This is Baby Tony," announces Kris Owczarek with fatherly pride as he hoists a swaddled basket up onto the front counter at Edmonton's Canova Pasticceria.
His wife and business partner, Carla Roppo-Owczarek, beams as he unwraps the cloth to reveal a glistening, golden blob of fragrant dough. Baby Tony is the starter for Canova's traditionally made panettone. He resides at the cozy northside bakery, which is sandwiched on a side street between a busy thoroughfare and the bustling CN railways. Baby Tony will provide leavening for the thousands of panettone – a Milanese sweet loaf traditionally served for Christmas and New Year's – that Canova intends to produce for the impending holiday season.
It isn't a task for those with an aversion to commitment. And the Roppo-Owzcareks are averse to neither commitment nor risk.
Their story began in 2011 when Ms. Roppo-Owczarek, a self-described Food Network junkie who longed to work in the food industry, found herself with more free time as her children were starting school. Around then, local biscotti bakery DeFazio Gourmet was on the market. The couple, neither of them formally trained bakers, were intrigued enough to check it out.
"We asked if they were willing to train us if we bought the business, and they were. So we said, 'Let's do this!'" she recalls. The pair dove into the world of Italian cookies, acquiring the business in January, 2012, and did a brisk business selling biscotti of many flavours to local coffee shops.
Amber Bracken/for The Globe and Mail
The pair was eager to branch out, and Mr. Owczarek travelled to Italy to learn as much as possible about the art of intricate Italian pastries. The Roppo-Owczareks were also eager to master the difficult art of making panettone, as they were continually dismayed with store-bought versions ("They are so dry," bemoans Ms. Roppo-Owczarek). Mr. Owczarek, however, was shocked to discover that the majority of Italian bakers used a prepackaged mix instead of committing to the arduous and days-long method of baking them from scratch.
"Luckily, he found a few bakers in Milan who still made panettone the old way," recalls Ms. Roppo-Owczarek. Her husband returned with a new-found skill set, and eagerly set about fermenting raisins to create the basis for a sweet dough starter.
Thus, in 2014, Baby Tony was born. Tony, like a human infant, demands feeding every few hours. Fed with flour, the wild yeasts from the fermented raisins burp a constant stream of bubbles that will give the panettone its characteristic loft. After 18 hours have elapsed, copious amounts of egg yolks, butter and candied fruits are mixed in, and the dough is portioned out and shaped into rounds. It rises again before it is baked.
Amber Bracken/for The Globe and Mail
"After you bake it, you have to hang them upside down or they collapse under their own weight and end up like a sad pancake," says Ms. Roppo-Owczarek with a laugh. "I'm not sure if anyone else in Canada is making panettone this way," adds Mr. Owczarek.
Canova has largely flown under the radar until now.
"Last year, we sold our panettone out of Sobeys and Sunterra Market in Edmonton, as well as a few places in Calgary, but we're trying to branch out into retail,"says Ms. Roppo-Owczarek. The pair hopes that this will change as word spreads of their commitment to their chosen craft. She adds, "We're hoping to create a buzz, but moving into retail from wholesale is a whole different beast. It's challenging, especially in this economy."
Canova Pasticceria has dipped its toes into the uncertain waters of retail sales by offering sweet and savoury pastries, amaretti cookies, and nutella brownies, in addition to biscotti and panettone. They recently started brewing Seattle-based Caffe Umbria coffee. While the temptation to dabble in more baked goodies lurks in the background, the Roppo-Owczareks know that their strength lies in their specificity, and with Baby Tony.
"We're small, so we can't do everything," says Ms. Roppo-Owczarek. "If it grows, we'll be ready. In the meantime, we will just keep doing what we love here."