Eye candy for art enthusiasts and sugar hounds alike, pastry chef Caitlin Freeman's book, Modern Art Desserts: Recipes for Cakes, Cookies, Confections, and Frozen Treats Based on Iconic Works of Art ($16, originally $25), is definitely worth perusing! While Caitlin's desserts are currently sold at SFMOMA's Blue Bottle Coffee Bar, she masterfully breaks down the process into 27 recipes for the book that range from basic to downright ambitious.
What started as a field trip to SFMOMA for a college photography class, ironically shaped Caitlin's serendipitous path to becoming a master of sweets. The former co-owner of San Francisco's pastry shop Miette and current pastry chef for Blue Bottle Coffee Company, Caitlin blames her career change from aspiring photographer to pastry tycoon on Thiebaud's Display Cakes. "Once I discovered it, I found myself sneaking off for illicit visits while my classmates ogled the old Walker Evans photos," she writes.
We caught up with Caitlin to delve into the book's fascinating backstory. Keep reading to get the scoop on recipes from the book she swears anyone can do, her crazy kitchen renovation ideas, and more!
POPSUGAR: How has your work with SF MOMA's Blue Bottle Coffee Bar changed your perspective on being a pastry chef?
Caitlin Freeman: My work before Blue Bottle (as co-owner of Miette) was so much about designing cakes and building spaces that felt like true expressions of what was in my head. When I sold Miette, I really didn't think I had anything left in me to give to the world, in the form of sweets. Joining Blue Bottle shifted my focus to an external goal: developing pastries that paired well with coffee, which felt like a relief.
A few months later when the SFMOMA project came along, it became this great revelation for many reasons. Aside from seeing the amazing, perfect circle of my own work, it was also about a new kind of inspiration. I didn't have to live in an insular world, trying to express an uncorrupted vision that was in my head. I could collaborate and come up with amazing new ideas with other people! I could push myself to learn new things! By setting the rule that we would only make treats based on art that is currently on display at the museum, it forced me to change and create and push. That's something that is very hard to do in a crazy, busy retail environment where you're just trying to figure out how to get six hours of sleep per night.
Pictured: Lichtenstein cake
PS: I bet! So, tell us, which of the desserts was the trickiest to develop?
CF: Andy Warhol was my white whale for many years. We went through three previous iterations before the Red Liz Jello came about. It was frustrating, but I'm also happy that we kept pushing for something that felt like the right homage to such an important artist in the modern art canon (or any canon, for that matter).
PS: Which recipe would you recommend for a person with limited equipment and skill?
CF: I know I kind of shot myself in the foot by putting the Mondrian cake on the cover of the book. It's pretty ridiculous to make at home, not because it's impossible, but because it takes a bit of time, it's messy, and, ultimately, what you end up with (a white cake with ganache) tastes exactly the same as if you'd just made the cake and covered it with ganache. But it's fun and so incredibly satisfying when you do it! But, now every review of my book says that it's basically a coffee-table book and that the recipes are for experts only. I made modifications so that they are all totally doable at home! I worked with 150 recipe testers to prove this. The Dijkstra Ice Box cake, the Kahlo cookies, the Kelly Fudge Pop, and the Zurier Ice Pop are some of the easiest.
Pictured: Dijkstra ice box cake
PS: Do you have a comfort dessert that you enjoy making and eating most?
CF: I really love a simple fruit cobbler or crisp, served warm (not hot) à la mode. In the summertime, outdoors.
PS: If you could "borrow" one piece of art from SFMOMA, what would it be?
CF: Thiebaud's Display Cakes, of course. It's going to be packed up and put in storage during their three-year renovation, so I don't understand why it can't live in my bedroom during that time. We have an alarm on our house, I'm sure it'll be perfectly safe!
Pictured: A trio of Thiebaud cakes
PS: The works at SFMOMA obviously inspired the sweets featured in the café and in this book. Are there other sources of inspiration that you've fantasized about turning into dessert next?
CF: I can't believe that I'm already pondering another book. This process was so unbelievably stressful and hard to do! But, I've been thinking about what might be a good next thing to be inspired by while the museum is closed. I'm trying to consider all of the things I love, and figure out how I might get to weasel my way into some world that I otherwise wouldn't be invited to. Architecture (that would be great for getting to visit places I have no real reason to go to — imagine the great gingerbread house section I could make!)? Flowers (I've always wanted to study botany and become an expert at making gum paste flowers)? Wedding cakes (I feel like a failure because I'm not an expert at piping techniques, and I'd love to have a reason to go to the Wilton Institute or further my studies with Wendy Kromer)? Fashion (imagine how much better I could dress if I managed to finagle my way into that world!)?
Pictured: Tuymans parfait
PS: We love a well-designed kitchen here at POPSUGAR Home. What do you love most about your own kitchen?
CF: When we bought our very San Francisco-style house, what we loved most about our kitchen was that someone hadn't done a horrible and on-the-cheap remodel to it. It's funky and has exactly zero counters. We currently have a butcher block, which is where all the work takes place. The absolute best part about our kitchen is the old Wedgewood stove (with a functioning roaster and griddle plus the original salt and pepper shakers that are built into it). We are just beginning to embark (finally, after five years of living here) on a kitchen remodel with the architect Mark Jensen. We've talked a lot about making the kitchen extremely easy to clean — I'm a little obsessed with installing a floor drain and being able to hose things down, but that may not be practical at home — and to function a little like a Swiss Army knife. It's a pretty small room, but I think that it could be amazing and practical to have everything well-designed and nearby.
Pictured: Diebenkorn trifle
Cover photo courtesy of Ten Speed Press, © 2013 Mondrian/Holtzman Trust; all other photos courtesy of Ten Speed Press, © 2013 Clay McLachlan