So, political kerfuffle aside, you have to wonder exactly what a $16 muffin would taste like.
The recent news that the government supposedly paid $16 apiece for breakfast muffins at a Justice Department conference set off critics of government spending.
Hilton Worldwide, the hotel company that hosted the 2009 confab in Washington, disputes the accuracy of the claim in a report by the Justice Department's inspector general. The hotel called it an accounting thing, explaining that the price included various drinks and gratuity charges, in addition to the muffins. The IG stands by the report.
Which all kind of misses the most compelling issues. If you did spend $16 on a muffin, what would it look like? How would it taste? Is it even possible?
The typical muffin baked in an institutional setting such as a hotel costs about 50 cents or less, not counting labor. If you go crazy extravagant and reach for the top-shelf organic flour, maybe some hand-harvested wild blueberries from Maine and fancy sugar, you're still going to max out around $1 per muffin on raw ingredients.
In The Associated Press test kitchen, we started searching for ways to bump up the price of your basic muffin. The end result was anything but basic. We're also pretty certain you'll never see one of these babies served at a government conference.
Healthier Red Velvet cupcakes
Red Velvet Cupcakes
Start to finish: 25 minutes. Serves 4.
5 packets natural Stevia sweetener (powder)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon red food coloring
2 tablespoons buttermilk
1 tablespoon agave nectar
1/4 cup whole-wheat pastry flour
2 tablespoons flaxseed meal
2 teaspoons unsweetened cocoa powder
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons prepared vanilla sugar-free, fat-free pudding (such as Jell-O)
2 tablespoons fat-free cream cheese, softened
Heat the oven to 350 F. Line 4 large (2-1/2-inch) muffin cups with paper liners. Lightly coat the liners with cooking spray.
Separate the egg yolks and whites, discarding 1 of the yolks. Place the remaining egg yolk in a medium bowl. Place the 2 egg whites in another medium bowl.
To the whites, add 2 packets of the Stevia, 1 teaspoon of the vanilla, and 1/2 teaspoon of the food coloring. Mix and set aside.
Add the remaining 3 packets Stevia, 1 teaspoon vanilla, and 1/2 teaspoon food coloring to the egg yolk. Whisk the yolk mixture for 3 minutes. Add buttermilk and agave. Whisk until combined.
In a small bowl whisk together flour, flaxseed meal, cocoa powder and salt. Add to yolk-buttermilk mixture and beat on low just until combined.
Using an electric mixer, beat the egg white mixture on medium to high until stiff peaks form. Working in 3 batches, fold the egg whites into the buttermilk mixture, being careful not to deflate the whites.
Spoon the mixture evenly into the muffin cups. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes, or until the tops spring back when lightly touched. Transfer the cupcakes to a wire rack and cool.
Meanwhile, to prepare the frosting in a small bowl combine the pudding and cream cheese. Mix until smooth. Spread or pipe evenly over each cupcake.
Nutrition information per serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 98 calories; 3 g fat (24 percent of total calories, 1 g saturated); 54 mg cholesterol; 14 g carbohydrate; 5 g protein; 2 g fiber; 187 mg sodium.
Getting the price-per-muffin that high was hard. We took the obvious steps first -- organic flour, sugar and milk, cultured butter, sea salt and free-range eggs. But we still weren't even close. A rare honey imported from Zambia helped, as did a healthy amount of pricey macadamia nuts and some Tahitian vanilla beans.
Upping the pricetag
But in the end, the only way to get to $16 was to reach for some old fashioned booze and gold. That's right, we glazed our muffins with a chocolate sauce made from organic dark chocolate cut with reduced Scotch whiskey (the good stuff!) and edible gold leaf flakes.
The result? A rather stunning and intense muffin that would cost a mere $192 per dozen (not counting labor) or $16 each.
Start to finish: 1 hour. Makes 12 very over-the-top muffins
For the muffins:
2-1/2 cups organic all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted cultured butter
1/2 cup maple sugar
1/2 cup imported honey (the rarer the better)
Seeds scraped from 2 Tahitian vanilla beans
2 free-range, organic eggs
1/2 cup organic milk
2 cups chopped dried strawberries (soaked in boiling water for 10 minutes, then drained)
1 cup chopped macadamia nuts, lightly toasted
For the topping:
2 cups top-shelf Scotch whiskey
16 ounces high-end, organic dark chocolate, chopped, divided
2 tablespoons unsalted cultured butter
2 tablespoons imported honey (the bigger the carbon footprint, the better)
1 teaspoon canola or vegetable oil
12 fresh strawberries
1 cup chopped macadamia nuts, lightly toasted
1/4 cup gold leaf flakes, loosely packed
Heat the oven to 375 F. Line 12 muffin tins with muffin cups.
In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder and sea salt. Set aside.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream together the butter, maple sugar, honey and vanilla seeds until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, scraping the bowl between additions. Add half the flour mixture, then the milk, then the remaining flour mixture, beating and scraping the bowl between each addition.
By hand, stir in the dried strawberries and macadamia nuts. Spoon the mixture into the lined muffin tins. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until golden brown and a toothpick inserted at the center comes out clean. Let cool for 5 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to finish cooling.
While the muffins bake, prepare the topping. In a skillet, heat the Scotch whiskey (be careful, it will flame). Bring to a gentle simmer and reduce to 1/2 cup.
Place half of the chocolate, the butter and the honey in a heat-safe bowl. Pour the hot reduced liquor over the chocolate. Allow to sit for 2 minutes, then stir until completely smooth and glossy. Set aside.
Line a baking sheet with waxed paper. In a small microwave-safe bowl, combine the remaining chocolate with the oil. Microwave on high in 15-second bursts, stirring between, until completely melted and smooth. One at a time, dunk each strawberry into the chocolate, covering about three-quarters of the berry. Set on the waxed paper, then refrigerate for several minutes to harden the chocolate.
Once the muffins are cool, spoon the chocolate glaze over the top of each, spreading it to coat the top surface. Sprinkle the macadamia nuts around the outer edge, then sprinkle the gold leaf over the center surface. Top each with a chocolate-covered strawberry.