By: Megan Pasche
Sitting inconspicuously on the corner of Mary Street, is Willow Cakes and Pastries, a European style bakery owned by Pastry Chef Catherine O’Donnell. As you walk through the doors, the sweet bakery air hits your nose immediately. Baking breads and cakes, crispy and light croissants. It’s one of those smells in life you wish you could bottle and carry with you everywhere, just so you can be followed by an ever-lingering smell of baked goods. Huge glass cases display rows of decadent looking desserts, cakes, tarts, cupcakes, quiches, breads…the list goes on. Just some of the delicious sounding options on the menu include: chocolate caramel cheesecake, white chocolate raspberry cake, butter tarts and some of Catherine’s favourites, peanut butter Toblerone cheesecake and crème brule done between chocolate filo. Savoury items are also available, making Willow Cakes a great place to stop in for a quick lunch and coffee, in addition to getting some tasty treats. Tables are tucked into corners, and a large glass window gives patrons a nice peek into the kitchen, where all the baking magic happens.
Catherine says that it took a while for the Niagara-on-the-Lake community to buy into the bakery, but now, the door is constantly opening and closing, and there is a steady stream of customers, as well as a booming wedding and custom cake business. Willow Cakes and Pastries has a unique philosophy, and as Catherine explains, “we don’t use additives or preservatives and we don’t add chemicals to anything. So yes, our shelf life for most things is a day to two days, tops. We have no canned fruits in anything. Even in winter, I don’t change to canned, it’s all fresh and during the summer, it is all local. And that’s kind of been my philosophy through it all. There are times when I know I could cut a corner and buy something that would make something rise double the height and make it cheaper, or I could use a cheaper chocolate, but it isn’t who I am.” So in short, not only can you taste the quality, but you can be reassured that whatever it is you are eating from Willow Cakes, well, it’s worth the calories.
Catherine says she knew she wanted to be a pastry chef since the age of 14, when her Nan took her for tea at the King Edward Hotel in Toronto. She set a goal for herself that day: to be the pastry chef at the King Edward by the time she was 30; a goal she achieved. While she was still in high school, Catherine worked at Chudleigh’s Apple Farm baking pies. Afterwards, she went on to graduate from Pastry Arts at George Brown College and then went to study at the Callebaut Chocolate Institute in Belgium. Since that time, she has worked at the King Edward Hotel, Vintage Inns, Hillebrands Vineyard Café and Peller Estates Winery Restaurant. And ten years ago, she opened up Willow Cakes and Pastries.
Catherine has several objectives for her bakery, but above all, are uniqueness and flavour. She shares, “my goal is always that when people come in here, they don’t walk in and say, ‘oh, I’ve seen that somewhere else’. I spend most of my Sunday’s off going from bakery to bakery to make sure we are not like anybody else. I want people to come in and say, ‘that was the neatest dessert I’ve ever had.” She continues, “flavor is incredibly important to me also. I want my stuff to be mouth watering.” She is a chef constantly on the lookout for inspiration, whether that is from the latest LCBO Food and Drink magazine or through a food craze like the cronut. This is true of both the items available in the bakery everyday, and her wedding cakes. She says she loves doing wedding cakes and notes that she tries to make her cakes beautiful both inside and out. She recounts, “I’ve been to weddings where I eat the inside of the cake and can’t remember what it tasted like. Because at the end of the day, we don’t actually remember what something looks like, but if something tasted really great, then we remember.”
She notes that she is the type of person who loves to learn and to investigate new ideas and she attends at least two courses every year in Chicago. She explains that “most of my friends are not chefs, so I find with going to courses, it’s inspiring to just be working with other chefs. The classes help to relight my fire, because you can sometimes become very constant, and it becomes very safe to just go along. But, I can’t do that, especially because I have young apprentices. I have to keep ahead of them.”
At its core, baking really is a form of artistic impression, and Catherine explains it well when she says, “I go to bed at night and I dream up combinations. It’s like when I do a cake, I have to be able to visualize it in my head. I have to see it, and then I can make it. I’m a picture person.”
There is a difference between simply baking according to a recipe and baking, as Catherine puts it, “with passion”. She said she has learned this passion from several mentors during her career thus far, the earliest one being her Nan, someone who Catherine says, was definitely a passionate baker. She lived with her Nan while going to college, and they spent many nights baking together. She says her other mentors are Chef Chris Lippart, who was her coach when she was competing in pastry, and Chef John Higgins, who is the Director at George Brown Chef School. In reference to Higgins, Catherine says, “He made me cry so many times, but I think he is the one who turned me into who I am, because he didn’t allow me to have a substandard, he didn’t allow me to have an excuse, he just kept pushing.”
Catherine has had many memorable moments throughout her career thus far, one of them being participating in Cake Walk, a reality show in which she competed to make the best wedding cake. And while she didn’t win the competition, she notes, “we were competing against people who were master cake decorators, that’s all they do every day. I do everything from bread to croissants to desserts to cakes, so to even be asked to be on the show was an honour. Going into it, the most important thing to me was to win the flavour; it has to be the best flavour, and we did win that. I just thought that, if I can’t win the taste end of it, then I’m not doing what I should be doing.”
Other memorable moments include making the Canada Day cake every year for the parade in downtown Niagara-on-the-Lake. Catherine says that, “each year is trying to surpass the skills we have, the elements we have.” The Canada Day cake started out as a large Canadian flag, but the cakes have gotten more and more elaborate as the years have gone by. Catherines says that this last year they did a cake to commemorate the burning of the town, “so we made a giant town building and we had it on fire.” These Canada Day cakes need to feed between 2500 and 3000 people, so it is always a challenge to not only conceptualize it, but to then construct and transport it.
Catharine shares that at the end of the day though, her biggest accomplishment is the opening and successful running of Willow Cakes and Pastries. She smiles as she notes that she loves every day of being there. “So much of our time is spent trying to exceed people’s expectations,” she shares. Such dedication of course, shines a light on why Willow Cakes and Pastries is and will continue to be, such a success.
Willow Cakes and Pastries is located at 242 Mary Street in Niagara-on-the-Lake. The bakery is open daily, from 8am to 6pm. More information can be found at www.willowcakes.ca or by calling 905-468-2745