We strongly believe there's always room for ice cream. But if you're a doubter, all the creative flavors at Dana Salls Cree's ice cream shop, Pretty Cool, will have you holding out for ice cream (just to be safe). —INGRAIN, Summer 2019
STORY / Dana Driskill
People usually don’t remember their first bite of ice cream. It’s just something that’s around your entire life,” says Dana Salls Cree, the founder of Pretty Cool in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood. Salls Cree, one of the city’s top pastry chefs, opened the boutique shop last summer. The whimsical, bright pink storefront has quickly become a neighborhood favorite. The staff sling a variety of treats in an almost overwhelming range of flavors and styles, from classics like chocolate- dipped cookies and cream ice cream “pops” to inventive combos like a peanut butter potato chip version. The juice and other nondairy-based pop flavors also sound like they’ve come straight off a high-end restaurant dessert menu: Pineapple Punch, Litchi (Lychee) Lemon Tea, Concord Grape, and similar combos.
Before opening Pretty Cool, the Seattle native was racking up acclaim at some of Chicago’s best restaurants, most recently as the pastry chef for several of Paul Kahan’s restaurants (Publican, Avec, and Blackbird) and earlier in her career, Alinea. Salls Cree has also clocked in the dessert hours with A-list pastry chefs like Sherry Yard (Spago Beverly Hills) and studied the art of patisserie during stages at Noma, The Fat Duck, and WD-50. But after working in fine dining for more than a decade, the two-time James Beard Award nominee was eager to go out on her own in search of a higher creative ceiling.
“Within the pastry-chef realm, [we] all have a special pet project that’s close to our hearts,” Salls Cree says. “We’re the jack-of-all-trades, but there are certain things that really capture our hearts and minds. For some, it’s bread; for others, it’s becoming a chocolatier. For me, it’s always been ice cream.”
Salls Cree’s critically acclaimed cookbook, Hello, My Name Is Ice Cream (Clarkson Potter, 2017), shares secrets and tips on making fantastical flavors for people with all levels of expertise. In the book, she takes a deep dive into both the science and art behind making ice cream and other frozen treats, with detailed analysis of the process and final product, including the difference between custard, sherbet, frozen yogurt, and ice cream. The exacting recipes take you on a journey into the mind of a professional pastry chef for whom there is never one path to a sweet ending (for a mint ice cream recipe).
But when Salls Cree opened her own shop, she didn’t stick solely to the ice cream realm. “I saw an avenue for creativity that hadn’t been expanded,” she explains. “I [found] the format of the frozen novelty/Popsicle to be nostalgic in a way that brought together more diverse, urban communities. Whereas scoop shops reign supreme in rural areas, small towns, and suburban areas, [and] little Popsicle pushcarts or trucks run around big cities like Chicago, I wanted to create something that connected with everyone inside this great city.”
A POP GENERATION
Since opening her own shop, Salls Cree and her team have been a force of creativity. The milk-based treats include chocolate-dipped custard bars made with a custard-style ice cream base; the milk is sourced from small Wisconsin dairy farms (flavors include Cookies and Cream and Peanut Butter Potato Chip). Candy-coated party pops (Green Apple, Orange “Creamsicle”) are a nod to cafeteria culture; like Philadelphia-style ice cream, the base is made without eggs (Salls Cree includes cream cheese for richness) and the candy shell is coated in sprinkles. Sherbet-style buttermilk bars (Raspberry Lime, Passion Fruit) bring bright and tangy nostalgic flavors back to local streets.
Among Salls Cree’s juice and other nondairy-based pops, the truck pops* are exactly as they sound: Popsicles you used to get as a kid from the ice cream truck playing Für Elise. Flavors include Pineapple Punch and Pink Lemonade; Salls Cree even has her own version of a firecracker pop, sans the artificial food coloring (a lemon-ice base is flavored and colored with raspberries and blueberries to make each layer). The plant pops are plant or fruit-based frozen treats (Matcha Mint, Thai Tea); like many of the other pops, they are a vegan-friendly option. For the kids, there are pony pops and, of course, “pupsicles” for the four-legged residents of the neighborhood.
Salls Cree co-owns Pretty Cool with Michael Ciapciak, the owner of Bang Bang Pie & Biscuits, so a dessert collaboration was a natural fit. “Most people were thinking along the lines of what type of ice cream scoop were we going to put on top of Bang Bang’s pie,” she recalls. “Instead, we made pie-inspired Popsicles called piecicles.”
Each week, several limited-edition flavors rotate in and out of the freezers; collaborations with local businesses, seasonal-ingredient availability, and Salls Cree and her staff’s personal whims are the driving forces behind the rainbow of flavors and combinations. Earlier this year, Salls Cree churned out two Popsicles for Super Bowl LII: a Honey Butter Fried Chicken bar (named after the eponymous Chicago restaurant) and a Puppy Chow bar created in honor of the pregame Puppy Bowl. The chocolate peanut butter ice cream bar was dipped in chocolate and coated with Corn Chex (the powdered sugar was MIA; it doesn’t freeze well).
At the shop, the pastry assistants use a special machine to create the pops in large batches, so a flavor idea can go from concept to finished product in just a couple of hours. (Comparatively, ice cream typically requires overnight or longer to fully freeze.) This allows Salls Cree to invent a constantly changing array of flavors—a breath of creative fresh air compared with the rigid, menu-driven restaurant pastry world.
*According to Salls Cree, the Litchi Lemon Tea is the standout truck pop. It was originally named after a famous golfer who liked to mix lemonade and iced tea, but the name had to be changed due to trademark issues. Oops! Apologies, Mr. Palmer.
BARS & POP TYPES
The term “frozen treats” takes on a whole new meaning when a top chef is doing the mixing. Salls Cree gave us the breakdown of the types of goodies in her shop, examples of the rotating flavors, and the crowd favorites at Pretty Cool.
Good old-fashioned, American-style sherbets with a lot of fruit and a little cream. There are legal restraints around using the word sherbet; the product must be between 2% and 4% butterfat.
Flavors Mango Lassi, Passion Fruit, Black Raspberry, Strawberry
Ice cream bars made with pie-flavored ice creams and dipped in a cinnamon graham cracker shell.
Flavors Key Lime, Banana Cream, Spiced Blueberry Pie
Ice cream bars made with a custard-style ice cream base that contains egg. The bar is dipped in chocolate.
Flavors Bourbon Vanilla, Coffee Pretzel Toffee, Peanut Butter Potato Chip
Philadelphia-style ice cream bars—that is, ice cream made without eggs. The pops are dipped in a fruit-flavored candy shell and covered in sprinkles.
Flavors Red Cherry, Purple Grape, Yellow Lemon, Green Apple
Vegan ice cream bars made with plant milks and enriched with coconut instead of milk. Not at all like a Popsicle, these are very creamy and often dipped in vegan chocolate shells.
Flavors Thai Tea, Dark Chocolate, Toasted Coconut, Blue Moon
Water-based, just like the Popsicles you’d find on a Popsicle truck.
Flavors Pink Lemonade, Concord Grape, Passion Fruit Hibiscus
Miniature versions of some of our most kid-friendly flavors.
Flavors Apple Cider, Strawberry, Vanilla Custard
COFFEE PRETZEL TOFFEE
Hands-down the most popular Popsicle is this custard bar dipped in dark chocolate and made with gluten-free pretzels. It was inspired by a friend from Publican who was a warm source of inspiration. I’d always ask him what flavor of ice cream I should make. I don’t know—coffee, I guess? Throw some pretzels in there, people like pretzels. And he was absolutely right. It’s the best-selling flavor at the shop.
The biggest hit of the plant pops is Blue Moon. It’s this really sunny Midwestern invention, essentially blue ice cream, and it tastes just like Fruit Loops. It’s 100% a kid’s flavor. We make it with coconut and citrus oils, which pair together really well, and the blue color is so whimsical.
LITCHI LEMON TEA
When people get the Litchi Lemon Tea pop and realize what it is, it’s so spectacular to watch. We source the tea for this pop from Rare Tea Cellar in North Center.
The first one we did was a pumpkin piecicle, which lasted us through December. A key lime piecicle was the next obvious choice because it’s Bang Bang’s biggest seller. The bar is made with a gluten-free graham cracker shell made with white chocolate and cinnamon, and the inside is lime custard. It’s the perfect Popsicle for breakfast!
— DANA SALLS CREE
Beyond the main shop, a second Pretty Cool is scheduled to open at the Time Out Market this fall. Also keep an eye out for Salls Cree’s creations at Chicago-area specialty markets and restaurants, including select Foxtrot Market locations, Aster Hall, Blackwood BBQ (all three), Kimski (check out our interview with chef Won Kim), Quiote, and soon, Bigstar and The Wing (a new membership workspace in Fulton Market).
2353 North California Avenue, Logan Square