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posted: 7/15/2014 5:30 AM

Cook of the Week: Volunteering, baking merge to benefit Lake Zurich Lions

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  • Mini cherry cheesecakes she calls Jen's Jems are just one of J'Ann Tharnstrom specialties.

      Mini cherry cheesecakes she calls Jen's Jems are just one of J'Ann Tharnstrom specialties.
    Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

By Sally Eyre
Daily Herald Correspondent

When the Lake Zurich Lions' Alpine Fest opens on Friday, July 18, it's not likely that you will see J'Ann Tharnstrom, anywhere near the front lines. More likely, she will be working in the background, probably in the hot concession stand, aka 'the Eat Stand," and that's just the way she likes it.

"I like to work quietly, behind the scenes," says J'Ann, of Hawthorn Woods.

The Alpine Fest has been a Lake Zurich tradition for 75 years, with the proceeds going toward operating costs for the Lions' mission -- to help the vision and hearing-impaired. J'Ann has been using her talent for cooking to aid that goal for more than 25 years -- beginning at the time when women were called 'Lionesses' and were an auxiliary group to the men's organization. Lion Jennifer Paulus, police chief for Hawthorn Woods and grill master for the fest, nominated J'Ann for Cook of the Week because "as far as I'm concerned, she bakes the best goodies ever."

Of course, working the concession stand is just a tiny portion of the time J'Ann spends volunteering for the Lions all year long. As a retired newspaper writer (this is the first time the tables have been turned on her!) J'Ann devotes several days a week to her particular passion within the organization -- helping vision-impaired children.

"I'm the official groveler," she laughs. "I go out and grovel to merchants, or restaurants for products they don't need or use, and then I put together gift baskets, for auction or raffle."

J'Ann's groveling has helped raise more than $22,000 so far for the children.

During the holidays, J'Ann has often stocked the group's holiday bazaar treats table with her homemade cakes, coffee cakes and yeast breads, the proceeds of which go to the Lions' scholarship fund.

"I start in June, freezing everything. One that's really yummy is my chocolate cherry cake, topped with a glaze -- it's very popular, oh and so is the chocolate pistachio cake."

Particular favorites are J'Ann's cakes that are "fixed with spirits." "Those are real popular too!" she admits.

Besides baking, J'Ann's enjoys recreating the Italian dishes she enjoyed as a child growing up in California. She also loves to make roasts, soups and is known for her chicken and sausage turnover. Though J'Ann is very precise with measurements when she is baking, when she is cooking, it's a different story.

"My mother very rarely measured anything. She would say that the amounts you use for the lasagna just have to feel about right, and I still do that. It's just something you learn to do."

While J'Ann's daughter doesn't seem to have followed her mother's flour trail, her granddaughter has. When she applied to the Culinary Institute of America, the prestigious cooking school in New York, her application essay told of the time spent in her gram's kitchen and the influence J'Ann had on her decision to become a chef. She is now in her third year at CIA.

"Her art is pastry and she has won a gold medal for her cake decorating and chocolateering. Her work is amazing; she is very dedicated," says the proud grandmother.

And there you have the evidence -- there is no limit to the influence just one person can have, working quietly behind the scenes.

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