Art Caitlin Freeman, creator of Modern Art Desserts

Published on May 7th, 2013 | by Setsu Uzume


Modern Art Desserts: Caitlin Freeman’s Creative Cooking

Modern Art Desserts: Mondrian Cake

Mondrian Cake

Imagine walking up to a piece of modern art and taking a big bite out of it. What would it taste like? Caitlin Freeman’s job is just that – imagining how to turn iconic works of art into dazzling, delicious treats.

Freeman originally studied to be a photographer, but found her true calling when she happened upon Wayne Thiebaud’s painting Display Cakes while visiting the SFMOMA many years ago. So taken with the painting, Freeman found a new obsession with pastry. After several adventures and serendipitous meetings (read the full story in her book), she found herself back at the SFMOMA, blending art and food in innovative and delicious ways.

Every Thursday, Freeman sits with her team and reviews what is coming to the SFMOMA, challenging her team to constantly push the boundaries on their menu.

In her new book, Modern Art Desserts, she shows readers how to make 27 of these desserts from Warhol Gelee to Matisse Parfait. Each recipe is clear and easy to follow. Freeman weaves in stories about the art and her design process while teaching her readers to bake. Each recipe is broken down for beginners with an “above and beyond” section for those who really want to get into the nitty gritty of dessert perfection.

With the SFMOMA’s impending closure for renovations, the book couldn’t be more timely, giving anyone the power to build complex works of art in the comfort of their own kitchen.

Modern Art Desserts: Winogrand cake

Winogrand Cake

Art Animal: If you could invite anyone in the world to the SFMOMA and make a dessert from their work, who would it be?
Caitlin Freeman: Well, if I could invite anyone to the SFMOMA to chat with (because I’ve already made thousands of cakes from his work) it would be Wayne Thiebaud. As for someone who I haven’t already made a dessert based on their work, (and this would also require resurrection from the dead) it would be photographer Vivian Maier. But she probably wouldn’t want to talk to me, and she clearly didn’t want anyone paying attention to her work.

AA: Which piece of art did you find most challenging to transform into a dessert?
CF: Luc Tuymans told us to make a dessert based on his painting St. Valentine, which is blue/gray/purple and has a mysterious, heart-shaped object in it. We wanted to honor his request, of course, but it was a real struggle to come up with a gray dessert that would be amazing enough to honor his beautiful painting.

AA: Have you had to modify or make custom kitchen tools? What are your favorite tools or most essential ingredients?
CF: We have had custom cookie cutters made, but most often we find ourselves sourcing props for our desserts: the perfect little bottle for a Cindy Sherman float, custom bee chocolate transfers for an Avedon piece, edible paper for a Damien Hirst cake, custom coasters and gaudy Turkish tea cups for a Koons hot chocolate. The most unusual material we’ve bought for a dessert has to be the MP3 players that we sourced for our Garry Winogrand ice cream cake.

Modern Art Desserts: Tess Hirst cake

Creating the Damien Hirst Cake

AA: What about a painting or a sculpture informs how the dessert should taste?
CF: Most often the color helps make our flavor choices. I’m really not into using food coloring (except in necessary situations like the Mondrian, where natural just didn’t cut it), so we try to come up with natural ways to work color into our desserts. Black sesame, black cocoa powder, chocolate ganache, strawberries, saffron, tomatoes, creme de violette liqueur, lemon curd, Italian meringue, fruit gelees, avocado and fresh flowers are all great materials for working color into a dessert.

AA: Tell me about the design process. Do you make several prototypes before settling on the right piece? Were there any really strange experiments that you learned from?
CF: We tend to sketch a lot, but most often we talk through ideas in our meetings before getting to the testing phase. We’ve become pretty streamlined in how we work, so we’re able to reach a finished design much more quickly than when we first started. The ice cream cake that plays music is actually an example of how we’ve broadened our thinking about what we can do, rather than being particularly experimental. Feeling free to add more and interesting non-pastry components to our desserts feels like a wacky and amazing luxury.

Modern Art Desserts: Tuymans Parfait

Tuymans Parfait

AA: When you think of the perfect treat, or the perfect execution of form and flavor, how close does what you see in your mind match what you’re able to produce?
CF: I’ve been known to test up to 30 versions of a recipe, usually in our home kitchen, until I get to what I’m envisioning. Sometimes things happen easily and naturally. Leah Rosenberg (my pastry chef at the SFMOMA cafe) has become such an amazing force in the kitchen, and it feels sometimes like my brain is in her body, making exactly what I was hoping for.

AA: How did the book come about? How did you narrow down the recipes to include?
CF: My husband and I were working on our first book, The Blue Bottle Craft of Coffee (which, really, I only did 1/4 of the work on), and I thought that I should start thinking about a book about our museum desserts. I approached my editor who was excited about the project, so we started work on it as the Blue Bottle book was wrapping up. We had a tight deadline with the SFMOMA closing in June 2013 for their big expansion, so I had to work in hyper speed. It was more work than I ever could have imagined, especially getting all of the rights to reproduce the original artwork, but I’m thrilled that we worked through it and made a beautiful book without any compromises. My editor was really the one to narrow down the recipes, choosing projects that are both widely appealing and make for balanced content.

Modern Art Desserts: Kahlo cookie box

Kahlo Cookie Box

AA: What kind of feedback do you get from the artists who inspire your confections?
CF: The few that I’ve met (Cindy Sherman, John Zurier, Andrew Kudless, Rosana Castrillo Diaz and Ruth Laskey) have been incredible and so delighted about our project. There’s only been one who has objected and made us stop. But he didn’t make us cry!

AA: You mentioned earlier that you are your own worst critic, but working with art takes a lot of independence and resilience. When you come up against something really challenging, how do you pull yourself through?
CF: By sleeping! I am devoted to a good night’s sleep, and very often wake up with the solution to problems I might be having (desserts or otherwise). And sometimes (if I have the luxury of time), I will just drop it for a while and wait for a solution to come to me. A good example is a peanut butter cookie that I was trying to develop a few years ago for the Blue Bottle shops (not at the SFMOMA). I was originally planning on trying to come up with a vegan peanut butter cookie, but somehow that turned into becoming obsessed with making one that had whiskey and lard in it. My husband loves peanut butter cookies, but after 27 versions of lardy boozy cookies, he had enough of being my taste tester. I decided that I was frustrated and no longer inspired, so I dropped it. Two years later, I realized that my problem was that I was trying to make a soft cookie, which was always going to be gross with lard, and turned my focus to a crunchy cookie (this time without whiskey), and I got it right after just two batches. But I needed to get out of my own head and let things settle.

Modern Art DessertsAA: What advice do you have for bakers (or photographers) who are looking to find their niche?
CF: Find what you like to do and do it your best. I’m a firm believer that you’re never going to be great at anything unless you really, truly love what you do.

AA: What will you be working on while the SFMOMA has its renovation? Will the cafe re-open at another location?
CF: I just don’t think it makes sense to make desserts inspired by art anywhere other than in a museum. So no, we aren’t going to continue on with this project in another location (unless another museum comes along). The other part of my job at Blue Bottle is to make treats that pair well with coffee for our other 9 shops, so that will keep me busy. Leah will stay on staff to begin to archive all of the projects we’ve done at the museum cafe over these last 4 years (I only documented a quarter of them in the book!), and we will work together on planning new desserts for the re-opening in 2016. The SFMOMA is acquiring so much amazing new art, and we want to be there to get to know the pieces and plan for an incredible re-opening. By this summer our schedules will be calm enough that we’ll finally be able to make the Mondrian cake available for ordering online to be shipped around the US. That will be a fantastic way to make this cake available, and it’s such a perfect cake for shipping. So, stay tuned!

Head to the Blue Bottle Café on the 5th floor of the SFMOMA to try Caitlin’s latest desserts. Modern Art Desserts is available on Blue Bottle Coffee’s web site, and at the SFMOMA for purchase.

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About the Author

Shot from New York like a bat out of hell, Setsu is a writer and collector of stories. She recently graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in Chinese Language & Literature. Her coursework included a stint at a monastery in rural China, where she studied swordplay and Daoist philosophy. Setsu is a co-founder of writing groups in Seattle and San Francisco, where new writers can take their first steps toward publication. She has dabbled in many arts, but only martial arts and writing seem to have stuck. Visit her blog at

2 Responses to Modern Art Desserts: Caitlin Freeman’s Creative Cooking

  1. Angela says:

    LOVE the Mondrian cake! Very inspiring article. Thanks for a great read!

  2. Setsu Uzume says:

    I’m so glad you enjoyed it! The recipe book lists where she gets her ingredients so you can make them as close to the original as possible. The chocolate ganache on the Mondrian cake is unbelievable.

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