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Monday, September 26, 2022
NOTL bakery sets the bar high for Holiday House Tour

Each year, the Niagara-on-the-Lake Rotary Club's Holiday House Tour has a special, sweet addition, thanks to the generosity of Willow Cakes & Pastries bakery.

This year was no exception, as the bakery donated another Christmas display. This time it was featured at 282 Nassau St.

The display contained a two-foot chocolate Santa, a gingerbread log cabin, cakes and pies and chocolate Christmas bulbs. It was a wintry display that showcases some of the fine work the bakery does, says Willow co-owner Sean O'Donnell.

The whole display took some 140 kilograms of chocolate to produce, with about six employees spending a combined 60 hours to make the magic happen.

"When we do our displays we like to showcase the holiday feel … mainly that's in cookies and gingerbread and chocolate works," O'Donnell said.

"When you go into these into the houses that we decorate, Nassau for example, it's a lot of chocolate work. You're seeing high-calibre chocolate that's been tempered and poured into a mould, and it's been painted, whether it be by hand or with an airbrush."

Some of the decorations, like the giant Santa, are yearly decorations, while others are new, creative ideas from the bakery.

"(Santa) is a hollow shell of chocolate but he's hand-painted and painstakingly poured so that everything is smooth and that it's thick enough to stand, but not heavy," O'Donnell said.

One of the new features he was proud of was a unique spin on a gingerbread house.

"We had a gingerbread log cabin that was in the display this year, which was really fun," he said.

"Your average gingerbread house is very flat and has just flat sides, flat roof — this shows texture and technique. And we always make it look wintry, like it's out in the woods or something."

"So we use icing to create icicles and icing sugars create a snow effect and we bring in some non-edible products like rolled cotton to create big snowscapes across the tables. So it's a mixture. It's like 98 per cent handcrafted with maybe two per cent outside materials."

Willow also sculpted a scale-model gingerbread house of the McArthur estate on John Street East as part of that home's display. It was created mainly by returning pastry chef Ryan Mallin.

The whole display would normally cost "thousands" of dollars, but O'Donnell says the bakery is happy to do it to help the Rotary Club — and to showcase the skills of the bakery to the people taking the tour.

"We get exposure," he said.

Most of the ideas for the wintry displays come from Catherine O'Donnell, Sean's mother who has a history of designing creative displays, such as the famous Canada Day cakes.

O'Donnell says while 140 kilos of chocolate may seem like a lot, when you look at the display, it's largely because the chocolate has to be poured and tempered to make sure the displays last.

"It has to have sustainability and longevity. So, it's not that we're pouring it thick, but you have to pour it perfect, and constantly keeping it on temper and on point," he said.

For perspective, he noted, the Santa alone contains about six pounds of chocolate.

However, the display wasn't just chocolate. It also included an arrangement of breads and pastries.

"While we try to represent a theme, we always try to represent the kitchen culture that we have, and that it's not just pastry and it's not just chocolate. We had our head bread baker make some of her most beautiful breads. And we put those as a little display because we were trying to create not just a winterscape but also a homey atmosphere."

He said the bakery team enjoyed putting things together in its small kitchen for the house tour,

"They keep the smile on their face and they're having fun and at the same time they're learning because Chef Catherine just has that creative mindset and she's always willing to teach the staff new things. So they're learning while executing and perfecting all at the same time and that's what's really cool."