When I was facing a significant birthday a few years ago (one that ended in a "0") I began my celebration at SFMOMA, specifically at the Blue Bottle Cafe with a slice of Thiebaud Cake: a chocolate cake covered in strawberry buttercream and filled with Lillet- and vanilla-poached strawberries. Clearly it was going to be a good decade! So when the cafe's co-owner Caitlin Freeman published Modern Art Desserts, a cookbook based on the art-influenced creations she sells at the SFMOMA cafe, I was very excited to learn more about these amazing desserts.
• Who wrote it: Caitlin Freeman
• Who published it: Ten Speed Press
• Number of recipes: There are about 30 desserts in the book, with each dessert comprised of a few different recipes (cake, frosting, filling, accompanying sodas, etc.)
• Recipes for right now: This isn't a seasonal book, but any of the strawberry-based recipes such as the Thiebold Pink Cake, the Zurier Ice Pop, or the Matisse Parfait would be good. For something simple: the Kahlo Wedding Cookies. For something off the charts: the Mondrian Cake pictured on the cover, obviously, but also the Avedon Parfait which consists of a honey-pistachio parfait incased in a white chocolate box covered with black bees.
• Other highlights: Look, let's just get this straight right off the bat. This is not your beginner's cookbook, nor is it your everyday go-to dessert book or your cake bible. This is the cookbook you'll reach for when you want to immerse yourself in a cooking project, when you are in the mood for a challenge, when your best pal hits a birthday that ends in a "0" and you want to make her a very, very special cake.
Each dessert is based on a piece of art in the SFMOMA collection, or on an upcoming show at the museum. They are delightful, funny, and just as important, they sound delicious, proving that as much attention went into their flavors and textures as did their ability to reflect art. Most of these recipes are complicated construction projects, but not all. I made the Kahlo Mexican Wedding cookies recently and they were pretty straightforward. They were delicious, with just the right texture and walnut flavor. (One quibble with this recipe, however: it made a lot less than promised. It called for 1 teaspoon of dough per cookie which felt way too small. My cookie were more like 1 tablespoon and I ended up with 30 cookies instead of the 80 promised.)
The Mondrian Cake (pictured on the cover) is the most well-known SFMOMA dessert, and Freeman gives it a lot of attention in the book with detailed instructions and a lot of encouragement. But there are also easier ice cream bars and pops, a few parfaits and drinks, and of course the wedding cookies. The book ends on a savory note with a beautiful, flower strewn cheese and cracker platter, and a stunning, abstract cheese plate based on a Mark Bradford collage.
Fun Fact: Caitlin Freeman had an embosser make with the statement you can totally make the mondrian cake. She will be bringing it with her to book signings and will emboss your book when she signs it.
• Who would enjoy this book? People who love to take on a challenge, who love to construct, and who have a sense of humor. An appreciation for art is helpful, but not necessary.
Find the book at your local library, independent bookstore, or Amazon: Modern Art Desserts by Caitlin Freeman.
To follow the adventures of Ms. Freeman and her fellow pastry chefs, check out the Modern Art Desserts blog.
While the book's author Caitlin Freeman is getting a lot of attention, I thought it would be fun to share this video of the cafe's Head Pastry Chef, Leah Rosenberg, who went out in a boat in SF Bay to retrieve salt water in order to make salt for their (Buckminster) Fuller Hot Chocolate with Marshmallow and Sea Salt:
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