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posted: 6/20/2012 6:00 AM

Family benefits from cooking grad's return home

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  • While living back at home after graduating from college, Courtney Czarnik has been treating her family to desserts like these raspberry cheesecake and Key lime pie shooters.

      While living back at home after graduating from college, Courtney Czarnik has been treating her family to desserts like these raspberry cheesecake and Key lime pie shooters.
    Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

By Sally Eyre

One reason Courtney Czarnik, of Palatine, may love cooking so much is because for a long time, she couldn't eat what everybody else was eating. A problem with her jaw prevented her from chewing meat properly.

"I was a vegetarian for the first 18 years of my life until I had jaw surgery when I was a senior in high school," Czarnik said. "I didn't eat the same things everyone else was eating, so I started cooking the things I could eat."

Czarnik learned to cook with her mom and took a semester of cooking classes in high school. She would have taken more, but too many advanced placement classes got in the way. Once in college, the dorm provided her meals the first year and after that, she spent a year in a sorority house eating chef-prepared meals.

As a junior, she was definitely the roommate who most appreciated the tiny apartment kitchen.

"It was hard to go back to Lean Cuisines or frozen pizza after the sorority house," Czarnik said. "So we'd have pasta nights and taco Tuesdays."

Typical college parties were anything but when held in Czarnik's apartment.

"I just made small things, like dips and finger foods," she says. "My mom entertains a lot, so I grew up knowing how to make bruschetta."

Czarnik graduated from the University of Illinois last spring with a degree in education and quickly found part-time work as a program assistant at a local school. While she continues looking for a full-time teaching job, she finds herself living back at home.

We suspect her parents don't mind at all. First off, one of Courtney's home duties is the grocery shopping. "I actually like doing the shopping," Czarnik said. "I think it's relaxing. You get to be by yourself for an hour."

She varies where she shops depending on what she is looking for and has a particular eye for the freshest fruits and vegetables.

The second reason Czarnik's parents probably don't mind her being back home is the fact that she tries to cook for the family at least once or twice a week.

The third? She loves to bake. A lot.

"I like (cupcakes) because you can make different kinds in one batch, and I love decorating them," Czarnik said. Her brother and his baseball friends have been on the receiving end of these.

"I also like making cake pops," Czarnik said. "They aren't as difficult as everyone thinks they are. They are probably just a fad right now, but they're fun."

As for special tools, Czarnik doesn't have any particular favorites; she rarely even uses a mixer.

"I prefer mixing by hand, even though that goes against everything they tell you," she said. "I just feel like I have more control that way."

For inspiration, Czarnik scans cooking blogs and turns to her favorite food personality, Sandra Lee of "Sandra Lee's Semi Homemade."

"I like how she combines convenience foods with real cooking -- like, she will take a cake mix and add things to it," Czarnik said. "She just has fun with experimenting."

Czarnik likes to fantasize about opening a bakery some day.

"I could bake all day and be happy, but it's just not a feasible dream right now," she said. "Education has always been my first priority."

So she contents herself with baking for her family.

"We have something for dessert every night," she laughed. "Then my mom tries to get it out of the house."

• To suggest someone to be profiled here, send the cook's name, address and phone number to Daily Herald Food Editor Deborah Pankey at

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