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Niagara Falls
Tuesday, May 21, 2024
Cake of all cakes centrepiece of Canada Day celebrations

As we plan our Canada Day activities, Catherine O'Donnell is making the cake of all cakes to help us celebrate.

The Willow Cakes and Pastries chef, creator of the centrepiece of Niagara-on-the-Lake Canada Day celebrations for the last 13 years, has been plotting her masterpiece since January.

Personally, she's had a rough year, losing her beloved husband and biggest supporter, Frank Wieler. So this time, she's chosen a theme that is as much for her as for the 3,000 residents and visitors who are expected to enjoy a piece of her Canada Day cake.

As is customary, she's not revealing too much about it, except to say this one is for the locals.

“If you live here, if someone asked you what people do who live in Niagara-on-the-Lake, that's what's on the cake. And this year it's a little more 'me.' Locals will completely get it, and it makes me feel good. Making it has been a therapy of life.”

She will reveal there will be five large figurines, a combination of wood and wire covered in expensive fondant, topping the 100 sheets of sponge cake that make up the base of the cake, and that two of them wii represent art and gardening, which are both symbolic of what people love to do in NOTL.

Last year, with a 150th theme, she designed the top layer so that it could be removed, and viewed in Simcoe Park as the crowd enjoyed the cake. She has done the same this year, she says, making it also easier for those who have to cut it.

Every year, as she thinks of a theme, she considers the cake and its role in Canada Day celebrations as a way of representing the town to visitors.  “It makes us look amazing, and it's something anyone who has a business benefits from. It's good for the whole town.”

But this year, the theme gives her a chance to show people what's great about living in NOTL, and that reminder has helped her through some difficult times.

To acknowledge that, there will be a tribute to her Wieler, who was always able to help her deal with the stress, emotions and panic attacks she would experience while trying to complete the cake while also running a business. It's the most stressful event she faces each year, she says, and this year she will be without him to help her through it.

“Look for something yellow. Frank was the biggest Minion fan on the planet. He helped me, he put up with my emotional outbursts and calmed me down. This is my tribute to Frank.”

Adding to the stress, says O'Donnell, is the memory of a customer last year – a local – who attacked her verbally for a small jar she puts on the counter at the bakery each year in the days leading up to Canada Day, while the construction of the cake is underway. It's there for donations toward the cost of the cake, and the customer, believing the Town pays her for it, called her out for what he considered to be a cash grab.

“He was very angry, and he had me so upset it made me feel like I didn't want to do this any more,” she said.

That feeling passed, and although it's an expensive and time-consuming community donation for a small business, “I'll keep doing it as long as I can.”

In the early years, she was able to get suppliers to donate ingredients such as the flour for the cake, but those donations have dried up. And although the Town has never helped pay for it, in the past she has received donations from the Friends of Fort George, who organize the Queen Street cake walk. But the volunteer organization has enough to look after with Canada Day celebrations, and it's been a few years since she received money for the cake from them, she said.

In addition to the $2,000 for ingredients, while she gets some volunteer time from staff, there are also hours they are paid to work on the cake. “There's only so much you can ask staff to do in the way of volunteering their time. This is a lot for a small business to fund. I don't need to comer my own time, but we have 17 hours of non-stop baking – and that's just for the sponge cake. It would be great if we could just cover the cost of the ingredients.”

But despite the cost, O'Donnell is happy to be able to contribute the cake. About 80 per cent of Willow customers are local, she said, “and this is a way for me to say thank you to them.”

And while she deals with nerves and exhaustion leading up to the moment the cake is cut in the park – the time from when it leaves the bakery to when it arrives in the park being the most stressful – it's all worthwhile, she said.

She always walks alongside the cake during the parade along Queen Street, usually having gone to bed in the early hours of the morning for a few hours sleep, and during the parade, she second-guesses herself, worries about things she meant to add but didn't get to, wonders if the crowd will like it, hopes it will make it to the park in one piece, “but as soon as we start cutting it, the stress is gone, and in about an hour the cake is gone too and I know they liked it. That's what it's all about.”


Canada Day events:

Simcoe Park: Canada Day celebrations begin in Simcoe Park with a pancake breakfast from 8 to 11 a.m.. The Rotary Club of Niagara-on-the-Lake will serve hot pancakes, sausages, juice and coffee. That will be followed by a barbecue from the Great Canadian Burger, and in the park, there will be face painting, caricatures, a balloon artist, magician and more for families. A free concert begins at 11 a.m. running to 3:30 p.m., featuring Flat-broke and Shea D Duo, with a display of antique cars also in the park.

Parade: A parade down Queen Street, featuring the 41st Regiment of Foot Fife and Drum Corps, soldiers from Fort George and the giant cake donated by Willow Cakes and Pastries, begins at 2:45 p.m., travels along Queen Street and concludes in Simcoe Park, where the giant cake will be sliced and served.

Fort George events: The Friends of Fort George host a barbecue dinner inside the fort, starting at 5 p.m. and serving hamburgers, hotdogs, chips and pop! Proceeds from the BBQ go to support the Friends of Fort George. Kids can learn what it was like to be a soldier in 1812 with the Kiddie Militia and Drill, and families can enjoy historical music performances by the 41st Regiment of Foot Fife and Drum Corps, with musket and artillery demonstrations. This year's musical entertainment features the Howling Horns, an eight-piece horn band featuring music from blues to dance to classic rock. Canada Day celebrations at Fort George conclude with a spectacular musical fireworks display at 10 p.m. Admission to the fort on Canada Day is free.





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