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May. 20, 2022 | Friday
Local News
Canada Day cake marks two birthday celebrations
Catherine O’Donnell with the Canada Day cake in 2018. (Richard Harley/Niagara Now)

This year, the giant NOTL Canada Day cake is about birthdays.

“This year is about fun. Fun and birthdays,” said Catherine O’Donnell, chef at Willow Cakes and Pastries.

For several years now, Willow has been producing the mammoth cake that is paraded through town to Simcoe Park, where it is one of the highlights of the Canada Day celebrations.

“Because Willow turns 15 years old on July 1 … and then (there is) Canada Day, so you’ve got two birthdays this year. So, it’s about birthdays and that’s about as much as I tell you guys,” O’Donnell said.

She won’t reveal exactly how the cake will look like or what it will feature.

“The excitement is that, realistically, until the night before no one actually knows except who works here,” she said.

O’Donnell, who is also a chef professor at Niagara College, opened the bakery on Mary Street 15 years ago and has been baking the giant cakes for Canada Day ever since.

What started as a “simple cake” with maple leaf cookies 14 years ago, quickly grew into one of the most anticipated traditions in town.

In her fourth year of making the cake, O’Donnell met a family from Kitchener who said they drive down to NOTL on Canada Day just to see the cake.

That’s what inspired O’Donnell and her team to start making more elaborate cakes.

“And that’s just made it why we go that extra mile because if somebody’s going to drive that far just to see the cake and celebrate Canada Day in Niagara-on-the-Lake, it’s amazing,” O’Donnell said.

“But it’s also an amazing opportunity to us to say thank you to all the people who live in town for coming in here, supporting, because, without them, we don’t exist.”

Besides, once you’ve made something “really amazing,” you can’t go back, she said.

Making a mammoth cake is a mammoth production.

Around 100 layers of cake, eight cases of eggs, 100 kilograms of sugar, 80 kilograms of chocolate, from eight to 10 litres of corn syrup, 120 pounds of butter and 200 pounds of icing and sugar are used during the process. The cake itself weighs over 1,000 pounds.

Six people, including O’Donnell and Niagara College apprentices, spend up to 500 hours in total, working at night and on their days off, to create the cake.

As the bakery’s kitchen isn’t big enough and cannot store the cake’s sculptures due to the lack of air conditioning in the building, O’Donnell has to use an 18-foot kitchen island at her house where her team works on creating the cake’s visual components such as flowers and sculptures.

Then, they will bring these elements over to the bakery on Saturday, two nights before Canada Day. The cake is then baked and assembled on Sunday morning in the bakery’s kitchen.

It’s also a chance for the apprentices, who volunteer their hours, to learn some skills they wouldn’t otherwise be able to acquire at the college or at the bakery’s kitchen, O’Donnell said.

Friends of Fort George provide a trailer on wheels, which is hooked to the back of a car, for the Canada Day parade to Simcoe Park where the cake will be sliced and served.

Last year, a Garrison Village couple generously covered the cost of the cake, O’Donnell told The Lake Report. Donations for this year’s cake will be accepted starting next weekend.

“The ingredients you can’t get suppliers to donate anymore. So we pay for everything,” O’Donnell said. 

“I’m OK paying the labour … but getting the ingredients’ cost back helps because we’re a small business. That makes a big difference when a community pitches in.”

O’Donnell said she always strives to outdo her previous cakes.

“There’s also competitiveness in my own head … It’s what gets me excited,” she said.

Seeing the children get excited and recognize characters on the cake is the most “amazing gratitude” and what makes the whole experience satisfying, too, she said.