Nancy Silver of Snookelfritz at the Green City Market
Nancy Silver of Snookelfritz at the Green City Market Credit: Eric Futran

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.

Later that year, her brother and sister-in-law persuaded her to move with them to San Luis Obispo, California, to fulfill her dream. “They pointed out that I’d be closer to the farmers,” she says, “but I was a little naive. It’s a really small town, and I’m too much of a city girl, so after a year I relocated to Los Angeles.” There she reconnected with Kelly Courtney, who’d been the chef at Mod and at the time headed the kitchen at Firefly, where Silver joined her as pastry chef and wine director. She says her desserts included a lot of composed parfaits, such as blackberry-creme fraiche sherbet and almond semifreddo layered with local blackberries and crushed amaretti cookies.

Silver still consults for Firefly but “threw in the towel” on LA and came back to Chicago last July. “Many midwestern chefs think California is the land of plenty, but I never found a pear or cherry there as good as here,” she says, “and my experience was that the culinary and farming communities weren’t as supportive of each other.”

Besides selling at Green City and Chicago’s Downtown Farmstand, she’s making ice creams for restaurants, among them avocado ice cream for milk shakes at Big Star. She also produces ice cream sandwiches for the Violet Hour across the street: chocolate chip cookies with vanilla ice cream and French butter cookies with rhubarb-creme fraiche sherbet or chestnut-pistachio ice cream. She recently set up production at the shared commercial kitchen Now We’re Cookin’ in Evanston and now can turn out half a dozen pints in less than ten minutes using its Taylor commercial ice cream maker.

The proportions of the four ingredients in the base vary with the flavors—more cream for fruits with high water content, less sugar for sweet things like gianduja—but the method is to make a custard by whisking the egg yolks and sugar together and setting them aside, heating the cream and milk to a simmer, tempering by slowly whisking some of the heated mixture into the yolks, then combining the two and cooking on medium until the mixture coats the back of a spoon. Next it’s strained, cooled immediately in an ice bath, and refrigerated a few hours or overnight before the flavorings are added and the ice cream is churned.

Except for organic cane sugar from Goodness Greenness, virtually all the ingredients come from Green City farmers: the milk and cream from Kilgus Farmstead, eggs and produce from several other vendors. Silver also gets inspiration from them. “Judith Schad of Capriole Farms gave me goat cheese to play with,” she says, “and I combined it with honey from the Chicago Honey Co-op to make rosemary honey and goat cheese ice cream.”

She hopes to expand to more restaurants and specialty stores, so she can market flavors such as espresso with cherries and crushed amaretti. And her ultimate dream remains the same: to have that little shop of her own.