Modern Art Desserts, by Caitlin Freeman

Modern Art Desserts by Caitlin Freeman


Caitlin Freeman, author of Modern Art Desserts, and blogger Jay Thomson.Last week I was in Los Angeles on business for the Barnes Foundation, where I met Caitlin Freeman, author of the just-released Modern Art Desserts—Recipes for Cakes, Cookies, Confections, and Frozen Treats Based on Iconic Works of Art (Ten Speed Press). She is the in-house pastry chef at SFMOMA‘s rooftop Blue Bottle Cafe owned by her husband James.

Caitlin and her team at SFMOMA (Leah Rosenberg and Tess Wilson) create beautiful and delicious desserts inspired by contemporary and modern art. What I love about their work is that the art is just a point of inspiration for the desserts—the Mondrian-inspired cake on the cover, for example, is about a direct interpretation as there is in the book. Other recipes are more oblique. Who would ever realize the inspiration behind a bubblegum float with vanilla and raspberry ice creams is Cindy Sherman’s Untitled #415? [See the float, along with other creations in this video featuring Leah.] Or that a delicious-looking hot chocolate topped with a house-made marshmallow and dusted with salt from the San Francisco bay was inspired by Buckminster Fuller’s concept of a floating city?


Wayne Thiebaud, Display Cakes, 1963; painting; oil on canvas, 28 in. x 38 in. (71.12 cm x 96.52 cm); Collection SFMOMA, Mrs. Manfred Bransten Special Fund purchase; © Wayne Thiebaud / Licensed by VAGA, New York Source: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Wayne Thiebaud, Display Cakes, 1963; painting; oil on canvas, 28 in. x 38 in. (71.12 cm x 96.52 cm); Collection SFMOMA

When I asked Caitlin what painting started it all for her, I was elated to hear her respond Wayne Thiebaud‘s Display Cakes, because Thiebaud is one of my favorite contemporary artists too. When I was in graduate school, I made a life-sized bronze slice of cake sculpture (complete with plate and fork, and finished with a layer of silver aluminum paint) inspired by the Thiebaud retrospective I’d seen in New York. (The retrospective originated at SFMOMA.)

With every dessert, Caitlin provides a photograph of the original work of art in SFMOMA’s collection, along with a paragraph or two about it. She then precedes each recipe with a story about what inspired her to make it, and the challenges she faced in developing the concept. Experienced bakers will be pleased to know these are recipes you can actually follow, with plenty of practical advice (including resources for some of the uncommon tools needed). She even provides links to some templates that will be helpful for some of the recipes (the beautiful striped ice cream cone wrapper for the Tony Cragg ice cream on page 155, for example.)


Stele I, steel sculpture by Ellsworth Kelly (1973). SFMOMA.

Stele I, steel sculpture by Ellsworth Kelly (1973). SFMOMA.

Since I work in a museum store, I am familiar with trying to develop new products based on artwork. It can be a daunting challenge to create something people will want to buy, that also does not trivialize the artwork. You never want to do something that will upset the artist (if he or she is still living), or their estate, heirs, or rights-holders, because that could jeopardize the good relationships museums and curators (and museum store directors) work so hard to establish and maintain with them. I asked Caitlin what problems, if any, she had encountered during the four years she’s been making desserts based on artworks.

To my surprise, she’s only had one artist ask her to stop making a dessert based on his sculpture: Richard Serra. Apparently, he was none too happy with the assemble-it-yourself cookie sculpture she’d created based on his Right Angle Plus One (1969).

When I told her about the upcoming Ellsworth Kelly show at the Barnes Foundation to coincide with the artist’s 90th birthday, I asked her what he thought of her Kelly Fudge Pops (page 147) based on his Stele I (1973) sculpture. “Well, he’s aware of it, and I haven’t heard anything from him.” she said. We invited Caitlin to Philadelphia next month to sign copies of her new book at the Barnes, and perhaps, just perhaps, bake a birthday cake for him. It remains to be seen whether her schedule will permit it, but I sure hope so. Stay tuned.

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) will close for approximately three years this June, in order to expand. While closed, the museum plans to have extensive off-site programming and travelling exhibits in the Bay Area and beyond. 

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