If you visited the Green City Market in 2003 or 2004, you might have come across a young woman selling deliciously creamy ice cream in flavors like oven-roasted strawberry-mascarpone, gianduja, and vanilla bean. Her name was Nancy Silver, she was the pastry chef at Campagnola in Evanston, and she called her ice cream company Snookelfritz, an old German term of endearment used by her maternal grandmother.
Then she disappeared, and fans were left wondering what happened.
But last November and December Silver resurfaced at the market, where you can currently find her and Snookelfritz on Saturdays. Her four or five weekly flavors, handmade in small batches, might include salted caramel, maple-candied pecan, sweet corn and maple, and honey creme fraiche, as well as seasonal fruit flavors, such as pear and brown butter, rhubarb-creme fraiche sherbet, or that oven-roasted strawberry. But there'll be no more vanilla bean and no more gianduja. Because market rules have become more strict, the produce and other main ingredients come from Green City farmers whenever possible, and if not, from local sources.
Silver—like most kids—loved ice cream. Growing up in Homewood, she celebrated birthdays with ice cream cakes from Baskin-Robbins (her favorite was mocha). But her passion turned into a profession much later—and partly by accident.
Now 36, Silver became a vegetarian in a meat-eating family at 15, and her mother told her she'd have to cook for herself, thinking that she'd give up the idea in a day. Instead she learned how to make eggplant Parmesan and other standards from The Vegetarian Epicure, then moved on to Indian, Ethiopian, and Thai cuisines. As an undergraduate at the University of Illinois she gravitated to a vegetarian cooperative, the Red Herring. She volunteered as a dishwasher the summer after her freshman year, graduated to paid cook in the fall, and except for a junior year spent studying in Israel (where she says she was wowed by the quality of the dairy products), continued part-time in that capacity until she got her BA in cultural anthropology in 1996.
"The great thing about the Red Herring is that it was on the cutting edge of sustainable issues," she says. "That's where I learned about working directly with farmers and cooking in season. I really fell in love with food there."
The next step, Silver decided, was culinary school, so she enrolled in the baking program as opposed to the regular program at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. "I'd baked vegan desserts at the Red Herring, and my mother was known in the community for her German cakes and cookies, but mostly I believe that a cook has to taste what she makes, and I didn't want to compromise my vegetarianism," she says. Silver did her required internship at Charlie Trotter's, and says that's where she discovered how to experiment and be creative with products seldom found elsewhere, among them exotic fruits like fraises des bois.
It's also where she first made ice cream the way she does to this day. "Pastry chef Michelle Gayer trained me to prepare a really rich custard base by hand with just milk, cream, egg yolks, and sugar, and I did it every night," she recalls. "All the nuts and fruits were real—no frozen purees—and we didn't add any stabilizers or other fillers. I don't think anyone was making that kind of ice cream then, and I knew that's what I wanted to do."
After getting her associate's degree in 1998, Silver took a job as pastry chef at the new Okno on Milwaukee Avenue. As part of a trial tasting for the owners, among them Terry Alexander, she created fruit sushi, which became the restaurant's signature dessert and drew a lot of press. "I never made it again after Okno closed in 2000," she admits, "and it's not something I'd do now." She consulted on desserts for Alexander's Tizi Melloul during the same period, and when he and his partners opened Mod, she moved over there and remained until 2002. One of her most popular desserts was the tropical split, a trio of ice creams—passion fruit, gianduja, and coconut—topped with passion fruit caramel, macadamia nut brittle, bruleed bananas, and shaved chocolate.
From Mod, Silver went to work for Michael Altenberg at Campagnola and also for his Bistro Campagne when it opened on Lincoln. "He was very active in the Green City Market, and that's how I started selling my ice cream there," she says. In early 2004 she spent a few months cooking for a caterer in Florence, Italy, but she returned for the summer market season. Around this time she began contemplating opening her own ice cream shop.