It All Began With Bacon

The Northside Sun
December 2010

Click here for PDF of original article.

Laurel Schooler doesn’t consider herself to be a cook. In fact, she hasn’t always been a baker. “My husband is a fabulous cook, but I have never been interested,” remarks the high school English teacher about her husband. “Our friends love to get together and have themed dinner parties. One particular party everyone was required to bring a dish with bacon in it. I didn’t want to be left out, so I thought since I don’t cook maybe I could bring dessert.”

Schooler did her research and found a recipe for dark chocolate and bacon cupcakes. “I didn’t even own any equipment. I mixed everything by hand,” she recalls. “As odd as the combination sounds, they were a success.”

Schooler, who is in her eighth year of teaching at Madison Central, shares her Meadowbrook Road home with her husband Josh, Associate Creative Director with the Ramey Agency; eleven-year-old son Blake; and two dachshunds – Ollie and Buster. They both attended the University of Southern Mississippi; however, they did not meet until years later when introduced by a mutual friend. The couple married eight years ago. On the outside, their home is an unassuming 1950’s ranch-style house. On the inside, the modern décor reflects the couple’s creative roots. The Schooler’s kitchen matches the contemporary look of the rest of the home. The previous owner lined the backsplash with galvanized steel, which the Schoolers use to display snippets of recipes and Blake’s artwork. This particular afternoon, all the ingredients for Bread Pudding Cupcakes are measured out on the kitchen counter. After combining cubed bread and dried cranberries with a little heavy whipping cream, melted butter, and spices, Schooler heads out to the dining room to give the bread time to soak. She sits down at a long wooden table outfitted with funky neon orange chairs and shares a story about the time the couple tried to mix meringue by hand with a whisk.

“Have you ever tried mixing meringue by hand? It was awful!” she laughs. “One of us would mix and when our arms got tired we’d pass it off to other person, ‘Here you mix for while.’” Soon after, Josh bought Schooler her lime green Kitchenaid stand mixer. “It is by far my favorite piece of equipment! This thing does everything!”

Inspired by the triumph of her first batch of cupcakes, Schooler began experimenting with other recipes. “My students became my guinea pigs,” she says. “They love it when I bring baked goods to class.” One student raved to his mother about Schooler’s cupcakes. His mother later approached her about baking a batch of cupcakes for an upcoming party she was having. “I was so excited! Finally, I had the opportunity to make cupcakes for someone else!” In between juggling a full-time career and her family, Schooler squeezes in the time to cater for family and friends. “I was recently asked to bake cupcakes for a wedding. Thursday night after work, I came home and spent the whole evening baking!”

Schooler has also expanded her hobby into retail. When Jim and Linda Burwell opened Mimi’s Family and Friends restaurant in Fondren this past spring, the Burwell’s daughter Heather– who also happens to be Schooler’s best friend from high school – suggested they carry her friend’s tasty creations. “The flavor changes from day-to-day. Sometimes they’ll ask for a certain theme, or a seasonal creation, or just whatever I’m in the mood for.”

By now, the cupcakes are in the oven and the house is beginning to smell like nutmeg. Schooler melts a stick of butter over the stove and stirs in an egg, sugar and a couple tablespoons of whiskey. She then fires up her lime green mixer and begins whipping a cup of heavy cream. The festive cupcakes remind her of one of her most ambitious baking projects – a seven layer coconut cake she made one year for Christmas dinner. “It was so tall that when I put it on the pedestal I couldn’t even fit the top over it!”

Once the whiskey sauce has cooled, she is able to fold it into the whipped cream. Schooler then spoons the mixture into an icing gun and pipes it onto her cooled cupcakes. As you bite into one of her individual treats, still slightly warm from the oven, the taste of cinnamon elicits holiday cheer.

Bread Pudding Cupcakes

Makes 18 cupcakes


  • 5 cups stale bread ripped into finger-length pieces (Bunny is my brand of choice)
  • ½ cup (1 stick) butter, melted
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 1 ½ cups heavy whipping cream
  • ½ teaspoon Nutmeg
  • ½ teaspoon Cinnamon
  • 1/3 cup dried cranberries
  • 5 large eggs

Place bread in large bowl and stir in melted butter. Add all other ingredients and stir again. Let stand at room temperature for 25-30 minutes. Use an ice cream scoop and divide the mixture evenly among cupcake liners. Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes. Cupcakes are down when the tops are lightly browned and are springy to the touch.

Whiskey sauce:

  • ¼ cup butter (1/2 stick)
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 2 tablespoons of your favorite whiskey

Heat the butter, sugar, and egg in a small saucepan. Stir until fully integrated. Remove from stovetop and stir in vanilla and whiskey.

Whiskey Whipped Cream:

  • 1 cup heavy whipping cream
  • 2 tablespoons powdered sugar
  • 8 tablespoons whiskey sauce

Place whipping cream and sugar in stand-up mixer with whisk attachment. Beat on low to combine, then increase to medium-high speed until light and fluffy. Stir in whiskey sauce by hand until fully integrated. Top cooled cupcakes with the whipped cream.

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A Spanish Spread – Whittington Style

The Northside Sun
November 2010

Click here for PDF of original article.

When it comes to cooking, Kay Whittington considers her husband of eight years to be the creative mastermind in the family. “I am a recipe follower,” explains Kay. “I like structure, whereas when Aven cooks, there is no recipe. He throws in a little bit of this and a little bit of that.”

Kay’s analytical thinking and Aven’s fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach to cooking should come as no surprise considering their chosen professions – Kay is an environmental engineer for the Department of Environmental Quality. Aven is the catering manager for Broadstreet Baking Company. Because of their busy work schedules, Kay usually handles meal-preparation during the week. “My parents went through a health-nut craze when I was growing up,” explains the Alabama native. “Our weeknights are usually reserved for quick, easy, pseudo-healthy meals.” However, the couple enjoys spending the weekend hanging out in the kitchen of their North Jackson home. Adds Kay, “You would expect after working all week that we would just want a quiet evening at home. But it’s not unusual for Aven to come home and say, ‘Hey, let’s have some friends over this weekend.’”

The Whittington’s kitchen is painted a bright apple green, colorful funky artwork is displayed on the wall, and the most interesting feature are the tin tiles on the ceiling. “I can’t take credit for that,” reveals Aven. “It came with the house, but we like it.” The room sets the stage for a relaxing Sunday evening meal. Aven stirs a pot of braised pork shoulder simmering in the stove in a bright orange LeCrueset pot, while Kay helps chop ingredients for homemade guacamole. The couple’s son, four-year-old Charlie, swoops through the room dressed in a Spiderman costume just long enough to see what’s available to snack on. Two-and-a-half year old Elizabeth, a little more quiet and reserved, cautiously peaks her head around the doorway from the living room.

Raised in Greenwood, Aven has always considered good eating a way of life. “I remember eating out in New Orleans and grew up associating that with a good time,” he explains. Aven spent his summers working on his Dad’s farm outside of Schlater, MS. “I would come home for lunch and I had to eat something, so I just started throwing things together that I thought would taste good.” Aven still takes that approach to cooking today. “I go to the grocery store and start planning my meals around what looks good or what looks interesting.” He enjoys making one-pot meals such as braised meats and vegetables.

“And he makes really good chocolate milk!” Charlie chimes in.

The meal starts out with plenty of hors d’oeuvres to jumpstart everyone’s appetite. In addition to homemade guacamole, Aven prepares spicy black bean cakes with guacamole and chipotle crème. Several years ago, Kay and Aven traveled to Columbia, South America, with a mutual friend who was also a native of the country. It was there that Aven was taught to make patagones – fried plantains with garlic mash. Aven cuts the plaintains – which are a relative of the banana- into large bite-sized pieces while Kay makes a paste out of garlic cloves and salt. Aven spreads the garlic paste over the top of each plantain, then covers them with waxed paper and mashes them with the bottom of the plate. The plantain forms a small patty, which Aven fries until golden brown. Given that they look like bananas, at first bite you would expect these little patties to be sweet. However, with the addition of the garlic and salt, they are uniquely savory and delicious. Rounding everything out is a sweet salsa made of cherries, balsamic vinegar, chopped red onions, and basil served over large butterflied grilled shrimp.

Because the couple enjoys cooking such unique meals, one might wonder what kind of food they feed the kids. “We weren’t going to give up eating good food or eating at great places just because we had kids,” Aven says, just as Elizabeth creeps in and peers over the top of the butcher block, her little fingers searching for a tortilla chip to dip into the guacamole. “We’ve taken them to eat at all types of different restaurants to eat, like Alice Water’s restaurant Chez Panisse [in Berkeley, CA]. They are really adventurous eaters.”

Don’t fill up on hors d’oeuvres, because homemade soft tacos with an array of fillings and toppings are on the menu as the main course. Aven fires up his grill and shows off his latest kitchen toy – a red La Plancha Cast-Iron Griddle from William Sonoma. Aven uses the griddle to sauté chopped veggies and shrimp. On the side, he places a half a head of cabbage over the hot flame to char the outside leaves and steam the inside of the cabbage. As everyone sits down, wonderful aromas fill the air. Warm tortillas are passed and guests dress their tacos with a selection of braised Spanish pork and sweet potatoes, grilled flank steak with charred cabbage and chimichuri, or chili glazed shrimp with caramelized cipollini onions. A light dessert of Kay’s homemade mango ice cream adds the perfect finishing touch to this Spanish-inspired meal.

Adds Aven, “In my opinion, cooking is a lot about presentation and how things look. I like mixing colors. If two items look good together, chances are they are going to taste good together.”

Spicy Grilled Shrimp Skewers with Balsamic Cherry Salsa

Shrimp Skewers:

  • Bamboo Skewers
  • 1 pound large shrimp (31-35 shrimp)
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon Cajun Seasoning (ex. Tony Chachere’s)
  • 1 teaspoon paprika
  • 1/2 tablespoon ground black pepper

Presoak skewers in water so that they don’t burn. Peel, devein, and butterfly shrimp. Thread shrimp long-ways on the bamboo skewer. Lightly coat shrimp with olive oil. Season with Cajun seasoning, paprika, and pepper. Grill quickly on a hot grill, allowing the shrimp to cook thoroughly and the seasonings to color. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Balsamic Cherry Salsa:

  • 1 medium purple onion, diced
  • 1 red bell pepper, d iced
  • 1 medium tomato, diced
  • 10-15 fresh basil leaves – chiffonade (stack and roll the leaves together and slice thinly)
  • 15-20 fresh cherries, pitted and diced (substitute other berries for interesting combinations)
  • 1-2 Jalapeno peppers, seeded and diced
  • 2 small sweet peppers, seeded and julienned
  • 1 Tablespoon lime Juice
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 4 tablespoons aged balsamic vinegar
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients and allow to sit overnight. The sugar and vinegar will breakdown the vegetables and fruit allowing the flavors to combine. Add hot sauce for an extra kick.

To assemble, spoon the salsa onto the shrimp allowing the butterflied shrimp to act as a spoon. Garnish with basil flowers.

Serves 8-10, around three shrimp per person

Cooking With the Crystals

The Northside Sun
June 2010

Click here for PDF of original article.

Soon after Bucky and Holly Crystal began dating, they discovered a shared passion for cooking.  When recalling the first time her future husband cooked dinner for her, Holly remembers him going above and beyond her expectations.  “I walked in and here is this beautiful roast chicken.  I was very impressed!”

Both Holly and Bucky credit their family as the primary influence for their love of cooking.  Growing up, Holly describes her mother as a “Good Housekeeping” mother.  “I remember other kids at school telling me they were having hamburgers for dinner and I would be so jealous.  A normal week night dinner at my house was beef stroganoff or coq au vin,” laughs Holly.  “It was a rare occasion that we ate out.  I definitely did not appreciate the trouble she went through when I was younger, but I do now.”

Bucky also credits his love of cooking to his mother in addition to Velma, the Crystal’s housekeeper when he was growing up.  “She made the world’s best fried chicken!”

Holly, who is originally from Kentucky, graduated from Mississippi State University and currently works as a paralegal for Brunini Law Firm in Jackson.  Bucky is a Mississippi native who graduated from Belhaven College and now works for Rockett, Inc., in Flowood.  He is currently working towards his MBA at Millsaps College.  The couple eloped to Big Sur, CA, in 2005.  Later that same year, they purchased their London Avenue home and began renovations three years ago.

As soon as guests enter the front door of the Crystal’s split level ranch house, they are greeted by the Crystal’s three dogs – Sierra, Callie, and Lulu.  Callie, an English Spaniel who loves to play “catch,” will plop down beside your chair, ball in mouth, and gaze at you with sad eyes until you agree to play.  In the background, the Crystal’s usually have a eclectic collection of tunes playing, which may include a little Phish, Son Volt, and Wilco.

To accommodate their tasty hobby, the Crystals completely remodeled the small galley kitchen that came with the house.  The kitchen now has an open floor plan and cozy seating area where Bucky and Holly can sit and flip through their large collection of cookbooks.  “I really like cookbooks with pictures,” Holly says.  “Beautiful pictures and how the food is presented is what sells the book for me.”  Holly’s favorite cookbook at the moment is Blue Eggs and Yellow Tomatoes by Jeanne Kelley.  Bucky, a barbeque enthusiast, finds himself turning to The Barbeque Bible by Steven Raichlen.  Also displayed prominently on their kitchen counter is Thomas Keller’s Ad Hoc at Home.

The kitchen’s most unusual feature is a modern black AGA range that resembles something your grandmother used to use.   The England-based company produces cast iron cookers coated in a hard enamel surface to produce a long-lasting, scratch and fade resistant appliance. “We had read about AGA stoves in several cooking magazines. We never thought we’d get one as typically they are enormous and require a structural engineer to survey your house prior to installing it,” explains Holly.  “The one we have is their newer, smaller model. We were drawn to it mainly for the configuration of the ovens and burners and that it is a dual fuel [gas burners/electric oven] stove.”

Holly starts the meal with an appetizer of Boursin cheese, thinned with a little half and half, mixed with chives and piped into fresh green endive leaves.  The creamy cheese provides just the right balance to the bitter endive and you find yourself unable to pop just one.  Next is a salad of butter lettuce topped with sliced apples and manchego cheese.  The salad is completed with a vinaigrette made with olive oil, white balsamic vinegar, sherry wine vinegar, and minced shallots.

The main course on tonight’s menu is smoked pheasant marinated in herbs and bourbon.  Before completing renovations on their house, the Crystals added an outdoor kitchen area featuring a large gas grill and Big Green Egg.  Once a year, Bucky makes a hunting trip to South Dakota, so it isn’t unusual for their freezer to be stocked with pheasant.  “Pheasant can be tricky to cook because it has a tendency to dry out very quickly,” explains Bucky.  “I enjoy experimenting with a lot of different cooking techniques.”

On the side, Holly prepares wild mushroom risotto with shitake and porcini mushrooms, and roasted Brussels sprouts.  Before turning up your nose at this leafy little wild cabbage, give Holly’s recipe a try.  Sautéed with bacon and shallots and topped with brown sugar, this recipe will turn the taste buds of even the most die hard Brussels sprout opponents.   For dessert, Holly arranges slices of fresh Anjou pears over a sheet of puff pastry.  She then folds up the corners and bakes in a 350 degree oven for twenty minutes.  She serves each slice with a dollop of vanilla ice cream and drizzles a thin sauce of Riesling wine, sugar, and water over top.

Bucky and Holly enjoy trying quirky new recipes together, particularly Thai food.  Holly also finds herself making a lot of comfort foods and soups. Because the couple enjoys entertaining, friends and family often benefit from the Crystal’s love of cooking.  Comments Holly, “It’s not unusual for us to prepare a whole meal and then invite people over to try it out.  Our friends don’t mind being guinea pigs!”

Holly’s Roasted Brussels Sprouts Caramelized Shallots

  • 1 1/2 pounds Brussels sprouts, halved
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2/3 cup thinly sliced shallots
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 ounce finely chopped bacon or pancetta
  • 4 teaspoons brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vermouth or cider vinegar

Preheat oven to 400°.  Arrange Brussels sprouts on a jelly-roll pan coated with cooking spray.  Drizzle with oil; toss to coat.  Bake at 400° for 15 minutes.  Add shallots, pepper, salt, and pancetta to pan; toss well.  Bake at400° for 10 minutes.  Add sugar and vermouth; toss to coat.  Bake an additional 10 minutes or until caramelized.