JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -

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 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.

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 labor) - or $16 each.

---

$16 MUFFINS

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 Whisky

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 Whisky (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.

(Recipe by Alison Ladman)