By Amber France
Mardi Gras time was upon us and once again my dear friend Linda prevailed upon me to sub for her Bunco group. Linda’s group always holds their Bunco parties on Mondays. This particular Bunco night happened to fall the evening before Fat Tuesday and she informed me that this Bunco party would be Mardi Gras-themed. I offered to make a dessert for their gathering and decided to peruse my Junior League of Tampa cookbooks for something that screamed Mardi Gras or maybe just New Orleans to me. After flipping through my Junior League of Tampa culinary collections cookbooks, I decided to go with something tropical and fruity – a dessert that seemed ,with its alcohol-related name and rum-flavored ingredient, to be the perfect addition to a Mardi Gras-themed party. This delicious dessert seems like it would be right at home being served on a Bourbon Street restaurant table or in the dining room of one of New Orleans’ grand old antebellum homes. I can easily imagine walking up the steps to one of the lovely mansions that line St. Charles Avenue and finding myself on a spacious old wooden porch. As I wait for the hostess (Miss Scarlett) to open her gracious home to me, I can imagine catching a glimpse – through the lacy wrought iron railings and elaborate window decorations – of the dining room table. I can picture this decadent The Life of the Party dessert of mini treats piled high in a silver basket wrapped in crisp white linen napkins as the recipe suggests: The Junior League of Tampa’s very own Pina Colada muffins.
My New Orleans daydreams have convinced me – my Bunco party contribution will be Pina Colada muffins. Although a Bunco party is slightly less grand than the formal gathering in a historic New Orleans mansion that I pictured when I read the recipe for this decadent dessert, I think there is something universally appealing about the Pina Colada muffins. Fortunately Linda was familiar with the muffins as I had given her a The Life of the Party cookbook for her birthday several years ago and she was a big fan. She told me that she had made them before and served them during a Christmas brunch and at her father-in-law’s 80th birthday party – and that they had always been a big hit!
I went to the grocery store to purchase the ingredients. For the cake mix, I opted to go with Betty Crocker’s super moist yellow mix and chose the trusted McCormick brand for the imitation rum and coconut flavorings. Dole is a no-brainer to use for the crushed pineapple but the nut selection required a small discussion. The recipe gives the baker a choice between pecans and macadamia nuts. My initial suggestion was that we should use pecans as they seemed to go better with the elaborate New Orleans Old South theme that the recipe conjured up in my mind. Linda had other ideas. She told me that she has made the Pina Colada muffins using both pecans and macadamia nuts in the past and that she thought they tasted exponentially better when the delicious Hawaiian staple was used. According to Linda, something about macadamia nuts seemed to blend better with the pineapple and coconut ingredients. I deferred to her status as a veteran Pina Colada muffin maker and shelved my idea of Miss Scarlett’s pecan Pina Colada muffins. After a quick trip to the nut section of the snack aisle, I opted to purchase the Mauna Loa dry roasted macadamias.
I arrived at her house approximately an hour before the other ladies started to get there. We followed the simple instructions and used a Kitchen Aid mixer to do the mixing for us.
We decided to make mini muffins so that the Bunco ladies would be able to quickly pop the muffins in their mouths between rolls of the dice. The initial batch was coming out of the oven just as the doorbell rang for the first time. The kitchen was filled with the delicious aroma of golden cake, coconut, pineapple and a hint of rum. The Bunco ladies went crazy for the tiny treats. We placed them on a three-tiered stand and decorated it with Mardi Gras beads and coins. Several of the Bunco ladies requested the recipe and soon the plates were reduced to crumbs. Pina Colada muffins are a quick easy dessert with a complex taste that gives the impression of being almost gourmet. They were a wonderful success at the Mardi Gras Bunco party and the only drawback was that the game went a bit slower than usual due to all of the Pina Colada muffin snack breaks taken during the night!
Pina Colada Muffins (The Life of the Party, page 69)
Using a cake mix as a base, these are quick to put together but complex in flavor. Prepare as mini muffins, pile into a linen-lined basket, and serve at your next brunch. Children love these as much as adults because they are almost as much fun as cupcakes!
1 (2 – layer) package yellow cake mix
1 teaspoon Coconut extract
1 teaspoon rum flavoring
1 cup flaked coconut
1 cup chopped nuts (preferably macadamia or pecans)
1 cup drained crushed pineapple
Prepare the cake mix according to the package directions. Stir in the coconut extract, rum flavoring, coconut, nuts and pineapple; do not over mix. Fill greased or paper-lined muffin cups 3/4 full. Bake at 350 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in the center comes out clean. You may also bake in mini muffin pans. Bake at 350 degrees for 12 minutes. Yield: 30 regular muffins or 8 dozen mini muffins.