Sweet Stuff

Double-Chocolate Crunch Muffins
When 75% of the people living in your house are of the female variety, sometime you have to pull out the big guns of culinary comfort to get the day off to a good start. On these mornings, I high-tail it into the kitchen to finish putting together the batch of Double-Chocolate Crunch Muffins I prepped the night before. My mom-approval rating skyrockets when I serve these little cups of chocolate goodness warm out of the oven, but they also have significant mood-boosting powers if you make them ahead and warm them up in the microwave for a few seconds on a gentle power setting (read: not high, NEVER high). Either way, I find that chocolate for breakfast significantly increases our family's odds that the rest of the day will turn out well.

Double-Chocolate Crunch Muffins
Crunch topping:
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa (regular, Dutch-processed, or a blend)
1/2 cup brown sugar (pack it tightly into the cup to measure)
1/4 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup whole-wheat flour (white whole-wheat, regular whole-wheat, or whole-wheat pastry flour)
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa (regular, Dutch-processed, or a blend)
1/2 cup brown sugar (pack it tightly into the cup to measure)
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup warm water
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 egg
1/3 cup reduced-fat sour cream (NOT fat free...NEVER fat-free)
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar (I know, this seems like a weird ingredient, but it has incredible tenderizing powers, and I 100% promise your breakfast will NOT taste like cleaning solution)

Additional ingredients:
1/4-1/2 cup mini semisweet chocolate morsels
nonstick cooking spray

Preheat oven to 400°. Line a 12-spot muffin tin with cupcake liners and spray each lightly with nonstick cooking spray. (Yes, you need to do both these things.) For the Crunch Topping, stir the cocoa powder into the vegetable oil with a fork. Dump in the brown sugar and flour and blend with a fork just until crumbly. It should look like chocolate gravel. For the Muffins, blend the flours, brown sugar, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl with a fork or whisk. In a separate, medium-sized bowl, mix the remaining muffin ingredients (water through vinegar) with a fork or whisk. Dump the "wet" ingredients on top of the dry and mix together with a rubber spatula just until incorporated. Where muffins are concerned, lumps are good. Leave 'em in. Divide the muffin batter equally among your prepared cups (I use a spring-action ice cream scoop for this). Divide your prepared Crunch Topping equally among your muffins, pressing down slightly to ensure all your lovely chocolate gravel ends up baking into its muffin bases. Sprinkle each muffin with a few (or more) mini chocolate chips. Bake at 400° for 12-18 minutes or JUST until a toothpick inserted into the center of a muffin comes out with a few moist crumbs (not wet batter) clinging to it. Cool in the muffin tin on a wire rack for about 5 minutes before gently removing from the tin for consumption or to cool completely on the rack. Store airtight at room temperature for a day or two, or freeze for a month-ish
Lovely Lemon Snack Cake
Lovely not only because of the lemony color and flavor but also because it's so easy to throw together with simple ingredients. One cook's caveat: if you don't have fresh lemons on hand, put them on your grocery list and make this cake another day. Now is not the time for that lemon "juice product" in a bottle. Actually, there's never a time for that, in my snooty opinion. Squeeze a couple extra lemons sometime and freeze the juice, and you'll always have the real stuff on hand. Anyway, enough about all that. Let's make some cake. 

Lovely Lemon Snack Cake
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup butter, cut in pieces
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons water
3/4 cup sugar
1 egg, beaten
1/4 cup low-fat plain yogurt
14 cup unsweetened applesauce

1 3/4 cups confectioner's (powdered) sugar
2-3 teaspoons grated lemon zest (only the yellow part of the rind)
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice (squeeze after you grate the zest!)
pinch salt

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Coat an 8-inch square baking pan with nonstick cooking spray. In medium-sized bowl, mix flour, baking powder, baking soda, and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Set aside. In medium saucepan, combine butter, 2 tablespoons lemon juice, and water. Bring just to a boil, then remove from heat. Dump flour mixture on top of butter mixture, followed by sugar and remaining cake ingredients (through applesauce). Mix with wooden spoon just until incorporated; don't try to beat out every last lump. Spread evenly in prepared pan and bake for 12-15 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with moist crumbs. Don't overbake! Cool for 5 minutes on a wire rack.

While cake is cooling, mix the glaze ingredients all together and stir well. Now you do want to beat out the lumps! When cake has cooled for 5 minutes, pour half the glaze evenly over the surface of the cake and spread it out. Cool the partially-glazed cake for 5 more minutes. Give the remaining glaze another stir, and pour it over the cake, spreading evenly. If your glaze pools in the corners of your cake, you can maneuver some of it back to the center with a knife or spatula until it stays put. The glaze will set as it cools. Serve this cake warm, at room temperature, or chilled. Store tightly covered for a day or two. 

March Madness Mint Brownies
I did not grow up in a sport-manic family. My dad wasn't parked in a recliner, watching football on Sunday afternoons, and in spite of being lifelong residents of the state of Michigan, we weren't on either side of the Michigan State-University of Michigan intrastate rivalry. When I went off to college in basketball-obsessed Indiana, new friends commented on the frenzy during “tournament time” and looked at me like I was crazy when I asked, “What’s the tournament?” (Okay, this was pretty pathetic considering that I had seen and loved Hoosiers.)

I took a crash-course in sports mania when I met my husband, a lifelong Michigan State University fan and MSU grad whose blood runs green and who only gets grumpy on two occasions: when he’s hungry or when MSU is losing or has recently lost a football or basketball game. In his first letter to me (this was in the days when couples sent letters, not texts or tweets), he commented that he loved to watch “the action on the gridiron.” I knew I was in big trouble since to me “gridiron” sounded like some sort of malfunction with the appliance I used for getting wrinkles out of my clothes. I had never heard of March Madness and thought Sweet 16 had to do with birthdays, not basketball.

These March Madness Mint Brownies honor of my Spartan-loving husband, but the green of the mint filling also works if March makes you think of shamrocks or spring or instead. Stir up a batch, whether you think March is mad or lucky or both.

March Madness Mint Brownies
Brownie Layer:
1 ounce unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
¼ cup cake flour (this helps tenderize the brownies, so I don’t recommend substituting)
½ cup all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon baking powder
5 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder (regular or Dutch-processed or a combination)
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1 egg white
1 teaspoon vanilla
Nonstick cooking spray

Preheat oven to 350° and coat the bottom of an 8-inch square baking pan with nonstick cooking spray. Combine chocolate and butter in a large microwave-safe bowl and heat in microwave on medium-high (about 70%) power for one minute. Stir mixture and, if not entirely melted, microwave on medium-high for an additional 15 to 20 seconds. Stir again and set aside to cool for a few minutes. Meanwhile, whisk together the flours, salt, baking powder, and cocoa powder in a medium bowl. Whisk chocolate mixture once again, then whisk in sugar. Add egg, egg white, and vanilla, and whisk again. Add the flour mixture and stir until just combined. Spread in prepared pan and bake for 12-14 minutes or until a toothpick inserted about 1 inch from the outside edge comes out fairly clean. The center should still gooey; do not overbake or your brownies will be dry. Cool completely in pan on a rack.

Mint layer:
1 ½ cups confectioner’s (powdered) sugar
3 tablespoons butter, melted
1½ tablespoons milk
¼ to ½ teaspoon mint extract
2-3 drops green food coloring

Combine sugar, butter, and milk in a medium bowl and beat well (I used a hand-mixer) until smooth. Add lesser amounts of mint extract and food coloring and beat well. Adjust “minty-ness” and color by adding more extract or food coloring as desired. Spread evenly over completely cooled brownie base and chill while preparing chocolate topping.

Chocolate topping layer:
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoon semisweet or dark chocolate chips
1½ tablespoons butter

Place chocolate chips and butter in small microwave-safe bowl and heat in microwave on medium-high (about 70%) power for 45 seconds. Stir, and, if not completely melted, microwave on medium-high for additional 15 seconds. Stir until smooth, then spread evenly over mint layer. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes before cutting into bars and serving. Store leftovers (if there are any!) covered in refrigerator.  Makes 12-16 mint brownie bars.
Chocolate-Covered Popcorn
A formerly secret favorite family recipe, this is not, mind you, just plain popcorn drizzled perfunctorily with melted chocolate. Please. Nor is it caramel corn similarly treated. This is popcorn fully encased in a chewy chocolate coating, almost like chocolate caramel. Trust me: you need this in your life.

14-16 cups plain popped popcorn (I use an air-popper and make 1 ½ batches)
½ cup sugar
½ cup light corn syrup
¼ cup butter (no substitutions), cut into chunks
Dash salt
2 ounces unsweetened baking chocolate, chopped
1 teaspoon vanilla
Nonstick cooking spray

Preheat oven to 300°. Place popped popcorn in a large roasting pan or other extra-large baking pan coated with cooking spray.  (If you do not have an extra-large pan, you can use 2 9x13-inch baking pans and divide the popcorn evenly between them.) Bake at 300° for 15 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes; this removes extra moisture from the popcorn so the finished product will be crisp. Combine sugar, corn syrup, butter, salt, and chocolate in a 2-cup microwave-safe measure or small microwave-safe bowl.  Microwave on High power 2 minutes or until boiling, stirring after 1 minute. Watch carefully unless you want to create a chocolate volcano in your microwave! Remove from microwave and stir in vanilla. Carefully pour the very warm chocolate mixture over the popcorn and toss gently to coat using a large spoon or spatula. Serve immediately or allow to cool in the pan before storing in an airtight container. Leftovers, if you have any, are nicely gooey-ed back up in the microwave on mediumish power for a few seconds.

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