laws circa 2003. Egg Beaters come in a carton and you pour them out like milk??? My grandpa made them for me for breakfast once, and in objecting, I think I found my own voice for the first time.
Anyway it’s hilarious that this recipe specifies the eggs should be beaten lightly. Baking is so delicate!
STEP 4: JUST KIND OF PUT ALL THE INGREDIENTS TOGETHER
Am I supposed to know how to bake? Does this even count as baking, technically, since I’m not using the oven? I took a cooking class on the Oregon coast when I was 9 with a woman named Coriander (90 percent sure I’m making this up), and that is the extent of my formal training. Also, I don’t really like The Great British Baking Show, which is a personal failing and not a proud contrarian stance. Anyway, I decided to put all of the ingredients in a big bowl.
On the yeast packet, it told me to put the yeast in warm water and then add sugar until it foams. I kind of did this, but I’m not that patient, so after mixing everything together with a wooden spoon I just dumped the un-foamed yeast in, too, and kept churning. The dough got … really sticky!
STEP 5: MELT! THAT! LARD! (OR SHORTENING IF YOU WENT TO WHOLE FOODS)
I have one of those pots with the handles on the sides, I think it might sort of resemble a Dutch oven, but it doesn’t feel fancy enough to be called that? It’s just from Ikea. I still have no idea what I’m supposed to do with all this wet dough, but I guess I will heat up the shortening and drop the dough in and see what happens.
I scooped literally the entire tub of shortening into the handled pot and let it melt until it became a sizzling, gloppy, yellow mess.
STEP 6: FRY ’EM UP
STEP 7: ADD HONEY AND CHOW DOWN
Honestly??? They are so good. Fluffy, sweet, and surprising. They fill you up but they don’t make you sick. A beautiful, better-than-I-could-have-asked-for analogy for the film. As I often do, I thought, “What about nutmeg?” So I added a little nutmeg. The nutmeg was bad so I stopped adding nutmeg and kept adding honey, like Cookie does in the movie.
STEP 8: GOOGLE “RAW YEAST DOUGH DIE???” FOR LIKE 45 MINUTES
After I cleaned up my truly hideous mess and ate an absurd number of oily cakes, I sat down to watch season two of Ryan Murphy’s The Politician, due to my low self-respect. While I was sitting there, sprawled on my couch, listening to Bette Midler say things like “spicy lube,” my stomach started to turn. “Uh oh,” I thought, worried that I was the one in a million to be sickened by unpasteurized flour.
Then it hit me: I had been sampling the raw dough as I went. And the dough had yeast in it. Might the yeast grow in my stomach, a la the watermelon tree inside Chuckie in that one deeply surreal episode of Rugrats? A Google spree began. Quora stirred fears. Yahoo! Answers quelled them. I learned that I would be in gigantic trouble if I was a dog.
Ultimately, somewhere around 1:30 a.m., after eating three raw cloves of garlic, a bunch of Greek yogurt, and pounding two cups of peppermint tea, I found rest, and here I sit behind my keyboard, with a yeast-free stomach and a counter full of oily cakes.