Valentyn Shtefano's pastries were known for attracting stares and giggles as well as lip-smacking murmurs. But even his fiancee was surprised when Shtefano told her he was making her wedding dress out of flour, eggs, sugar and caramel.
The dress made of 1,500 cream puffs and weighing 20 pounds took the 28-year-old baker two months to make, and by the end of the wedding reception, bride Viktoriya said she didn't want to take it off.
Shtefano is a rising star in the field of baking as visual art, earning him a following in this city near the border with Slovakia. His creations have generated a buzz in a place where cake is often layers of heavy cream, wafers and nuts or poppy seeds more something to eat than to look at.
''At first glance, it's really a surprise. I didn't even believe it was a cake,'' said Olha Nemyataya, who sampled some of Shtefano's new desserts. ''Nowhere in Uzhhorod have I seen things like this.''
Shtefano, whose fingernails are stained with food coloring, is eager to introduce new sweets to this city of 125,000, which has a center full of new businesses and cafes but is otherwise dominated by gray Soviet-era apartment buildings.
He got his first job as a baker six years ago. Last year, he took a three-month baking course in Paris and entered an international baking competition with his sister. They made a 2-foot-long 1920s-era Cadillac from cream puffs and caramel, and took third place.
Some of Shtefano's cakes are strictly for mature audiences, like a pair of breasts on display at a pizzeria where his goods are sold. But he also created an elaborate Easter cake that drew hundreds to a cathedral. It was a black and gold globe hatching from an Easter egg, with pieces of eggshell on top of the globe and falling off to the side. It was too pretty to eat.
His biggest challenge was the wedding dress cake. At first, he sewed empty cream puffs together, but the dress collapsed. Then, he carefully attached the puffs to a wedding dress frame, and Viktoriya spent a couple hours each night before the wedding modeling the dress as Shtefano added more puffs. Her crown, bouquet and necklace were made from caramelized sugar.
''At first, it was even a little embarrassing,'' Viktoriya Shtefano said of the dress she wore to the couple's reception in August at Uzhhorod's 1,200-year-old castle. ''Cameras, interviews, but after a couple of hours, I didn't even want to take it off.''
The baker hopes to someday open a business with his sister in Ukraine, believing there's more room for skillful bakers here than in Paris. ''Here you can buy jobs,'' he said. ''You want to be president, governor, (parliament) deputy, OK. But my job you can't buy you have to do it.''
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