iCream humans tame rebellious machines

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Last month at Moto, pastry chef Ben Roche called me over and said, "Hey, you wanna see me make ice cream in 30 seconds?" He'd poured some soy milk into a stand mixer, along with some parsnip juice, and now he hit the switch. As he hoisted a metal canister of liquid nitrogen and tipped it into the spinning bowl, a swirling white fog rose up from the center and spilled out over the edge. While I waited for the mummified hand to emerge, he explained that the LN2 helps the ice cream set up superfast, minimizing the size of the ice crystals that get into the mix, resulting in a smooth, dense product with intense flavor. With that he turned off the mixer and voila: vegan "carrot cake" ice cream. And he was right. It felt like cold silk on the tongue, and the subtle natural sweetness of root vegetable slowly emerged and lingered and lingered--"Yeahhhh," I thought, "that is just like carrot cake. But with parsnips."

That's pretty much the MO at Wicker Park's saucily named iCream, the much ballyhooed LN2 ice cream shop that opened briefly and flopped colossally back in August when its machines tried to go all HAL 9000 on the crew. It just reopened a week and a half ago, and yesterday's balmy tropical breezes blew me down Milwaukee Avenue for a cup.

iCream's model enables customers to chose their own liquid base--BGH-free ice cream, yogurt, or soymilk (with low- and no-fat options), then add one of 32 flavors via syringe, then up to three toppings and add-ins, a choice of sweeteners, and finally food coloring as garishly unnatural as you like (purple peach or pink green tea, anyone?). Yesterday for some odd reason they were pushing green on people, even offering a 10 percent discount if you were wearing it. Instead I went with the light-brownish pear flavor. I suppose for the sake of science I should have chosen soy milk to compare to Roche's, but parsnip wasn't on the flavoring menu, so I took the ice cream.

It's certainly a good show. iCream has its mixers behind glass and you can gasp to your heart's content when the fog blooms from the bowl. But texturally I thought it far less creamy and smooth than a typical old-fashioned gelato, and the pear flavor was very much in the background, despite the fact that it wasn't overwhelmingly sweet. As I said, there are all sorts of possible combinations, along with milk shakes and steamed pudding, so I'm willing to keep experimenting.

On the other hand, you could try to improve upon iCream with your own $35,000 LN2 ice cream maker. But why would you? It's so easy a kid could do it. Or anyone.

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