Our regular feature, Collection Rotation. Every month I invite someone to organize a mini-exhibition from our collection works online. Today’s guest is our resident pastry genius, Caitlin Freeman, who invents the many beautiful, delicious, and humorous sweet takes on SFMOMA artworks for the Blue Bottle cafe upstairs. Welcome, Caitlin!
From Art to Cake to Art
It all started with this painting:
It was the mid-1990’s and I was a photography student at UC Santa Cruz. As part of the curriculum, we would take day trips to San Francisco to see the current photography exhibitions, which always included a visit to the SFMOMA. But, on every trip to the museum, I found myself sneaking away from the group and down the stairs to the painting galleries. Sacrilege! I wasn’t supposed to be there for paintings! It was for just one painting that I was there, Wayne Thiebaud’s Display Cakes. I certainly didn’t (and still don’t) have a gift for painting, but I was captivated by the unsaturated, earthy pastel colors, the vivid texture and the ethereal subject matter. It almost always hung above Robert Bechtle’s Alameda Gran Torino. I imagined capturing a gossamer world on film inspired by these two paintings.
Fast forward to 2001. The world felt like it was crumbling, I couldn’t get laid off from the dot com job that was suffocating me and all I dreamt of were cakes. With every spare moment I had, I taught myself to make cakes with Thiebaud’s images and the seasonal diversity of our local produce as my guides. Around this time I co-founded a local patisserie, Miette, where I worked, lived and breathed the cakes I thought Wayne Thiebaud might have painted. In creating these cakes and selling them at local farmer’s markets, I forged significant bonds with the farmers growing the fruit, nuts and berries used in my cakes. Coincidentally, this farmland that cultivated the ingredients that became necessary in the making of my Thiebaud inspired cakes was, itself, a longtime muse of Thiebaud.
Last year I sold Miette and began working with my husband at his business, Blue Bottle Coffee. He was in the process of opening a new coffeebar in the Rooftop Sculpture Garden at SFMOMA and on my first visit to the still-in-construction garden, it hit me: I can make Thiebaud cakes right here! In the building where I spent so much time with the painting that directed the course of my career. My life!
And so the story continues…
My job now consists of spending time at the museum, looking at art, and thinking about what that art would look like and how it would taste as a dessert, and how I might interpret that artwork in my own medium—pastry. Some is obvious (see Thiebaud, above), and some, not so much.
Last year, Michael Jackson had just died, the museum was including this piece [Michael Jackson and Bubbles] in The Anniversary Show, and I knew it was one of the most important pieces for us to get right. I knew I wanted it to be primarily white and gilded with gold and my first inclination was to work with bananas—because, of course, there’s a chimpanzee in the sculpture. And it’s Jeff Koons. And, well, hinting at his “suggestive” artistic inclinations seemed entirely appropriate. And it’s Michael Jackson, after all! So we covered a frozen banana in white chocolate and put it on a popsicle stick.
That resulted in something totally and completely inappropriate for a museum audience!
So our focus switched from bananas to bubbles. How to make bubbles in a dessert? How to make something very gold, very white? Upon discovering some ceremonial Turkish tea cups, it all fell into place. Wintertime was approaching and a warm hot chocolate dessert would be a great addition to our cafe menu. We created a slightly spicy and citrusy white hot chocolate with cardamom and lemon zest—snowy white and perfectly showcasing the the ornate cup and its resemblance to Michael Jackson’s golden locks. My assistant, Leah Rosenberg, developed a delicious Lillet marshmallow that we pipe into spheres that float, adorned with gold leaf, atop the hot chocolate.
Sometimes the art dictates the dessert, and sometimes a dessert leads me to the art. Just before the Rooftop Garden opened, I was combing the galleries looking for inspiration. I clearly remember passing the Mondrian paintings and saying “ugh, Mondrian. What would I do with that?” So important, but I couldn’t imagine how I would work with primary colors (which meant the use of food coloring) or such severe structure.
Leah, has an amazing old book of traditional Victorian desserts that we were looking to for inspiration. We were talking about the unusual structure of the Battenburg Cake and how it might be fun to play with the idea of building an artwork inside a cake. Something that is revealed in profile when sliced.
There it was, the perfect place for the Mondrian cake. Of course, I had to come to terms with the use of food coloring to create the primary colors, but after a few tries with natural food coloring and berry powders, I got over it. In order to really make a Mondrian cake, we had to use commercial food coloring (in moderation), and thank goodness the Mondrian at the SFMOMA is primarily white. While this is a complicated cake to create, we wanted to make it something accessible and delicious that anyone might like— a buttery and vanilla-forward white velvet cake with Valrhona chocolate ganache.
We’ve done a lot of desserts and been inspired many different ways, but the Luc Tuymans retrospective (the first in the U.S.) really WAS a first for us. Being installed in the 5th floor galleries (and adjacent to the rooftop garden and the cafe), we knew it was going to be important to do a dessert for this show, but we planned to wait until the show was installed to work though ideas. Such somber colors, such dark material, it was hard to know how any of it was ever going to be appropriate for a dessert (of all things!).
One afternoon during the installation Leah spotted Tuymans (the artist himself!) with curator Madeleine Grynsztejn at the coffeebar and asked, “would you like a dessert made in reference to one of your paintings?” Madeleine suggested that, since Valentine’s Day was approaching, his painting St. Valentine might be appropriate. Tuymans agreed. And, so it was, we were making a dessert based on St. Valentine. The hitch: The show was opening the next day and word spread faster than we could get a cake in the oven, as it seems he had mentioned to the press that a dessert was being made “after” his St. Valentine.
One of the most important things we felt we wanted to convey in this dessert was the overall melancholy in the painting—the gloomy grays and blues and the cold sadness. Which made the subject even harder to deal with! We brainstormed somber flavors, we talked technique and texture, we surveyed grays, but nothing seemed quite right. How to create a dessert in the shape of a heart that isn’t saccharine cute, have it be scrutinized by the artist and be accessible for the general public to want to eat (that is, no gray cake)? All in one day! But with Mr. Tuymans’s routine passings (likely investigating the status of his cake), the collectors who owned St. Valentine coming by to see the dessert before heading back to Belgium that evening, and press tour inquiries about the cake “after” Tuymans, there was no turning back. Fortunately, that night I awoke at 2am with an idea. We would create a gelee by combining Crème de Violette liqueur (which is violet in color) with Agar Agar to create a somber blue-gray sauce. And the rest of the dessert came together the next morning, a heart shaped creme fraiche parfait atop an Earl Grey shortbread afloat in that perfectly somber (and delicious) violet gelee.
And that brings us to now. We have the big SFMOMA 75th birthday bash nearing and I’ve been asked to participate by making a birthday cake. Something on a very large scale that is inspired by something in the current exhibition. I’m still in the talking and sketching phase, but think I’m honing in on what seems right. This seems like a great opportunity to do something really big, really flashy. Something on a large scale that’s complicated and sure to make me tear my hair out.
First we spent a lot of time thinking about Brice Marden’s Five Plates. Could we turn this into a giant birthday cake? Turn them on their sides and stack them high? Create something that is revealed as it is consumed?
Working with just the black and white somehow seemed boring, and we want to do something other than just chocolate and vanilla. Add some color! And, what better color than the Birthday Bash invitations designed by Stanlee Gatti?
A Christopher Wool cake? We could easily make a subtle change to the letters on his giant Adversary piece to turn it in to “Anniversary”:
I started becoming obsessed with a Paul Klee lithograph and the pink, yellow, orange and white pattern in its background. I imagined creating a big sculpture of cakes, comprised of many smaller cakes that would be stacked on top of each other, creating a giant 3D sculpture of the background I loved. However, the reality of making this cake will not prove so easy and I don’t want a disaster on my hands!
Late last year, Leah and I tried to work on a Ryman cake but it never really panned out. We’re definitely not lacking in inspiration—we both adore his work—but we just couldn’t get anything to work in the small scale of the Coffee Bar. On my most recent visit to the 4th floor galleries, I focused on the assembly of his pieces: the fasteners, the exposed linen canvas and the way the paint interacted with the canvas. And then it hit me, Why not build the cake on a (modified) linen canvas, and watch how my medium (frosting) interacts with the fabric and have fun with the very frosting-like texture he was so well known for. The purity of his color palette would give us endless options in terms of flavor, and I’d be able to create subtle and delicate pairings that taste as ethereal as his paintings look.
It is yet to be seen exactly what we’ll end up doing. We are working on it. But what we can say for sure is: cake will be served.
Caitlin Freeman is a pastry chef living in San Francisco. She works at Blue Bottle Coffee Company, based in Oakland CA, heading up the pastry department—which includes the art-inspired cakes at the BBCC cafe in the SFMOMA Rooftop Sculpture Garden and all the sweet treats sold in Blue Bottle Cafes.