Caitlin Freeman on Art, Cakes, and Wedding Cookies

May  7, 2013

We're sitting down with our favorite writers and cooks to talk about their upcoming cookbooks, their best food memories, and just about anything else.

Today, Caitlin Freeman, pastry chef at Blue Bottle Coffee at the SFMOMA, talks to us about where she draws inspiration and shares a recipe for Mexican Wedding Cookies.

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Walking around a museum can really work up an appetite, making an on-site café a lifesaver. At SFMOMA, a visit to the Blue Bottle Café can be just as inspiring as a walk through the galleries. Here, pastry chef Caitlin Freeman uses the museum's collection as inspiration for desserts that are as beautiful, playful, and creative as they are delicious.

In her new cookbook, Modern Art Desserts, Caitlin has adapted some of Blue Bottle's most beloved desserts for home cooks. While they often require a bit of diligence, Caitlin's enthusiasm for these edible works of art is infectious enough to inspire even the most lackadaisical of us to try our hands at a Mondrian cake. We pulled Caitlin away from her cakes long enough to learn more about what inspires her and snag her recipe for Mexican Wedding Cookies, so you can make some art in your own home this weekend.

What was the first art-inspired dessert you made?
The Thiebaud cake was the inspiration for the whole project, and the types of cakes I was making for so long at my previous business, Miette. When we opened the cafe, we had Thiebaud cakes, Mondrian cake and the Katharina Fritsch ice cream sandwich (shaped like a poodle).

Who is your favorite artist? Your favorite chef? Who inspires you?
So many people and things inspire me! My favorite artist, of course, is Wayne Thiebaud. I pretty much wrote this book as a love letter to how much his art has inspired me; my entire career is because of his painting Display Cakes. He lives only about an hour from me, but he's getting up there in years, and I'm not sure I'll be able to meet him. I did get a very sweet thank you postcard from him for sending him a copy of my book, which I will treasure until the end of my days.


My favorite chef is most definitely Daniel Patterson. I have had some brain-changing meals at Coi and feel so lucky that we get to live in the same city as his restaurant and eat there often. He's so smart and so clever, but that never gets in the way of incredibly delicious food that is presented in the most artful way. It'd be too hard for me to name just one favorite pastry chef, but a short list is: Pierre Herme (duh, of course), Nicole Krasinski, Michelle Polzine, and I just had an incredible incredible dessert experience at Del Posto in the hands of Brooks Headley.

All of these people certainly inspire me, but my husband, James Freeman, is the one I am always looking to impress. He has an incredible palate, and making him swoon is my main goal in life!

At Blue Bottle Coffee in the SFMoma, art is often an integral part of the eating and coffee drinking experience. How do you see the role of a cafe within a museum -- and what is your philosophy on how the two should coexist?
I just can't believe restaurants and cafes can exist in museums without responding to the work! I am so excited every single time I walk up to the security entrance of the SFMOMA to get my backstage pass into that building. And the fact that we get to fill a gallery with the smell of baking cake and coffee is my dream come true.

More: Make Caitlin's Moonshine Marshmallows

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We know what your cakes look like -- but what does a weeknight dinner look like in your kitchen?
My husband makes the "Papa-style MSV", which is potatoes roasted with some kind of meat (bacon or sausage) and vegetable (usually a brassica). The MSV stands for Meat, Starch, Vegetable. Our son is devoted to having Taco Tuesdays. I usually try to come up with something clever to use as many veggies as possible from our CSA box (it's like a game!), and that will often be some kind of grain with sauteed veggies topped with a poached egg or two and brown butter. For dessert, we really like making simple granitas topped with whipped cream, and our son Dashiell always plays "Whip It" by Devo as I whip the cream -- by hand, of course. 

What do you want readers to take away from this book?
I hope that people see that I've just used art as inspiration for what I do (make desserts), and are inspired to go off and be creative, however they are creative.  


Kahlo Mexican Wedding Cookies

Makes 80 small cookies

1 cup walnuts
1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar, plus more for rolling
1 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 teaspoon Maldon sea salt (or other coarse grained sea salt)
1 tablespoon Nocino
1 3/4 cup (245 grams) all-purpose flour

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Cookie photo by Clay McLachlan

Tell us: what inspires you to get creative in the kitchen?

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Marian Bull

Written by: Marian Bull


1 Comment

mcs3000 May 22, 2013
Love Thiebaud too. I live near the MOMA and the best part about Caitlin's creations are that they taste as good as they look. Beautiful masterpieces.