In the middle of the night, partway through a cross-country drive, I unfolded myself from the driver’s seat at another random gas station. Someone special was waiting at the east end of Interstate 90, but the rig and I both needed fuel. Unleaded and Road Warrior Blend, respectively.
As reliably as diesel hum at a truck stop, there is a chocolate muffin in the store, baked by a semi-local bakery, wrapped in clear cellophane, and called “Double Chocolate Muffin,” or perhaps “Chocolate-Chocolate-Chunk Muffin,” and occasionally “Chocolate Bundt Cake.” Sometimes the cashier will insist they don’t sell them, but like love, you can find that muffin if you look hard enough—or if you lower the bar enough all the way down to Hostess, if necessary. Not the cream-filled cupcake, but a legit chocolate muffin.
Anywhere else, that muffin might be as forgettable as one endless highway mile after another. But our expectations are low at the gas station, while our needs are specific. When driving, the flavor of the coffee could not be less pressing, while the caffeine content could not be more crucial. The dark, chemically moist and shiny chocolate muffin encourages caffeine intake by making mediocre coffee taste like an artisan cup, brewed by a bearded dude in a flannel shirt.
The gas station coffee and chocolate muffin not only elevate one another in flavor, but they combine forces in turning you into a well-oiled driving machine.
They both contain caffeine, of which only coffee contains grown-up levels, while cocoa is rich in a similar molecule, also a stimulant, called theobromine, which translates from Latin to “food of God.”
Like caffeine, theobromine belongs to a family of plant defense molecules called xanthines. Not as powerful a stimulant as caffeine, it lasts longer, and there is evidence of the so-called entourage effect at play, where each one grows more powerful in the presence of the other, resulting in calm hyperfocus. Theobromine also eases the jittery feelings that caffeine alone can give, and there is evidence of long-term improvement of cognitive function, while reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s and cardiovascular diseases. It even protects tooth enamel from decay.
Cacao also contains several cannabinoids, and high levels of phenylalanine, which releases the endorphins dopamine and norepinephrine, which are responsible for ecstatic feelings associated with falling in love, and the euphoric energy that allows new lovers to talk for hours. Studies have shown most phenylalanine in chocolate gets broken down by enzymes before it has a chance to release those endorphins, but true Cupids know some of those biochemical arrows will hit their marks.
And what discussion of euphoria would be complete without good old sugar, which also triggers the release of endorphins, gives you a high, and even dulls pain. Like caffeine, sugar can make you jittery and crash-y, two words you don’t really want to say in the same sentence as “driving.” Fortunately, all of that theobromine soothes the mind and body, smoothing the road home.
On the Road Again
I got off I-90 in Newton, Massachusetts, and drove through the outskirts of Boston to my mom’s apartment. A few days later, we headed for Montana, coffees in the cup holders and Dunkin’ Donuts chocolate muffins in the console, which I wrongly presumed would be our last best road muffins.
Driving through Chicago, you can’t have enough chocolate, caffeine, or gas. I gripped the steering wheel so hard I was afraid I’d break it. In LaCrosse, Wisconsin, I discovered the gas station chocolate muffin of my dreams, at a gas station chain called Kwik Trip. I kept finding those blessed oases until I left Minnesota.
In Murdo, South Dakota, sometime after midnight, the convenience store attendant insisted there wasn’t a chocolate muffin, which there always is. I checked by the coffee—always my go-to spot—and then the refrigerated case where the sandwiches are, and then over by the doughnuts, in front of the corn dogs, and kept going until I finally found that elusive, theobromine-laced asset on the Hostess rack. When you’re in limbo, you don’t worry about lowering the bar a little.
The attendant managed to ring me up and take my money without acknowledging me or my chocolate muffin, most likely annoyed that I had raided her stash. No matter. I had what I needed to plow through another tank of gas, all the way through to the world’s greatest state, while my Valentine slept in the passenger seat.
Double Chocolate Chip Muffins
When I got back to Montana, I reached out to the good folks at Kwik Trip. It’s quite the operation, vertically integrated to the point of having its own dairy. And they were kind enough to provide their muffin recipe. With this muffin, and a cup of coffee, anything is possible.
Makes 24 muffins
- 3/4 cup vegetable oil
- 1 1/4 cup granulated sugar
- 1/2 cup milk
- 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2/3 cup sour cream
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup cocoa powder
- 1 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 2 cups semisweet chocolate chips
Preheat over to 375 degrees F and line muffin cups with liners (or lightly grease and flour).
In a large bowl, whisk together oil, sugar, and milk. Stir in eggs and vanilla until well-combined. Gently fold in sour cream until just-combined.
In a separate, medium-sized bowl, whisk together flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt.
Fold flour mixture gently into wet mixture, folding until just barely combined. Stir in 1 1/2 cups chocolate chips.
Scoop chocolate muffin batter into prepared muffin tin, filling 2/3 to 3/4 of the way full. Sprinkle tops of muffins with remaining chocolate chips.
Bake at 375 degrees F for 18 minutes (toothpick inserted in center should come out with few slightly fudgy crumbs).
Recipe courtesy of Kwik Trip
Road Warrior Blend
There are many ways to combine chocolate and coffee, but when driving, one-handed medication is essential. A decent mocha, with four shots and lots of cocoa, does the trick. But the gas station version, meh coffee mixed with hot chocolate, has enough sugar to make you want to get out and run next to the car. But we don’t need that much. In both coffee and chocolate, we only add as much sugar as we must.
At home, we have the means to raise the bar, and a context conducive to snobbery, regarding how we combine the brewed roasted beans of the coffee plant with the brewed crushed roasted beans of the chocolate plant.
I prefer to brew them together, preferably in a system that won’t get gummed up by the cocoa butter in those nibs. The stovetop espresso maker—aka the moka pot—gets clogged. The French press does OK, but you have to work it gently. The AeroPress is out. In the end, it’s the percolator that’s best for getting crunk on chocolate nibs and coffee, and cranking out the miles.
- 1/4 cup crushed cacao nibs
- 1/4 cup coarsely ground coffee
Brew the cacao nibs and ground coffee together, as you would your usual cup of coffee. Serve with cream and sugar, for extra driving power.
Ari LeVaux writes about food in Missoula, Mont.