Valentine's day in Austin is like any other place except we are the lucky recipients of some of the best chocolate dipped strawberries on the planet (along with outposts in San Antonio and Houston)! These delicious morsels are locally produced by our own Amy's Ice Creams to celebrate the most romantic holiday of the year. Chocolate is a Valentine's Day essential and it would be hard to find anyone who does not enjoy strawberries. Chocolate strawberries are beautiful to look at and wonderful to eat! Anyone who has ever visited Austin's own, Amy's Ice Creams for their luscious, out of this world ice cream knows that they are first and foremost about quality! Joe Morris, head of production described to me how they select the finest berries in season available. The trick is that Mother Nature has to cooperate so they have several resources available at this time of year. Amy's also uses a superior quality of dipping chocolate. And let me tell you there IS a difference. There are some vendors who use cheaper ingredients and I have seen a substance known as "candy coating" that does not even qualify as real chocolate. chocolate also contains Phenylethylamine which is the technical name for a substance often described as the "love chemical." When dealing with something that has to do with my love life and my taste buds on Valentine's Day, I don't want fake or cheap substitutes! Amy's uses a premium dipping chocolate from the heart of Belgium created by Callebaut. Excellent quality White Chocolate is also incorporated into the process creating a beautiful and mouth watering indulgence that is extraordinary to behold and consume.
As something of a fan of all things culinary, I had the chance to work a shift at the production facility and get hands on experience making some of the treats myself. In the interest of full disclosure, our son, Morgan, was an employee at the Amy's Mira Vista location until he left for college (I am a regular customer at the store and a fan of the manager, Melissa Hanson). Melissa's goal is to make the world's tallest ice cream cone and I would love to volunteer when that happens!! As an employee, Morgan worked a "strawberry" shift and invited me (along with several members of his Westlake football team) to make extra money while learning something new and having fun. We all arrived for the 4PM to Midnight shift and looked at the various tasks available at the different stages of production. Operations Managers, Mark Banks and Teresa Noll walked us through the different stations describing the tasks at hand and I have to say you will not find any two individuals as efficient and also cool as these two! They watch over the operation like shepherds over a flock, paying attention to every production detail regarding quality and efficiency including the well being of each of the employees!
The process starts with the freshly washed and scrubbed berries being sorted with the green stems sliced off and placed in trays. These trays are sent to the "Dipping" tables where each berry is individually dipped in a bowl of melted chocolate. This is not as easy as it might seem because the strawberries must be COMPLETELY enveloped in chocolate to prevent leaking from the freshly cut strawberries. As a tray of berries is completed, it must pass inspection by one of the full time pros (I think this must be the most difficult task because each berry has to be scrutinized individually!) Any berries not passing must be returned to the dipping bowls and any tiny holes filled! Upon passing this element of the procedure, the chocolate covered berries are move to a station where the are splattered and drizzled with white chocolate "Jackson Pollock" style which adds a visually pleasing finish as well as another tasty element to the creation! The berries are then sent to a station where excess chocolate is trimmed and the berries are placed in egg cartons. At this point the cartons are packed in crates and refrigerated before being shipped to the different Amy's locations!
As we began our shift, we were chosen to work at the task of dipping the strawberries and jumped right in donning our hair nets, gloves and name tags (I chose the name Tyler Durden and it gets a laugh from everyone who notices.) The entire place is filled with the intoxicating smells of melted chocolate and the sweet tangy scent of fragrant strawberries. The sound system is cranking some great music and everyone is enjoying the work. I don't have to say this but we are all competitive (especially with a group of football players) As we worked we all began to try and outdo one another at the production. It took awhile to master covering the strawberries completely (I am not kidding about this) but I eventually developed a style and rhythm and begin to make some progress. After each tray of my dipped berries was accepted, I would return to our station, raise my hands in triumph and exclaim,"I Rule!". At first, Morgan was somewhat embarrassed and his friends would laugh. I continued to outpace them and each time I returned, they would all laugh and say, "yes, we know..." YOU RULE and eventually my son joined in as we all worked together enjoying some silly and funny banter. I have to tell you that after an eight hour shift I was tired but when we got our paychecks (my first in 18 years) shortly after midnight I was pleased that I had been invited along. It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience I will never forget!
Do yourself a favor this Valentine's day and treat yourself and your loved one to something sweet, delicious and romantic from Amy's. I have already purchased a dozen for my two best girls and a dozen for my office. They are available at all locations through Valentine's Day, Saturday the 14th! You may want to place an order at your nearest location to ensure there are some available when you arrive! One other noteworthy fact: they usually make extra Chocoberries to mix with into a heavenly concoction called Chocoberry Ice cream and well...just try some, straight up or with hot fudge or...do it yourself with a carton of the most luxurious chocolate dipped strawberries around!