San Francisco pastry chef Caitlin Freeman's new baking book, Modern Art Desserts: Recipes for Cakes, Cookies, Confections and Frozen Treats based on Iconic Works of Art, is an edible reflection of the museum curator's constant challenge:

Finding the balance between popular exhibitions (and pastries) that will draw a large enough crowd to keep visitor attendance (and book sales) up, versus those without mass appeal but of equal, and at times, greater, value.

Freeman is the pastry chef for Blue Bottle Coffee, which has a satellite outpost at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. At the SFMOMA, she and her baking partners, Leah Rosenberg and Tess Wilson, craft artwork-inspired pastries for several years.

Despite the book's press release, and that Mondrian look-alike cover, this is hardly a book for “hobby bakers,” or any baker looking for a literal art history interpretation. From our curatorial perspective, that makes it all the better.

Consider the pastry inspired by Richard Avedon's famous portrait of California beekeeper Ronald Fischer. It is an abstract honey-pistachio parfait enclosed in a white chocolate-cardamom “box” with the “bees” supplied by a chocolate fondant transfer sheet (see photo below). Not exactly a black and white copy. As Freeman says in the recipe introduction:

Just a few months after the café opened in 2009, a Richard Avedon retrospective opened as the big summer exhibition. I was delighted to be able to spend time admiring the work of one of my very favorite photographers, and I hoped that I'd find inspiration for an Avedon dessert in the galleries.

Partial Table of Contents; Credit: Ten Speed Press / Clay McLachlan

Partial Table of Contents; Credit: Ten Speed Press / Clay McLachlan

“Inspiration” is the key word here, as many of the designs are liberal interpretation of an artist's work. Several, like a Diebenkorn-inspired, layered trifle with lemon mousse and pomegranate gelée, benefit from a photo of the specific work next to them to digest the reference.

There is also the matter of how knowledgeable your dinner party audience is about modern art. While much of the general public recognizes a Mondrian painting today (at least from the most publicized years of the artist's career), the same is not always true of Robert Ryman, Jon Zurier, and Andrew Kudless.

Or even less widely known works by well-known artists. Each pastry is based on a single artwork in the SFMOMA collection, such as Luc Tuyman's St. Valentine or Ellsworth Kelly's Stele 1. Tuyman's oil painting includes a heart-shaped image (the reciprocal pastry is a heart-shaped crème fraiche parfait). And Kelly's giant outdoor sculpture has the shape and color of a fudge pop. But with Kelly, for instance, if you're mostly familiar with the artist's “hard edge” style of boldly colored paintings, the reference is going to require a lot of table talk. Time to pull out the curatorial notes from SFMOMA's Curator of Paintings and Sculpture, Janet Bishop, that accompany each image of the original artwork.

It's why the book's cover photo is a bit misleading. A gorgeous cake, yes, but one that subtly implies all of the pastries recreate artworks that are more widely known. Thankfully, Freeman goes much further here, as how many more Van Gogh look-alike cakes do we really need? We'd much prefer to go the Herb Ritts octopus route. (Suggestions?) That Mondrian cake is also one of the more complicated pastry assemblies in the book, requiring four batches of cake died different colors, an optional Ateco dough divider “for absolute precision,” and a multi-day assembly.

What Freeman and her pastry crew have done is much more interesting — using art to inspire their own original edible art. Creations like a simple, Robert Ryman-inspired white box cake. And a Warhol dessert that is really just a brightly striated strawberry, mint and rose milk gelée — and yet it still successfully, if subtly, conveys the artist (“We were interested in a dessert with layers that referenced the process of screen printing”). Not a single, overly literal Campbell's soup can cake, thankfully, in sight.

Then again, at the end of the day, it's those Mondrian posters that sell in museum bookshops.

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