April 19, 2013
Artist Piet Mondrian used oil on canvas to create his famous geometric composition of neat red, yellow and blue squares and straight black lines.
Caitlin Freeman’s interpretation of this work of art is slightly different, and sweeter. Her medium? Flour, sugar, eggs and vanilla extract in a baking pan.
The pastry chef pulls inspiration from art and whips it into cakes, cookies, gelées and parfaits at her café on the fifth floor of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The Mondrian cake, a compilation of moist yellow cake cubes coated in chocolate ganache, is the best seller at the museum location of the Blue Bottle Coffee Bar, which she runs with her husband, James.
In the café’s four years of operation, Freeman and her team have created nearly 100 desserts inspired by artwork that has appeared, at one time or another, on the museum’s walls. Twenty-seven of them, gleaned from works by Andy Warhol, Frida Kahlo and Henri Matisse, are featured in her new cookbook, Modern Art Desserts: Recipes for Cakes, Cookies, Confections, and Frozen Treats Based on Iconic Works of Art, published this week. Each recipe is accompanied by a photo of the original artwork, with detailed history written by Janet Bishop, the museum’s painting and sculpture curator.
Freeman includes a photo of her very first attempt at a Mondrian cake, which she says is quite embarrassing to look back on. “It wasn’t perfect, but we just had to make a few thousand of them to feel like we had a hang of what we were doing with that cake,” Freeman says. “You don’t know until you do that final cut whether or not it’s all come together, so that one’s a tricky one.”
Crafting art-inspired cakes wasn’t always the plan for Freeman. She studied photography at the University of California, Santa Cruz, but figured she’d eventually become a dentist—a career goal she explains was likely thwarted by her big sweet tooth. During a trip to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Freeman fell in love with frequent pastry-painter Wayne Thiebaud’s Display Cakes, a 1963 oil painting of a trio of ready-to-eat cakes. Determined to become a pastry chef, she joined a new, small bakery called Miette, learning on the job and graduating from dishwasher to cake decorator (and business partner). She left Miette after seven years. Shortly after, the modern art museum called her and her husband about Blue Bottle Coffee setting up shop in its new rooftop garden.
“My reaction, since I was young, going into art galleries was seeing a piece of art that I really like, and liking it so much that I want to steal it or eat it,” Freeman jokes. “This is my way of doing something about it—just liking something so much that it inspires you to do something.”
How does Freeman move art from the canvas to the cake pan? Countless walk-throughs in the museum’s collections and multiple brainstorming sessions with her team. Some pieces lend themselves immediately to their dessert doppelgangers. For example, artist Ellsworth Kelly’s Stele I, a one-inch-thick, 18-foot-tall rust-colored oblong steel plate looks like an over-sized fudge popsicle.
But sometimes, Freeman says, the inspiration just doesn’t come. Landscape art, in the style of Ansel Adams and Georgia O’Keeffe, was tough to delineate in dessert form, so Freeman told her baristas to do the best they could with leaf-like latte art.
The colors in a given work of art usually drive the flavors in the resulting dessert. “If it’s all filled with blues and greens, it’s really hard to come up with something that’s tasty that’s blue,” Freeman says. A Ronald Fischer photograph of a shirtless beekeeper covered in bees led to a white chocolate box with a honey-pistachio parfait filling. The deep reds in Roy Lichtenstein’s triptych painting of a French cathedral became a spongy red velvet cake. Andy Warhol’s famous brightly colored print of Elizabeth Taylor gave rise to a neatly stacked gelatin treat of red, pink and mint squares.
Many of the cookbook’s desserts take several hours or even a day to complete, which can seem daunting to the average at-home baker. Freeman lays out a step-by-step assembly guide, instructing readers on how to temper chocolate, master butter cream and use chocolate transfer sheets, which add elaborate, stencil-like designs to finished sweets. “I didn’t want there to be big barriers of entry,” she says.
Frankly, when it comes to dessert, I think most people would agree.
March 29, 2013
Nothing screams Easter like the arrival of brightly colored marshmallow Peeps snuggled inside crinkly packaging at the grocery store. For many people, the sweet is meant to be hidden: some stuff them into plastic eggs hidden in the backyard for their kids to find, while others tuck them away in desk drawers at the office to satisfy late afternoon hunger pangs. But for one distinct group, marshmallow chicks and bunnies are stuffed (and baked and blended and broiled) into otherwise Peep-less recipes in the kitchen. Thanks to the massive proliferation of food blogs in recent years, we can witness the surprising culinary places a few of the 2 billion Peeps produced each year end up. Here are five ways to cook with these sugar-laden holiday staples, which Bethlehem, Pennsylvania-based company Just Born has manufactured for 60 years.
Bake them. Because Peeps are essentially colorful marshmallows, they won’t seem out of place in dessert recipes. Exposed to high heat, Peeps melt back into their native state, a pool of sugary liquid fluff. They’re worthy substitutes for plain marshmallows in brownies, cookies, pies—even bread. For hearty Peep-stuffed brownies, start with a regular boxed mix of the bake-sale classic, following the package directions to create the gooey batter. Spread a portion of it out onto a pan, pressing Peeps of the color of your choosing into the mixture. Layering the remaining brownie mix on top to hide the chicks, and dust some Peep powder on top for decoration once you’re done baking.
Try squishing a Peep between two globs of cookie dough, sculpting the batter into round, slightly raised shapes, and bake according to your usual cookie recipe (this one recommends folding a pretzel into the dough along with the Peep for added crunch). Or use chick or bunny Peeps as pie filling. Melt the candies in hot milk and let them cool before folding in heavy whipping cream and chopped or bite-size chocolate candies (semisweet chocolate chips, Reese’s Pieces or tiny chunks of toffee). Pour the thoroughly mixed batter into a store-bought or homemade pie crust and leave in the refrigerator overnight.
The Peep flavor can also be infused into breakfast desserts, like the sticky and gooey monkey bread. Dip buttermilk biscuits into a smoothly whisked mixture of microwave-melted Peeps, butter and vanilla extract. Roll the biscuits in sugar dyed with food coloring to match the color of the Peeps, and stack and mold them into a bundt cake shape after they’re baked and golden brown.
And bake them some more. Not all casserole recipes are a match for Peeps (think tuna or cheesy macaroni), but less savory kinds, like those made with sweet potatoes, welcome a hint of marshmallow. Bake chick-shaped Peeps atop a batter of boiled and mashed sweet potatoes, milk, brown sugar, cardamom and cinnamon, letting some of the toasted marshmallow flavor seep into the casserole. Or swap standard marshmallow topping for slightly browned Peeps in this recipe for candied yam soufflé.
Toss them. We don’t recommend pairing Peeps with arugula, baby spinach and crumbled feta—tossing them with sweet and citrusy fruits produces better results. This recipe takes a spin on the Waldorf salad, a blend of apples, celery, walnuts and mayonnaise popularized in the early 1900s at a New York City hotel of the same name. Use pink or yellow Peeps for this one—flashes of electric blue in the middle of a salad might be alarming. Pair them with diced bananas, chopped oranges, halved maraschino cherries and work in shredded coconut and your choice of nuts. Drizzle fresh lemon juice and orange-flavor liqueur on top, mixing the entire batch well before serving.
Peeps can replace regular miniature marshmallows in ambrosia salad, another well-known fruit concoction. Chop pastel-colored chicks or bunnies into the size of the average miniature marshmallow. Add them to a bowl of pineapple chunks, diced mandarin oranges and shredded coconut, and then stir in a generous helping of Cool Whip.
Blend them. Peeps’ soft texture makes them prime candidates for electric mixers. Combine chocolate mousse-flavored Peeps with milk, sour cream and vanilla ice cream in a blender for a chocolatey shake. For a hint of toasted flavor, broil the chicks for one or two minutes until lightly charred before tossing them into the blender. Make Peep-flavored frosting by heating your choice of Peeps with egg whites, sugar and water in a saucepan. Beat the batter with a hand mixer until it gains some thickness, then spread it over cupcakes. Feeling fancy? Transform Peeps into unusually colorful mousse. Melt Peeps with heavy whipping cream in a saucepan, then zest off some sugar from still-intact chicks onto the sugary mix once it’s cooled.
Freeze them. Peeps don’t always have to be melted down beyond recognition in the kitchen. The marshmallow candies can also make for tasty frozen desserts, which this recipe dubs “peepsicles.” Press wooden craft sticks into bunny-shaped Peeps and submerge them into a bowl of melted chocolate. Coat the peepsicles with shredded coconut, slivered nuts or sprinkles and store them in the freezer. Move beyond the obvious with this recipe for ceviche, a marinated seafood dish usually served raw and cold. Soak frozen bits of Peep in lime juice, dried chili peppers, fresh strawberries and dark chocolate, and dig in before they thaw and all the juices break them down. Peeps get very crunchy in less than zero temperatures, and really frozen ones (well, those submerged in a bucket of liquid nitrogen) easily shatter.
When cooking with Peeps, remember that, just like fruits and vegetables, they’re seasonal, available only around Valentine’s Day, Easter, Halloween and Christmas. However, the marshmallows have an astonishing shelf life of two years, so finding a forgotten pack of five in the pantry can be a sweet (albeit slightly stale) surprise.
July 18, 2012
Would you be able to manage a kitchen if you no longer had the use of one—if not both—of your hands? This question came to me as a colleague—who is quite kitchen savvy and is a fellow brown bagger—had to go in for shoulder surgery, leaving her with only one usable arm for the next six weeks. She was told point-blank that cooking for herself was not an option and that family would have to fill in—and that just wouldn’t do.
Google searches for “cooking with a broken arm” or “one-armed cooking” were fruitless, with the latter phrase simply turning up lots of parenting sites. Perhaps everyone is told to grin and bear it while recovering from surgery and that’s the way things are.
But what if the appendage is permanently lost? Searching for “amputee cooking” didn’t generate a wealth of information, but it did bring up a YouTube video of Jennifer Griffin making brownies. Normally, this is an unremarkable activity. But Griffin is a quadruple amputee, the result of a sepsis infection. While some might see the lack of either hand—let alone both—as an end to a life of cooking, Griffin took a constructive attitude and figured out how to revamp and revise her methodology for pulling a meal together. She was kind enough to correspond via email to tell me about her new relationship to the kitchen.
What was your relationship to your kitchen like before the infection?
I enjoyed baking a lot and always have but I wasn’t cooking meals as much. My husband loves to cook—lucky girl that I am—and got me much more interested in taking time to learn about what I was eating and where it was coming from. That said, after I got sick I had more time on my hands (excuse the pun) and could learn. So I became much more interested after getting sick.
During recovery, did you raise the question of how to cook for yourself with your doctors?
It was interesting to me that cooking hardly even came up in discussions with my rehab doctors and therapists. I expressed an interest in wanting to learn how to manage the kitchen. So, one day I made lunch. Mac and cheese—great start! I’m not sure they knew exactly how far to take me so we pushed the envelope every day.
What kinds of resources were available to you that addressed cooking for people in your situation?
Not much at all. There is a site I use called Patterson Medical that offers some devices in addition to several items in Williams-Sonoma. However, I was looking for an instructional class with a teacher who could really think outside the box. No such luck.
What was the first dish you tried preparing?
The mac and cheese I made while in rehab and was a bit sketchy, but edible. Then I made brownies when I got home and the taste was great but I recall the presentation being a little questionable. The good thing on the brownies though was I remember having a desire to learn how to do it right and I started practicing!
What kitchen skill was the most difficult for you to re-learn or adapt?
I would say learning to stir, cracking an egg and cutting. If I’m not using a mixer, anything I stir moves the bowl around since I can’t hold onto it. So I’ve learned to have my bowl in a corner that the bowl can push into & stabilize or use something on the bottom that makes it stick.
Learning to crack an egg was fun. That just took trying over and over and now I do it without thinking. Since I can’t hold a knife it’s very difficult to cut/dice, etc. So, I’ve learned how to use a pizza slicer (ones with thick handles and I can grip it and use the rolling blade) and found a few good choppers such as this one from Williams Sonoma.
How did you navigate around the varieties of food packages?
It wasn’t like I had a real strategy for this. I just played with packaging and devices. Over time I came to realize what worked best. Most things that come in bags with a Ziploc type packaging and some boxes, I use scissors to open. I’ve learned to lay the package flat on the counter and open it with the scissors. The counter supports the scissors for me and I can open and close them in a special way. The one item I’m still having problems with are cans. I haven’t found an opener that I can use very well yet. Even if it’s electric I have to stabilize the can in some way. So, if you can work that out for me it would be great. [Readers: if you have suggestions, please leave them in the comments section below!—Ed.]
Reading your website, the Positive Living for Active youth (PLAY) Foundation was created to get amputees involved in physical activities. Is cooking/kitchen skills a part of PLAY Foundation programs?
Absolutely! We haven’t had anyone apply for that yet but we would support the request 100%. PLAY is all about getting out of your comfort zone and trying things that bring out the applicants strengths. If we received a cooking application, depending upon the request, we would find a chef or school that would be willing to work with that individual, provide the financial grant, and be the facilitator during the process.
Is there a key piece of advice you would offer someone in a similar situation who wants to get back in the kitchen?
My advice would be to not be afraid of exploring and start looking at a utensils for more than what they are (e.g. using a pizza slicer as a knife). There are ways of getting it done it just takes practice and the desire to accomplish a fun challenge!
March 7, 2012
If you were to point to the most marvelous product kicking around in your pantry right now, would it be your loaf of bread? It is one of the most mundane staple foods, but as Aaron Bobrow-Strain shows in his book White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf, the lowly loaf is so much more than the sum of its simple parts. In American culture, bread is a status symbol, and the book provides a fascinating look at how store-bought white bread rose and fell in prominence. The book also answers the big question: Why do we have pre-sliced bread, and why it was the greatest thing to hit grocery store shelves?
To understand sliced bread, one must first understand the dramatic shift in bread making habits in America. In 1890, about 90 percent of bread was baked at home, but by 1930, factories usurped the home baker. Considering that bread making had been a part of domestic life for millennia, this is a fairly rapid change. In the early 20th century, Americans were highly concerned with the purity of their food supply. In the case of bread, hand-kneading was suddenly seen as a possible source of contamination, and yeast—those mystical, microscopic organisms that causes dough to rise—were viewed with suspicion. “Bread rises when infected with the yeast germ because millions of these little worms have been born and have died,” Eugene Christian wrote in his 1904 book Raw Foods and How to Use Them. “And from their dead and decaying bodies there rises a gas just as it does from the dead body of a hog of any other animal.” Images like this hardly make someone want to do business with the local baker.
Mass-produced bread, on the other hand, seemed safe. It was made in shining factories, mechanically mixed, government regulated. It was individually wrapped. It was a product of modern science that left nothing to chance. It was also convenient, sparing women hours in the kitchen to prepare a daily staple. Factory loaves also had an attractive, streamlined aesthetic, dispensing with the “unsightly” irregularities of homemade bread. Americans fed on factory bread because the bread companies were able to feed on consumer fear.
But factory breads were also incredibly soft. Buying pre-wrapped bread, consumers were forced to evaluate a product under sensory deprivation—it’s next to impossible to effectively see, touch and smell bread through a wrapper. “Softness,” Borrow-Strain writes, “had become customers’ proxy for freshness, and savvy bakery scientists turned their minds to engineering even more squeezable loaves. As a result of the drive toward softer bread, industry observers noted that modern loaves had become almost impossible to slice neatly at home.” The solution had to be mechanical slicing.
Factory-sliced bread was born on July 6, 1928 at Missouri’s Chillicothe Baking Company. While retailers would slice bread at the point of sale, the idea of pre-sliced bread was a novelty. “The housewife can well experience a thrill of pleasure when she first sees a loaf of this bread with each slice the exact counterpart of its fellows,” a reporter said of the sliced bread. “So neat and precise are the slices, and so definitely better than anyone could possibly slice by hand with a bread knife that one realizes instantly that here is a refinement that will receive a hearty and permanent welcome.” The bakery saw a 2,000 percent increase in sales, and mechanical slicing quickly swept the nation. With Americans all agog at the wonders of the mechanical age, sliced bread was a beacon of the amazing things the future might hold. At least that was the mindset. “Technology,” Bobrow-Strain says, “would usher in good society by conquering and taming the fickle nature of food provisioning.”
December 29, 2011
When it comes time to think about how to make a new year better than the last, “lose weight” is one of the most commonly made—and broken—resolutions. This resolution tends to vilify fun food in favor of working out more. I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing, but isn’t it possible to make a few New Year’s resolutions that embrace food? I think so. Here are a few I’m putting on my list as I dive into 2012.
Resolution 1: Out with the old standbys, in with the new. I like to cook for myself and take some pride in the fact that I pack a lunch (almost) every day. I’ve come to rely on a limited number of dishes to make because they’re filling and familiar enough that I can whip them up with ease—pasta with chick peas and spinach will always be a great, quick weeknight meal. The thing is, I feel like I’m in a rut. There’s a lot of uncharted culinary territory to explore. Time to take an afternoon, sift through the cookbooks on my shelf and get out of my cooking comfort zone and tackle new things.
Resolution 2: Bake more. I personally prefer baking to cooking and love thumbing through books like The Perfect Finish for sugary ideas. My recent acquisition of a cookie press comes with tantalizing attachments for eclairs, and a Q&A I did with a heritage grain-grower has me wanting to attempt baking bread again. (The last two tries, while edible, weren’t too pretty.) I want the practice and the satisfaction of being able to make a perfect pie crust and that elusive loaf of bread, or use balloons to make decorative chocolate bowls that could hold whatever small-scale edibles I could manage to turn out. (Yes, it’s a thing and I want to do it.) Since I’m single, ridding myself of the sugary supply would be an issue if not for…
Resolution 3: Entertain more. I look at my apartment and keep telling myself it’s too small to really hold a crowd. But after polling a few friends who can offer more detached opinions, I may have been over-thinking my space limitations. Rearrange some furniture to clear the floor and make room for people, fill the table with finger food and have a relaxed time nibbling and visiting. And be realistic. My space is geared to casual dining and I can make those kinds of meals work well.
Resolution 4: Those fondue pots living in the closet? Use them. Yes, both of them. Should I be strapped for reasons why these need to be cracked out, refer back to items 1 and 3. A trip to the Melting Pot inspired their purchase, now it’s time to follow through.