Kris Swanberg's handcrafted ice cream company, Nice Cream, started with a wedding gift that turned into an obsession.
Swanberg, who's 28, graduated from film school at Southern Illinois University in 2003 and moved to Chicago with her boyfriend and fellow graduate, Joe Swanberg, one of the filmmakers now credited with spearheading the ultra-low-budget "mumblecore" movement. She made videos with inner-city kids at community centers, and while working with Joe on projects like Young American Bodies, a Web series now on IFC.com, got a job teaching film and video at Orr High School and attended DePaul working on a master's in elementary education.
When the Swanbergs got married in June 2007, Kris's best friend from high school gave them a KitchenAid attachment for ice cream making. Kris had put it on their registry, though she's not sure why. "I'd never made ice cream before," she says, "but when I was in college, my now mother-in-law bought me kits for making ChapStick and soap, and I went crazy with them."
She went even crazier with the attachment, using the basic KitchenAid recipe, which makes between two and four pints at a time. "The first flavor I tried was cookies and cream, and it wasn't very good," she recalls. "It was melty and icy at the same time." Since Swanberg only had one CorningWare container (also a wedding gift) she had to pester Joe to eat her creations quickly so she could make more. She also gave ice cream to Cassie Green, the owner of Green Grocer in Noble Square, where she bought free-range eggs and other organic ingredients to make it.
Last summer a friend asked her to donate something for a bake sale to raise money for Barack Obama's presidential campaign. She contributed 25 pints of ice cream—honey vanilla with graham crackers, hot chocolate with roasted marshmallows, fresh strawberry with angel food cake—and they sold out at $6 a pint. "I told Cassie, and she said I had to start doing this for real," Swanberg says. "So I thought, OK, then discovered it wasn't so easy."
Laid off from her teaching job around that time, she took the opportunity to start the process of getting sanitation certification, registering as a business, and sourcing containers. In January her friend Annie Gomberg came on board to help with the business side and marketing. Joe's younger brother Michael came up with the name (after Swanberg rejected Kris's Cream as "gross"), and local graphic artists Julie Morelli and Andy Schwegler of Letterform designed the logo and packaging. But the biggest hurdle was finding a place to make the ice cream without a major investment.
Karen Gerod, owner of Swim Cafe, where some of the episodes of Young American Bodies are set, offered to let Swanberg use the space after hours. She also agreed to sell the product, as did Cassie Green. Swanberg bought a hot plate to cook the custard and started with a small-batch home machine, then graduated to a better-quality ice cream maker, though it still only churned a few pints at a time. This spring she took a leap by moving to rented space at Humboldt Park's Tipsycake bakery, where she can work during the day, and buying a commercial machine, which would have been too big for Swim Cafe's kitchen.
While she can now produce three quarts of ice cream in ten minutes—as opposed to three pints in 40 minutes with her previous machine—Swanberg still relies on the basic recipe that came with the KitchenAid attachment, using all-organic ingredients. For the base she beats egg yolks with evaporated cane sugar, then slowly adds hot half-and-half. This mixture is heated until it forms a thick custard, then blended with heavy cream and a few pinches of kosher salt.
Nice Cream falls into the superpremium category, with a butterfat content of 17-19 percent, but what makes it special are the flavors and the mix-ins. Swanberg comes up with four kinds of ice cream for each of the four seasons, often folding in some sort of cake or cookie from another local business. "When I was seven," she says, "I saw an episode of Pee-wee's Playhouse that said the best way to eat ice cream at a birthday party is to mix it with the cake to make a kind of ice cream pudding, and I've been doing it ever since."
This spring, for example, Earl Grey tea ice cream was studded with bits of shortbread cookies from Swim Cafe, and cream cheese ice cream featured carrot cake from Tipsycake. For summer's fresh strawberry ice cream with angel food cake, she turned to Sweet Cakes Bakery, and vanilla bean ice cream with blueberry pie incorporates pie and extra crust from First Slice Pie Cafe. Swanberg steeps the vanilla beans in the half-and-half, then scrapes out the pulp and seeds and adds them back to the base. Once it cools overnight and is frozen in the ice cream maker, she swirls in (by hand) the filling from the pies, half of which has been pureed, and little pieces of crust. She estimates that she uses three pies and several sheets of extra crust for 50 pints of ice cream, her typical batch size nowadays.
Her other two summer flavors, though, are a departure from Pee-wee's formula. Chocolate ice cream with sweet basil is smooth and silky, with subtle undertones of the basil, which comes from Smits Farm in Chicago Heights. Swanberg also has come up with her first sorbet: mango with chile powder and lime. "Many vegans want to try what I make, and this way they can," she says. Flavors under consideration for fall include salted chocolate with Marcona almonds, banana bread with dark chocolate chips, and sweet potato with toasted marshmallows and pecans.
Swanberg devotes roughly two weeks a month, five or six days a week, to making ice cream. She and Gomberg are in the process of expanding distribution. Besides Green Grocer (1402 W. Grand) and Swim Cafe (1357 W. Chicago), you can now find Nice Cream at Z & H Market and Cafe (1126 E. 47th) and Provenance Food and Wine (2528 N. California and 2312 W. Leland).
Each season's flavors are launched with tastings at Green Grocer. Cassie Green says she thinks Nice Cream is going to be a phenomenon: "It's the next Ben & Jerry's," she prophesies. "And even though Kris didn't plan to go into business, her willingness to try new things and listen to people will help her go far." v
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