Branching out in the kitchen

I’m happy that my desk is right next to the water cooler on the second floor of PEM’s MOC (museum office center). I like to stay hydrated. This location also leads to many interesting, spontaneous conversations with colleagues. Questions arise such as: What’s your favorite pasta shape? or What’s your spirit animal?

water cooler

A water cooler in the museum office center. Photo by Dinah Cardin

I swear — I do get actual work done too and sometimes I just need to phase out the discussion… and focus. But what happened one day was impossible to ignore.

“Do you want to bake a cake that looks like a tree?” One of the members of our superb PR team asked me one day. It would be in celebration of our upcoming Art and Nature Center exhibition, Branching Out: Trees as Art.


Strolling Tree from Ten31 Productions. Courtesy photo

First, a little background. I love to bake (it’s in my family) and before my museum career began, I worked in the bakery at Verrill Farm in Concord, MA, for nearly four years. At various times, I was the pie guy, the muffin man, the cookie monster, the cake boss…sometimes all of the above during a busy day. The farm is a family-owned operation, known for their exceptional pies, fresh and bountiful produce and delicious entrees. They farm about 200 acres of land in Concord and Sudbury, and it’s possible that my time there contributed to my flourishing office plants.

Elliot and plants

Elliot and his thriving plants (situated no where near a window). Photo by Dinah Cardin

But back to the cake project. At first, I was a little overwhelmed. What kind of cake? Yellow, chocolate, sponge, bundt…? Almost more importantly, what kind of tree? Should I go deciduous or coniferous? Short or tall? I googled “tree cake” and found lots of options.

Promptly, these were all rejected. Too cheesy, too time-consuming — that’s supposed to be a tree? Are you serious?

I consulted some of my former bakery colleagues and did some brainstorming. (Fun fact: one of them is the great-great-great granddaughter of Elias Hasket Derby, one of the richest merchants in Salem in the late 18th century, and one of the original founders of the East India Marine Society, and thus, PEM. Small world.)

Last Saturday afternoon, I got to work and found my favorite recipe for a good yellow cake (thanks, Cook’s Illustrated), and decided to use a loaf pan and two nine-inch cake pans to build the tree. With a solid supply of Polar seltzer at hand and classic 90’s rock on the radio, I was ready to do this thing.

Baking proceeded smoothly.

Tree construction less so.



Photo by Elliot Isen.


Photo by Elliot Isen.

bare cake

Photo by Elliot Isen.

Then, I started thinking leafy thoughts and got into a more arboreal mindset.

After some careful cake trimming, food coloring clean up (the dye gets everywhere!) and whipped cream frosting creation, the tree cake was assembled and just about ready to go.


Photo by Elliot Isen.

For finishing touches, I carefully chopped some chocolate to sprinkle on the trunk, giving it that classic bark-y look, and also swirled a deeper green frosting color into the tree canopy to add some leaves. Several mini cupcakes also became acorns, pinecones, or MTOs (miscellaneous tree objects).

I sat down to admire the finished product while enjoying a root beer (ha!).


Photo by Elliot Isen.

Final step: bring the tree / cake into the office on Monday for colleagues to enjoy. Fortunately, although it looked like a tree, it did not taste like one. To be honest, I have no idea what a tree tastes like, but am just assuming it doesn’t taste like cake.

eating cake

Co-worker enjoying the cake. Photo by Elliot Isen.

I have a feeling this may not be my last tree cake creation situation. Perhaps an entire forest is next. Or, I might move into other flora. I’ve heard impatiens cakes are all the rage now. They just take so long to make…

Branching Out, opening this weekend, explores the often surprising ways in which contemporary artists use trees as an inspiration as well as a medium for their art. A full day of activities on Saturday, Sept. 27 includes whimsical walking tree figures, a guided visualization exercise with live trees, tree planting and more. A complete schedule can be found HERE.


  1. Caryn M. Boehm
    Caryn Boehm says:

    Awesome! Maybe a PEM Bake-Off is in order, now!

  2. Michelle Moon says:

    Hey, call your friends over in the other building next time you make cake! That looks delicious. We don’t get enough cake over here. It’s a serious issue.

  3. Sarah says:

    Oh, Elliot–how this makes me miss you! Your entertaining conversation and your wonderful baking–my birthday cupcakes were the absolute best I’ve ever had…..Sigh.

  4. Elliot says:

    I love the idea of a PEM bake-off-Let’s make it happen!
    Michelle, I will absolutely be in touch next time I make cake :)

  5. Victoria says:

    Elliot and Caryn: you are embodiment of cross-discipline creativity and an inspiration to us all.

    I am in full favor of a bake-off. Two suggestions:

    1.) Add a third contestant – Tania Q. from accounting. Do you know she makes a cake every Monday? I view it as a reward for walking up four flights of stairs.

    2.) I would like to be on the judges panel. I have a very sensitive palette. Plus I love cake.

  6. Elliot says:

    Sarah: Thank you for your warm words!

    Victoria: Thank you for your compliments and ideas! I know of Tania’s baking prowess, and I think that is an excellent idea. I’ll suggest this to her.

    Re: judges panel–let’s get it up and running! Just had another idea-should this baking contest go outside of PEM, too? Perhaps a bake-off for Massachusetts art museums with a 3 letter acronym? PEM, MFA, ICA, ISG-I know I’m missing some here. Each museum selects a finalist for the grand bake-off show down. Could be on to something here….

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