The majestic Queen Elizabeth cake
We were in our first restaurant, where each day, tens of good-looking chaps would sit at the counter enjoying a delicious breakfast, two or three cups of coffees, and of course, the attention of the pretty owner who was turning their crêpes at the stove. 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 down on a lovely piece of paper for the occasion.
Hidden behind a uniform, with JEAN MARC attractively 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. They were all pleading for a smile, a little attention, which prompted me to offer a second bowl of soup, garnish their burger with another spoonful of sauce or treat 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. I already understood just how difficult it was not being able to do more for these steel-toed construction fellas who asked for more real butter with the same tone of voice they used to recount their mad adventures.
Fortunately, I learned fairly quickly to put things into perspective and recognize that unmistakeable look of hunger, big idle hands and unfulfilled heart.
Alright, the recipe! Set the oven to 350°F.
- First, take 1 cup of boiling water and pour it over 1 cup of finely chopped dates in a bowl. Add a 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 simply vanished.
- In another 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 a 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 in the food arriving at the table, 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 a teaspoon of baking powder and ¼ tsp. of salt.
- Mix together the batter and date mixture, until thoroughly combined.
- Add 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.
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.
- In a small saucepan, mix together:
5 tbsp. of brown sugar
3 tbsp. of butter
2 tbsp. of whipping cream
And 1 cup of coconut flakes
- Bring to a boil on medium heat and let cook for 3 minutes.
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. 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 back the employee’s finger that was partially detached, he told me about his wife’s cancer and how he had been going through hell for the past two years. He had left his job in order to take care of her. In the end, not knowing more about my customers was what allowed me to stay focused.
I had only an immense love for my profession as a restaurateur. Yes, I loved serving people and doing things for others that brought them happiness. I could soothe those sorrow-filled eyes at least momentarily; I had quickly realized that other people’s misfortunes become lighter the more they are shared with a caring ear.
All my love! ❤️