Behind-the-Scenes Ice Cream Making at Blackbird

By Sarah Freeman | January 23, 2014 By Sarah Freeman  |  January 23, 2014
Photo by: Nick Murway

Dana Cree is considered one of the city's finest pastry chefs, working at Blackbird, one of the city's most respected restaurants. But all she really wants is to own an ice cream shop.

Before landing at the West Loop mainstay, Cree was working at an ice cream parlor in Seattle. The popular restaurant Poppy had just opened without a pastry chef, and two days later, Cree was hired to run its pastry and ice cream program. "The ice cream section of the menu captured my heart," she said. Since childhood, some of her fondest and earliest memories have revolved around the stuff.

Fast forward to Cree's post at Blackbird. When One Off Hospitality started seeking out signature items from its restaurants to feature on the shelves of Publican Quality Meats, Cree broke out the ice cream maker. The combination of her fine-dining background and nostalgic love of ice cream resulted in an impossibly creamy product layered with gourmet ingredients hand-packed into individually labeled pints.

Since July, Cree's artisanal ice cream has held a place in the PQM freezer - if only for a hot second. Just six to 12 pints of each flavor is made, some of which, due to their rapidly growing cult following, sell out the same day they hit the shelves. Flavors have included peach bourbon, strawberry and candy cane for the holidays, and she's currently working on her flavors for Valentine's Day. 

We went into the Blackbird kitchen with Cree to watch her work her magic. Check out her meticulous process below, and follow the ice cream on Twitter at @Hello_IceCream for updates on the next batch.

  • Photo by: Nick Murway

    All of Cree's ice cream recipes are original. Each month, her three featured flavors change according to ingredient seasonality and Cree's whim. She likes to crowd-source ideas for flavors from friends and co-workers. This month, it's bananas Foster per the request of Blackbird's bar manager Kyle Davidson.

  • Photo by: Nick Murway

    Many ice cream shops use a base pre-mixed at an outside source (usually a creamery). This helps keep the product consistent and prevents the shop from having to deal with pasteurization laws. Cree, however, makes hers from scratch with milk and sugars (sucrose and glucose).

  • Photo by: Nick Murway

    When the heated base is slowly added to egg yolks, the process must be done slowly so the hot milk doesn't cook the raw yolks. After the two are combined, Cree goes the extra step of fine straining the base to remove any residual egg that was not combined with the base. 

  • Photo by: Nick Murway

    As the base chills, Cree explains to us that ice cream is a unique substance, in that it's a liquid, solid and a gas all at the same time. Since it lives in this volatile state, ice cream stabilizer is often added to ice cream, including Cree's, to help maintain its creamy texture and to prevent the water molecules from freezing.

  • Photo by: Nick Murway

    This particular batch of ice cream was flavored with truffle sugar and over-ripe bananas. Cree used bananas ripened to the point where the peel is black and the inside is mush and steeps them in the boiling cream. It is then strained so there are not actually mushy bananas in the ice cream, just rich flavor.

  • Photo by: Nick Murway

    For the caramel ribbons, Cree heats a mixture of sugar, cream, orange zest, rum, salt and butter. The sugar vs. fat ratio determines whether the ribbons will be thin or thick with a creamy or sticky viscosity. Cree opts for a thinner ribbon to blend with her creamy ice cream.

  • Photo by: Nick Murway

    The secret ingredient for this caramel was added after it was cooked. Steen's cane sugar is a 100% pure cane syrup (available at Publican Quality Meats) with an exotic, molasseslike taste. It adds a touch of richness to the caramel along with vanilla-bean paste.

  • Photo by: Nick Murway

    Cree's ice cream machine is a top-loading air-cooled machine. Other more expensive models use water to rapidly cool the ice cream. Both work by scraping the ice cream around a chilled cylinder to create tiny ice crystals. The smaller the crystals, the creamier the ice cream. Cooling the ice cream quickly is important to keep the crystals small.

  • Photo by: Nick Murway

    The ice cream is layered with caramel drizzle in a pan. This step is important so the ice cream is able to set before it is packaged. After the ice cream is removed from the machine, it deflates a bit. A average pint of ice cream can lose 2 oz. from its total volume if packaged immediately, according to Cree.

  • Photo by: Nick Murway

    Cree packages and labels her ice cream by hand. Each pint gets a "Hello My Name Is" sticker with the flavor of the ice cream, the number of the pint and Cree's signature. Cree chose the colorful stickers to add a vibrant touch to her flavorful ice creams as well as reinforce the fact that it is a handmade product.

Places Mentioned

Blackbird Restaurant

AmericanWest Loop
Food26 Decor23 Service26 Cost$82

Publican Quality Meats

AmericanWest Loop
Food27 Decor20 Service23 Cost$25


Capitol Hill
Food25 Decor22 Service23 Cost$41

Recommended on Zagat

comments powered by Disqus