How a Chilean Christmas fruitcake brings comfort to a Montreal-area baker

Liliana Aguilar Cerda is filling a need by baking pan de pascua for her fellow Chilean-Montrealers. But the baking experience has also filled her own need for comfort.

For Chilean-Montrealers, pan de pascua is a nostalgic link to homeland

Liliana Aguilar Cerda in her Laval home kitchen holding a freshly-baked pan de pascua. (Submitted by Liliana Aguilar Cerda)

Liliana Aguilar Cerda was keeping something to herself as she handed out freshly baked Chilean Christmas fruitcake from her Laval home's front door last year.

It was late into January — well past the holiday season during which the traditional cake, called pan de pascua, makes frequent appearances on Chilean tabletops.

But Aguilar Cerda, who bakes her cakes to order, says people buy from her almost year-round — some aren't even Chilean — and by that point, she needed the distraction anyway.

She had just received a diagnosis of breast cancer and didn't plan on telling anyone any time soon.

So the accountant baked.

"I found refuge in the kitchen," she said, where the perfume of cloves, cinnamon, ginger, vanilla and cognac (or rum) brought her comfort and memories of times spent with family during the holidays.

The recipe comes from her grandmother, who passed away shortly before Aguilar Cerda and her family moved to Montreal in 1979, when Aguilar Cerda was sixteen. The family had been exiled from Chile under the Pinochet dictatorship.

"My grandma didn't make it like everybody else," she said. Hers was a spin-off of a German fruitcake to which she added the pan de pascua essentials like almonds, nuts, raisins soaked in cognac (or rum) and candied fruits of all sorts.

Aguilar Cerda learned the secret when, in 1988 at the age of 26, she  returned to Chile for a couple of years to reconnect with her roots. Her aunt had carefully conserved the recipe in a notebook.

Aguilar Cerda brought it back to Canada along with some key ingredients like vanilla and pan de pascua extract tucked inside her suitcase.

Liliana Aguilar Cerda, pictured at the age of 16 at a potluck at her Montreal high school, École Secondaire St-Luc. Her contribution was Chilean calzones rotos. (Submitted by Liliana Aguilar Cerda)

Back in Montreal, she would frequently bake pan de pascua to give to friends and family, selling it occasionally at cost or trading it for other goods — one time, for a dresser.

It wasn't until her mother was diagnosed with cancer six years ago, that she started charging more consistently.

"I would spend most of my time at the hospital and parking was expensive," she remembered.

Selling her cakes for $30 on Facebook helped her recoup those costs — and the income she was losing by taking two to three days off work every week to help her mom.

Things got even more complicated, and expensive, when her father was also diagnosed with cancer in 2019.

By the time Aguilar Cerda got her own diagnosis in January, 2020, her father had been bedridden for a few weeks and she decided to keep quiet about her own condition.

"Since I'm the eldest, and I was bringing my father to his appointments, I was bringing my mother to her appointments, I didn't want to give the impression that I also was sick," she said.

José Lopez (left) receives his Chilean Christmas cake from Liliana Aguilar Cerda. (CBC)

So she kept on baking all the while carrying her "little secret" which she only revealed to her family the day before her surgery four months later.

A welcome distraction

Aguilar Cerda continues to bake, saying it helps distract from the pain caused by some of her treatments.

On one of her delivery trips, in February 2021, she dropped off some pan de pascua for Aracely Sepulveda near Notre-Dame hospital on her way to an appointment.

Sepulveda, her husband and their two kids had just moved to Canada three weeks earlier and were staying in an Airbnb for a month until they could find an apartment.

The cake was just what they needed.

"It brought back all those memories," said Sepulveda, who reminisced about leaving a piece of pan de pascua with a glass of cola de mono — a spiced Chilean holiday drink made with pisco (although Aguilar Cerda makes it with aguardiente) — for Santa Claus, or el Viejito Pascuero.

"It's sentimental because you wouldn't imagine you'd find pan de pascua — and a good one on top of that," she said. "So finding it here meant having a bit of our roots, a bit of that warmth from family."

Aguilar Cerda said those feelings are part of the reason why she's always liked baking the dessert, and other traditional foods, for Chileans in Montreal.

"It brings me great pleasure when people write to me saying they found Chile in my bread," she said. "I know what it's like, when you've been away for so long."

This will be Sepulveda's first Christmas in Canada and she's made sure to place a couple orders so that the holiday meals have a Chilean touch.

This is the busiest time of the year for Aguilar Cerda. For many Chileans living in Montreal, pan de pascua represents family, she said.

She is sure to have some on her own table this week, although a modified version with less sugar, along with empanadas, pan amasado (homemade bread) and humitas (steamed corn cakes).