This spring, feast your eyes upon Kelly Reichardt’s new film First Cow, a movie about the American frontier, the natural world, friendship, entrepreneurship, a cow, and above all else, baking. Okay, maybe not quite above all else—the title remains cow-centric—but First Cow is certainly the baking-est film I’ve seen in quite some time. Set in 1820s Oregon, Reichardt’s film tells the story of two men, Cookie (John Magaro) and King Lu (Orion Lee), misfits through and through, united in their loneliness and eager to build a home in the American West. Cookie, a—you guessed it—cook by trade, hones his baking prowess by selling what appear to be proto-doughnuts using stolen milk from the titular first cow in the territory. The film is gorgeous and funny and heartfelt, and the doughnuts look amazing too. Rarely is cooking, let alone baking, portrayed on screen as an act of tenderness rather than machismo. (The ratio of cool, bad boy chef movies and nice, sweet boy baking movies should be 1:1, at least.) That’s not to say First Cow is without thrills. In fact, the climax of the film occurs when Cookie is called upon to make a clafoutis. I know. I’ll give you a minute to sit down.
Listen, as a longtime home baker, there are baking-related words and phrases you expect to hear as you move through the world, like “birthday cake” and “chocolate chip cookie,” and then there are words and phrases you never expect to hear. One of those words is “clafoutis.” Clafoutis!
Anyway: I’d never expected to see “clafoutis” represented in, uh [checks notes], independent, rustic American cinema (please see First Cow in theaters!), which is close-minded of me, because it is one of the easiest and most winning desserts to make. It’s absurd that we have let clafoutis fall out of fashion, so it’s my mission to get it back in the vernacular.
First thing’s first: How the heck do you pronounce “clafoutis”? I promise it’s not that scary. Say it with me, CLAH–foo–TEE. And try this one: FIRST COW. Perfect. Now you’ll be able to continue reading this article to yourself in your head. Clafoutis! There, you did it! Puzzle your friends and loved ones alike by saying it aloud as you serve them something beautiful and delicious before you pack them into a vehicle of your choosing on your way to see First Cow.
The dessert-ology of clafoutis is trickier to parse than its pronunciation. It’s not a cake, or a giant cookie, or a tart. It’s not a galette. It’s not a custard. Think of it as a Dutch baby’s sibling. Think of it as flan-gential. Think of it as a blown-up crepe. It’s all of those and more. A specialty of the Limousin region of France, clafoutis translates loosely as “to fill,” which is a good summation of the baking instructions for it. Though the traditional Limousin clafoutis is made with black cherries, feel free to use whatever stone fruit or berry you’re drawn to. Whatever’s in season will often taste best. In the bleariness of February and March, I alternate between frozen cherries and blueberries, but in the coming months, I look forward to stuffing my clafoutis with plums, peaches, apricots. You name it, it goes in the clafoutis.
To make a clafoutis, the bottom of a baking dish—a pie dish, a cast-iron skillet, just about anything wide works—is buttered and filled with lightly sugared fruit, and then the batter is poured atop the fruit. Here’s where I differ from First Cow, in which the fruit is plopped atop the pre-poured batter. Don’t do that! The fruit will rise to the top of the batter regardless, giving the clafoutis a gorgeous, freckled look. It bakes for 30 to 40 minutes (maybe even slightly longer if you’re using frozen fruit) and once it’s out of the oven, it’s given a light dusting of powdered sugar. Wham! Clafoutis! Like a pie, the fruit is warm and sweet, bursting with tart juice. Like a pancake, it’s not too saccharine, but rather eggy like a custard. When you have a spare hour on a weekend morning, a clafoutis is a perfect brunch item to serve a small group. Plunk it down on a table and watch as your pals dig in with a spoon. (Try as I might, it’s not a dessert made for slicing and serving. It’s one you just gotta dig into.)
I can’t remember when I made my first clafoutis, only that it’s become a staple in my baking repertoire ever since. The French dessert is shockingly, stupidly easy to make, and it’s a crowd pleaser no matter the crowd. Friends? Check. Family? Check. Group of military officers in charge of the fort outside which you live whose cow you are stealing milk from in order to bake said clafoutis (First Cow)? Check!!
I’ve come to rely on a recipe from Ruby Tandoh’s (of Great British Baking Show fame) cookbook, Crumb. She spells it “clafouti,” but it’s still pronounced the same fun way.
Reprinted from Crumb by Ruby Tandoh, courtesy of Ten Speed Press
- 2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, melted
- 90 grams (6 Tbsp. + 1 tsp.) superfine sugar
- 2 large eggs
- 40 grams (⅓ cup) all-purpose flour
- ¼ tsp. salt
- Zest of 1 lemon
- ½ tsp. vanilla extract
- 7 Tbsp. milk
- ½ cup + 2 Tbsp. half-and-half
- 400 grams (2⅔ cup) frozen or fresh blueberries
- 30 grams (¼ cup) confectioners’ sugar, for dusting
- 9- to 10-inch pie pan or deep cake pan
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Use a little of the melted butter to grease the pan. Sprinkle roughly 1 tablespoon of the superfine sugar evenly within the greased pan to coat.
Whisk the eggs with the remaining superfine sugar, then stir in the flour, salt, lemon zest, and vanilla extract. Slowly add the milk, half-and-half, and remaining melted butter.
Arrange the blueberries in the bottom of the prepared pan, then slowly pour in the batter. (If using frozen blueberries, use them straight from the freezer; otherwise they’ll dye the batter an unappetizing shade of gray.) Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until just set with only a bit of wobble in the center. If you’ve used frozen blueberries, it may take a little longer. The clafouti will have risen and turned golden brown in parts, and the blueberries will have burst their papery skins and melted down to pockets of fragrant blueberry juice. Let cool until just warm, dust liberally with confectioners’ sugar, and dig in.