IT’S THE LAST OFFICIAL WEEK OF SUMMER AND hot as blazes out, do I want to write a big think piece? Do you want to read one? No, what you want is ice cream, and so do I. So I popped into Pretty Cool Ice Cream in Logan Square, Dana Salls Cree’s and Bang Bang Pie owner Michael Ciapciak’s two-week-old shop, to talk about how she arrived at this venture. And why she wouldn’t recommend doing what she did, which is, getting pregnant (she’s married to Dan Salls of Quiote) at the same time that you’re opening a business. In the middle of summer. (The next generation is due in November.)

Salls Cree—just Cree back when I interviewed her last year about her ice cream book, which has pretty much been out on my counter getting used all summer—is a two-time James Beard nominee and 2014 Jean Banchet Award winner for best pastry chef, with experience at places ranging from Alinea and Noma to Blackbird and The Publican. She segued from baked pastries to ice cream when she became oversensitive to gluten, and also because, as she told me then, “it hit me that I was pouring my entire being into these desserts, that were only accessible to wealthy people… I just realized, ice cream is one of those things that I could share with everybody.” The latest outgrowth of that is her absolutely adorable shop, through which a steady stream of kids and their minders passed as we spoke, chomping on ice cream on sticks. A different world from Noma, or even The Publican.

So we talked about five topics, and then she recommended a pop or “frozen novelty” (as they’re legally described) to go with each one. There is much wisdom here in her words… and even more cold, creamy deliciousness.

 

Dana Salls Cree with lychee lemon tea truck pop

The Pregnant Ice Cream Lady

I would not recommend that you open an ice cream shop while you’re pregnant. Especially if you’re the type of person who wants to do everything. Because I have to sit in a chair most days and ask people to bring me stickers to put on packages, that’s about my physical level at this point. Being on my feet all day has not proven very healthy either.

But, I think opening an ice cream shop as an owner is probably a lot better than trying to work as a pastry chef in a restaurant while you’re pregnant, because everybody lets you sit down. No one’s going to fire you if you sit down too long.

There’s a million and one little details, and I consider myself extremely fortunate that I was pregnant when I started this, because if I wasn’t I would have made myself the pastry chef, and in hindsight there’s no way that I could have taken care of all the details that I would have needed to take care of, and been in the kitchen the entire time. It just wouldn’t work.

So I have an incredible pastry chef named Kim Janusz, who moved out from D.C., where she was the pastry chef at Pineapple on Pearls. She’s highly overqualified to make popsicles, but I’m taking her anyway.

Ice cream pop recommendation: Pregnant ladies are not only supposed to drink extra fluid, but it’s the thirstiest I’ve ever been in my life. And they cut me down to only one cup of coffee a day, so I’ve been sucking down the lychee lemon tea-flavored truck pop. (“Truck pop” is what we call the ones that are juice-based, like you’d get off a Popsicle truck.) It is so refreshing, and there’s a little kick of caffeine in there—we use Rare Tea Cellar’s lychee noir flavored tea.

ItsComing

 

Orange party pop

Put A Stick In It

I thought I would open a regular ice cream shop, like “Jeni’s II,” maybe with a few more add-ins. But when I went on my book tour last year, my secret mission was to get inside as many ice cream shops as possible, looking for my entry point. And while I was in St. Louis, my friend Matthew Rice was working for Gerard Craft’s restaurants, and they had this pop machine. So we took my cream cheese base, and dipped it in orange Magic Shell with orange sprinkles.

And I ate it, and it was like rediscovering ice cream for me. I was like, wait a second now, there’s now a million possibilities that I had never considered. Because you’re not churning the ice cream, it gets poured in and still-frozen really really really really fast, it has the texture of a dense gelato, but the richness of ice cream. And if you’re not churning it, you don’t need butterfat, and if you don’t need butterfat, you can make all sorts of plant-based pops that taste like ice cream. This world of possibilities opened up that I had never dabbled in.

People like Jeni [Britton Bauer] had shown that people would pay for quality in ice cream, but nobody had done that for the frozen novelty yet. Instead of jumping straight into competition with my friends, this allowed me to work alongside them and produce something different.

However, much like Alex Stupak’s experiment where he could take a super-expensive piece of fish, or an appetizer that people would pay $25 for, and put it on a tortilla and immediately devalue the entire experience to $2, once you put a stick in ice cream, it devalues it to $2. In their minds, people are used to buying a dozen bars for five dollars, which honestly just doesn’t exist. Even at the gas station across the street, a Häagen-Dasz bar that’s half the weight of ours is still $3.50. With ours, there’s 75 cents to a dollar’s worth of chocolate on some of those bars, depending on the coating.

Ice cream pop recommendation: It has to be the orange party pop, because that’s the pop that started it all. It’s the cream cheese ice cream base, dipped in orange Magic Shell, and then we bought 800 pounds of sprinkles in every shape and color and size, so I can blend our own sprinkle mixes.

 

Potato chips stick out of the potato chip and peanut butter pop

Flavors—Developing

Developing the flavors was not hard, because I’ve developed flavors for 15 years and Kim has for 10 years. If anything we had to hold ourselves back. The one thing that’s different for us is that we’ve always cooked our own bases. So this has been an exercise in getting a base that’s already been cooked by a dairy, who we chose for a lot of reasons, but most of them are sanitation, and from a legal standpoint it’s just so much easier.

We had to figure out how to add things to an already balanced ice cream base and maintain texture, because once you start throwing off the water or the sugar or the protein, the texture changes. It was just a little game of, do we add sugar, do we take out sugar, is there too much solid matter in this, is it too chalky.

All in all, the development process was pretty easy. That was the one part we were pretty confident of—we know we’re going to make the ice cream taste good. Running a cash register, that’s what we’ve never done before. (I haven’t, Michael obviously has.)

The plant pops were the hardest to develop, because those are all different recipes that we make ourselves using plant-based milks. So they rely on coconut for the fat, to give it that ice cream body. It took us a while to settle on a coconut product. And that’s the other thing that’s hard when you work in high end restaurants, you’re encouraged to make everything yourself. When you’re making ice cream, the health department encourages you to purchase it from somebody who’s already made it with traceability logs. So it’s been more about sourcing the right product and finding a delicious thing that someone else has made than making it yourself.

Chocolate plant pop

Ice cream pop recommendation: Since we’re talking about development, the one that has come out of development that we’re most proud of developing is our chocolate plant pop, which is like the richest Fudgsicle you will ever have. It is so creamy, and so good. Sometimes I forget and I eat a bent one that came off the production line or something like that, and I just have to go have a private moment with myself.

The one that was hardest for us to source was the peanut butter and potato chip, because they’re both such ubiquitous textures and flavors. It had to feel and taste just right. We ended up with a creamy, Skippy-style peanut butter and Lay’s potato chips, but we didn’t start there—we started with all the fancy stuff.

 

Pretty Cool packaging. The pony pop size is good for little kids

You Know, For Kids

This is the first project I’ve ever worked on that involves kids. The shop was built for children, the kids inside of us and actual children. The design team I worked with, that was one of the things I pressed them for up front—this needs to be as kid-friendly as possible and engage children without feeling like a preschool. One of the things you might not notice is that there are no square edges in the shop—everything has been rounded. The height of everything was discussed, at times even argued over—will somebody under 3 hit their head on this?

The water fountain in the back—having a water fountain outside the bathroom was one thing Michael, who has four kids, said would be great, so he can at least splash some water on his kid’s hands—he’s not going to take all four of them into the bathroom. The magnet wall of letters on the back—everybody engages with that, but kids just gravitate to it.


If we were going to model ourselves on being an indoor Popsicle truck, we had to have at least one thing with gumball eyes.


The stadium seating—a group of any size, whether it’s two people or one person or ten people, can find a way to sit together in a way that is malleable, and scalable. You can come in and spend ten minutes or twenty minutes and leave, and there will always be a spot together. But at the same time we envisioned children running up and down it, which they do.

And then we built a glass viewing window in the back with a ledge on it, so we can give tours to children when they’re in school. And the entire line of pony pops—we invested an additional $5000 in molds, just so we would have different shapes in tiny sizes, to be able to give to tiny little hands.

I don’t know what having a kid is like yet, but I was very sensitive to the fact that parents needed a place that they could comfortably engage with their children.

Ice cream pop recommendation: The crowdpleaser among the pony pops is definitely Cookie Monster. Kids gravitate toward blue ice cream, and usually Cookie Monster ice cream is just blue ice cream, maybe with cookie dough in it, but we did a mini version of our cookies and cream pop, and then we dip it in a blue vanilla shell, and then put blue glitter and gumball eyes on it. Because if we were going to model ourselves on being an indoor Popsicle truck, we had to have at least one thing with gumball eyes.

HP

 

Firecracker

Whose Nostalgia?

Ice cream is very nostalgic. It goes back into everybody’s past so deeply that we probably don’t even remember our first taste of it. But the nostalgia of the ice cream parlor is specific—very rural, bucolic, and it’s not everybody’s nostalgia.

I had read this article about Turkey and the Wolf [in New Orleans], when it was awarded Best New Restaurant by Bon Appetit or somebody, and it basically said, they’re selling nostalgia, but it’s only white people nostalgia. Down the road, there’s a restaurant that’s run by people from the black community, and it’s their nostalgia and it’s equally as good, and nobody’s writing anything about it.

And it made me start to think about, what was I idealizing and who did it belong to? And what we liked about the Popsicle truck was that they run around urban areas. So in these more diverse communities like Chicago is, people have a deeper nostalgia toward a frozen novelty or something on a stick than they do the ice cream parlor, because those are mostly out in the suburbs or the sticks. It was nice to be able to start to play with a nostalgia that belonged to a more diverse group of people, which Chicago is.

Ice cream pop recommendation: The truck pops we have are inspired by those water-based pops sold on the trucks, and people really like the Firecracker because it’s red, white and blue. Instead of just dyeing the same base red, white and blue, we made it a lemonade pop. So it’s raspberry lemonade, white lemonade in the middle, and blueberry lemonade. It’s very refreshing in the summer. They take a long time to make because you freeze one layer at a time, and we put them in the case—and they’re gone.

 


Michael Gebert is full of novelty and rarely frozen as editor of Fooditor.


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