The fifth book in the Merry Muffin Mystery series opens with our heroine, Merry Wynter, reveling in a luxurious New York City honeymoon with her new husband, Virgil. Their wedded bliss is cut short, however, when their return to Wynter Castle—the honest-to-goodness castle Merry owns upstate—lands them smack in the middle of a television crew setting up to film. Unbeknownst to Merry, her best friend, Pish, has invited the ghost-hunters from the television show Haunt Hunt to investigate several occurrences that have recently unsettled him. He'd thought that he could get the crew in and out while Merry was away, but things hadn't quite gone to plan.
Merry is quick to forgive her friend, but the crew themselves try her patience sorely. The most prominent members of the crew are paying for room and board at the castle over the course of the few days they'll be filming, and soon their interpersonal drama and bickering have everyone on edge. As if that isn't bad enough, the show’s psychics begin claiming that the souls of those recently murdered at the castle are trying to contact them. Merry is furious that they would sensationalize tragedies personal to herself and her friends, but things only get worse when members of the crew start dying themselves. Merry has to race to bring a killer to justice before anyone else gets hurt.
This was my first encounter with Merry and her delightful, diverse cast of friends and family. I very much enjoyed Victoria Hamilton's eye for character detail and her narrative choices, especially with Hannah, the wheelchair-bound Watson to Merry's Holmes. I also enjoyed the structure of this novel, which hearkened back to others in the tradition of haunted stately home murder mysteries. With smart plotting, terrific characters, and a promising direction for future books, I'm definitely looking forward to the next installment of the series!
Muffin to Fear also included a recipe section with three offerings, and I decided to try out the following:
Merry's Hot Chocolate Muffins
*Makes 12-18 muffins
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
½ cup white sugar
1 ½ teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup milk chocolate chips (optional)
¾ cup milk
⅓ cup vegetable or canola oil
1 large egg, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
⅔ cup miniature marshmallows, plus more for the top
Preheat oven to 400°F.
Line 12-18 muffin cups with paper liners, OR spray with spray oil. In a medium bowl sift flour, cocoa powder, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Put the chocolate chips (if using) in with the dry ingredients and mix. This is so they don't sink to the bottom of the muffin cup. In a larger bowl, whisk together the milk, oil, egg, and vanilla extract. Add the dry ingredients and stir until just combined. Add the first measure of miniature marshmallows to this mixture.
Fill the muffin cups ⅔ full. Make sure mini marshmallows are not showing at the top of the muffin batter, or they'll melt too much be sticky! Bake 18-24 minutes, or until a wooden toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
I completely ruined the first batch of these that I baked. I didn't heed the generous bake-time window and not only left these in the oven to cook longer than 24 minutes (as my oven tends to need a longer cook time) but also didn't cool them away from the stove, resulting in steamed bottoms and a general brick-like consistency. The first batch of cupcakes was edible but only barely.
My second attempt came out much better. I even sifted, a step I usually find unnecessary. I pulled the muffins out of the oven at minute 24—I'd been fooled the last time by a toothpick that went through a chocolate chip/marshmallow combo and hence came out “dirty”—then cooled them on marble. The results were far superior, even if I did find myself rather wishing these were cupcakes instead of muffins. I am glad I added the chocolate chips, as they lent an additional moistness to the finished product that I found quite satisfying. I imagine omitting them would keep it more muffin-like if that's your preference.
Next week, we head back to Nevada to make spicy acorn treats for conspiracy nuts (and believe you me, when I first read that in the context of next week’s book, I laughed and laughed). Do join me!
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Doreen Sheridan is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C. She microblogs on Twitter @dvaleris.
Read all posts by Doreen Sheridan for Criminal Element.