Sookyung Lee, a Niskayuna resident and the founder of Ppang Bakery, spent years trying to pin down the exact recipe for the milk bread she remembered eating as a child in South Korea.
“Then during quarantine … I was cooking up a storm and finally, I found this recipe for milk bread and I tried it, and it was very close. I had to tweak [it] a little bit, but I was so happy about it,” Lee said.
After recreating the sweet flavor and soft texture of the white bread she grew up enjoying, Lee recently began offering it to others in the Capital Region through Ppang Bakery.
The home-based bakery specializes in milk bread and Asian-inspired pastries. Lee takes orders on Instagram and delivers them to the Schenectady Trading Company each week. Recently, she’s also started offering decadent loaves of bread at the Saratoga Tea & Honey Company on select days. Starting in May, they’ll also be available at the Schenectady Greenmarket.
“I still don’t know how people found me. It’s going so much faster than I expected,” Lee said.
Food has been an important part of Lee’s since long before she founded Ppang. She came to the United States with her family in her late teens and moved throughout the country before settling in the Capital Region. For the past 20-plus years, she’s been a stay-at-home mom, raising three children.
“I always wanted to stay home. I love every aspect of homemaking — taking care of kids, baking, cooking,” Lee said.
One of her children has several health issues, so she continued to stay home as they grew older. But about four years ago, his health improved and she found she had more time on her hands. Friends suggested she take a culinary class at SUNY Schenectady County Community College.
“I had no idea what it meant. I thought it was just another cooking class, just learn a few more recipes,” Lee said “No, it was not. It was a professional culinary arts [program] … so I was totally taken by surprise, but I loved it. And I knew I couldn’t stop.”
Going back to school came with its ups and downs. It also made her reconsider her future.
“Every semester, when you start a class, the first class is getting to know each other. And they ask you, ‘So why are you here? What’s your dream?’ Half the class probably will say, ‘I’d love to own a restaurant of my own one day,’ and there was me and I was like, ‘I’m just happy to be here. This is my dream, going to school.’ ”
She didn’t expect to be able to work in a restaurant after graduation because of her inflexible schedule. However, one of her instructors connected her with Seneca Restaurant in Saratoga Springs, which was just about to open. There she became a prep cook, working early in the day.
Around that time, she also began using social media and posting dishes she’d cooked at home.
“I love all food so I cook everything. But mostly I always say I learned to cook because I love to eat and I could not find the food I loved to eat,” Lee said.
While she posted a mix of her cooking and baking specialties, last summer she became more focused on the latter as she secured a job as a baker at Sweet Mimi’s in Saratoga Springs.
“They’re all so very nice and I’ve bonded well with them, but it’s still not easy with my son because I was looking for more flexibility in hours. I thought, ‘You know what? I’ll just start selling something from home and see where it goes,’ ” Lee said.
Thus Ppang began. But it hasn’t been only about baking and selling bread. Through social media, Lee has dug into the processes and cultural significance of the foods.
“I think that’s part of the fun. When you get to know a food, a cuisine of a country, you get to know somehow a little bit about them,” Lee said.
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“Milk bread has been the latest trendy thing. You see it popping up in social media,” she said.
Through various Instagram posts, Lee explains that milk bread is made using tangzhong, or a paste made with flour and liquid cooked together to create starch.
“That’s what makes milk bread a lot more moist and therefore tender, and keeps better,” Lee said. Most sandwich bread has around a 60%-65% hydration level. Lee said hers is roughly 90%.
Another recipe of Lee’s that’s proved popular is cookie bread.
“It’s basically made up of bread and you put a cookie there, and bake it together so it’s bread and cookie in one. But it’s known by many different names all over Asia and there are different versions of it. It’s very popular. In Japan, it’s called ‘melonpan’ because the many cracks resemble the look of musk melon,” Lee said.
In Korea it’s known as soboro-ppang and instead of a cookie, it’s topped with streusel.
“Although my background is Korean and I’m a first-generation Korean, I love all food and I love especially Asian food. I didn’t want to limit myself to one thing. I want to be more Asian-inspired. So cookie bread would be a classic example of that. I take inspiration from different forms of cookie bread and put my twist on it,” Lee said.
There certainly seems to be a hunger for these treats. During her first day selling at Saratoga Tea & Honey, the milk bread loaves were gone within half an hour. From Lee’s experience, there’s been a surge in interest in Asian food and her customer base is wide-ranging.
“I’m finding all different groups,” Lee said. Some people are interested simply because they want to buy local products. “Also, in Saratoga Springs there are people who’ve heard about milk bread and it’s not available in the Capital District really, so they want to try it.”
Perhaps because of its wide appeal, Ppang Bakery has grown much faster than Lee expected, and when The Gazette spoke with her earlier this month she was facing her next challenge: expansion.
“I am still debating. Do I let it continue to grow? Because I am also going to be selling at Schenectady [Greenmarket] starting May. So with that, I don’t know how long I could continue to produce this at home. At what point do I start looking for a commercial kitchen? Or do I want to? All these questions are something I’m struggling with right now,” Lee said.
Under the home-processing license she’s currently utilizing there are limits on the types of ingredients she can use. Those would loosen if she started working in a commercial kitchen, allowing her to experiment more, especially when it comes to savory bread.
“If I could dream, I’d like everybody to experience what bread tastes like an hour or two hours after it came out of the oven. Nice and fresh. It’s hard to deliver that doing this drop-off. My house on Saturday and Sunday morning, I feel like I could broadcast the smell. It smells so good. I want people to experience that,” Lee said.
People can experience a bit of that scent at the Schenectady Trading Company and soon the Schenectady Greenmarket. For information, including on how to order for pickup at the Trading Company, visit Ppang Bakery (@ppang518) on Instagram.
What’s in a name?
Ppang means bread in Korean, though Lee suspects it has Spanish origins since the word for bread in Spanish is “pan.”
“Bread is not native to Korea so this came to Japan and Korea relatively modern, late 1800s, 1900s. So I think that’s where the word comes from,” Lee said.
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