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January 14, 2024

Delicious Queen Elizabeth cake

This story dates back to the fall of 1987, a few months after we opened our first restaurant. I had already decided that we would put all our efforts into offering our clientele amazing breakfasts. No one at that time could have guessed that this small business of 29 seats would become the first link in a long chain of restaurants that would stretch across this vast country.

To this day, I miss all those brave chaps in their construction boots sitting at the counter enjoying a delicious breakfast and a few cups of coffee, hoping to catch the eye of the boss, who was often too busy flipping their eggs on the grill to notice.

A little before noon one Friday in November, a worker from Hydro-Québec brought me his grandmother Pamela’s recipe for Queen Elizabeth cake, written out on a lovely piece of paper for the occasion.

Hidden behind a uniform, with JEAN-MARC embroidered on the left side in cobalt blue, the handsome electrician handed me the paper tied with a ribbon. His big steely eyes stared at me as if they were cutting a door straight into my heart.

I remember it as if it were only yesterday. These workers were all pleading for a smile, a little attention or some connection. I obliged by offering them a second bowl of soup, garnishing their eggs Benedictine with an extra spoonful of sauce or treating them to a double helping of the day’s dessert.

We had been open just a few months and I was still learning the ropes of being a restaurateur. Fortunately, I learned fairly quickly to read people and separate the looks of hunger from the big idle hands and unfulfilled hearts.

Now for the recipe!

First, take 1 cup of boiling water and pour it over 1 cup of finely chopped dates in a bowl. Add 1 teaspoon of baking soda, stir and let cool until mixture is warm.

It was probably what I found the most difficult when I was starting out – never truly knowing my customers. Never learning their stories or their real names, in many cases. Never hearing out loud what their eyes were dying to say. Never knowing what happened in their lives at night, when they returned home. Or why they visited our restaurant, what they found there and why, suddenly, without warning, they stopped coming.

IN A LARGE BOWL, cream ¼ cup of softened butter with 1 cup of white sugar. Whisk in a beaten egg. Add the dates, the water they soaked in and 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract.

In our first small restaurant, my kids and I were rebuilding our lives. We felt both sadness and joy. It was therefore easy to empathize with the sadness in others, which we absorbed like sponges. Perhaps this is also the reason why our 29 seats were so popular when we started out. We deeply loved our customers and they loved us. And the feeling was evident. You could sense it as the food arrived at the tables; you could hear it in the conversations of new customers, who would remark the same thing: “This place is different.”

IN ANOTHER BOWL, mix 1½ cups of flour with 1 teaspoon of baking powder and ¼ teaspoon of salt. Mix these ingredients into the date mixture until thoroughly combined. Incorporate ½ cup of chopped walnuts. Transfer the batter to a buttered 9-inch square baking dish. Cook for about 40 minutes or until a knife inserted into the centre comes out clean.

In a small saucepan, mix together 5 tablespoons of brown sugar, 3 tablespoons of butter, 2 tablespoons of whipping cream, and 1 cup of coconut flakes. Bring to a boil on medium heat and let cook for 3 minutes. While the cake is still hot, spread the icing on it. Place under the broiler for 2–3 minutes, until the top browns a little.

A few days after sharing his family recipe, the handsome JEAN-MARC gave his taste buds a shock when he sampled a slice of this delicious Queen Elizabeth cake. He swore that it was even better than his grandmother’s. Regrettably, he never came back to the restaurant after that. We were saddened by his absence.

Two years later, accompanying a young cook to the emergency who had taken my place at the stoves, I came across that electrician in the waiting room of Montreal’s Rosemont Hospital. He was crumpled over in grief. While an emergency doctor stitched up the employee’s partially detached finger, he told me about his wife’s cancer and how he had been going through a hellish time for the past two years. He had left his job in order to take care of her.

During the years when I was the cook in my first restaurants, the only bond I formed was an immense love for our customers and the restaurateur profession. I was the anonymous person they would confide in, a silent accomplice. I could soothe, if only momentarily, sorrow-filled eyes and the deep pain of a finger suddenly stripped of its wedding ring. I quickly realized that people’s misfortunes become lighter the more they are shared with a caring ear.