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We had to know: What sort of muffin could we bake if we spent $16 a pop?

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So political kerfuffle aside, you have to wonder exactly what a $16 muffin would taste like.

Last week's news that the government supposedly paid $16 apiece for breakfast muffins at a U.S. 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 labour. 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.

Here 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.

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.

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 whisky (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 labour) — or $16 each.

$16 Muffins

Start to finish: 1 hour

Muffins

625 ml (2 1/2 cups) organic all-purpose flour

15 ml (1 tbsp) baking powder

2 ml (1/2 tsp) sea salt

90 ml (6 tbsp or 3/4 stick) unsalted cultured butter

125 ml (1/2 cup) maple sugar

125 ml (1/2 cup) imported honey (the rarer the better)

Seeds scraped from 2 Tahitian vanilla beans

2 free-range organic eggs

125 ml (1/2 cup) organic milk

500 ml (2 cups) chopped dried strawberries (soaked in boiling water for 10 minutes, then drained)

250 ml (1 cup) chopped macadamia nuts, lightly toasted

Topping

500 ml (2 cups) top-shelf Scotch whisky

500 g (1 lb) high-end, organic dark chocolate, chopped, divided

30 ml (2 tbsp) unsalted cultured butter

30 ml (2 tbsp) imported honey (the bigger the carbon footprint, the better)

5 ml (1 tsp) canola or vegetable oil

12 fresh strawberries

250 ml (1 cup) chopped macadamia nuts, lightly toasted

50 ml (1/4 cup) gold leaf flakes, loosely packed

Heat oven to 190 C (375 F). Line 12 muffin tins with muffin cups.

In a medium bowl, sift together flour, baking powder and sea salt. Set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream together butter, maple sugar, honey and vanilla seeds until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, scraping bowl between additions. Add half the flour mixture, then milk, then remaining flour mixture, beating and scraping bowl between each addition.

By hand, stir in dried strawberries and macadamia nuts. Spoon mixture into lined muffin tins. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until golden brown and a toothpick inserted at the centre comes out clean. Let cool for 5 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack to finish cooling.

While muffins bake, prepare topping. In a skillet, heat Scotch whisky (be careful, it will flame). Bring to a gentle simmer and reduce to 125 ml (1/2 cup).

In a heat-safe bowl, place half of the chocolate, butter and honey. Pour hot reduced liquor over chocolate. Let 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 remaining chocolate with oil. Microwave on high in 15-second bursts, stirring between, until completely melted and smooth. One at a time, dunk each strawberry into chocolate, covering about three-quarters of the berry. Set on waxed paper, then refrigerate for several minutes to harden chocolate.

Once muffins are cool, spoon chocolate glaze over top of each, spreading it to coat top surface. Sprinkle macadamia nuts around outer edge, then sprinkle gold leaf over centre surface. Top each with a chocolate-covered strawberry.

Makes 12 very over-the-top muffins.

Source: Recipe by Alison Ladman.

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