Schenectady

Ppang Bakery in Schenectady continues to expand after more than a year of inspiring cuisine

Ppang owner Sookyung (Sue) Lee, right, stands next to her daughter, Ellie Lee, inside the B. Inspired storefront at 1671 Union St. in Schenectady, where she shares kitchen space with Storied Coffee & Milk Teas. Her bakery items are available at the Green Market in Schenectady each Sunday.
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Ppang owner Sookyung (Sue) Lee, right, stands next to her daughter, Ellie Lee, inside the B. Inspired storefront at 1671 Union St. in Schenectady, where she shares kitchen space with Storied Coffee & Milk Teas. Her bakery items are available at the Green Market in Schenectady each Sunday.

It has been over a year since Sookyung Lee opened Ppang Bakery.

Back then, the Asian-inspired bakery was an online-only shop and sold just two main products: milk bread — a Japanese bread known for its incomparable cloud-like crumb and delicately sweet taste — and cookie bread — a sweet bun topped with cookie dough that has variations throughout Japan, Hong Kong, Korea and other Asian countries.

These baked goods were wholly different from the standard white loaf or classic chocolate chip cookies that are typically seen in an American bakery, and they gave the Capital Region a new glimpse into Asian cuisine.

“When you get familiar with food, you get to know the culture,” said Lee. “People have heard about milk bread but they have never tried it because, as far as I know, there isn’t another place that carries milk bread in the Capital Region so they would come up to me and go ‘ah, I’ve wanted to try it so much!’”

Now, Ppang Bakery has expanded beyond its beginning staples and exclusively online platform. With a wider variety of treats and new partnerships with other local restaurants, the bakery has begun to make an even greater mark in the Capital Region.

Rewind, however, and Ppang Bakery had humble beginnings that stretched far before the shop’s 2021 opening.

Lee was born in Seoul, South Korea in 1970, and she grew up there until the age of 16 when her family immigrated to California. She has moved around multiple times since first arriving in the U.S., making a home in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Idaho until she finally settled in the Capital Region.

No matter where she was at any point in her life, Lee had one constant: her love for food. Her first memory of food came when she was around five or six years old. She was in South Korea at this time, and dalgona, a sort of sugar candy, was a popular street snack. Her parents did not allow her to have street food, but her cravings were too strong to ignore. 

“One day, when my mom was away, I convinced my nanny that we could [make it],” Lee said, laughing as she recalled the memory. “We tried making it and we burned the ladle completely.”

Despite the disaster, Lee’s fascination for food and, naturally, cooking and baking continued on. As she traveled from place to place, Lee fell in love with every cuisine she tried. In Chicago, she was introduced to Indian food, and she loved it so much, she began making it herself at home. To her, this curiosity and experimentation were natural.

“I just love food, I love making anything and everything,” Lee said.

Her passion grew even stronger when a few years ago, she took a class, Food Preparation, at Schenectady County Community College.

“It was a very simple class because Food Prep starts with knife skills,” Lee said. “But I was like ‘this is it’ — this was the passion I was feeling cooking at home and nobody understood. And they understand, being around and surrounded by people who are as passionate about it.”

She went on to graduate from the college’s culinary program and work at three restaurants as a chef and pastry chef.

But Lee is a self-described introvert and her role as a mom to her three children was the most important job for her, so although food was her life passion, she vowed to never open a business. It was her daughter and “partner-in-crime,” Ellie Lee, who pushed her to begin selling her food.

“I think my whole life I’ve grown up hearing friends and family say ‘your mom should open a restaurant, she should open a bakery, she’s so good,” Ellie Lee said. “I would bring my lunches to school and all my friends would want to eat it, so I think my whole life I was like, ‘she totally has it in her.’”

“I remember we’re laying in our bed together and dreaming about it and she was making labels, logos, just pretending,” the elder Lee said. “One day she said ‘mom, we cannot just play around with it anymore, we have to decide.’”

And so, pushing through years of reluctance and doubt, Lee decided to go for it. After a couple of months of planning and taste-testing, Ppang Bakery came to life in March of 2021. She chose the name “ppang” — “bread” in Korean — as an homage to her lifelong love for the baked good.

Lee started off by partnering with The Schenectady Trading Co. and selling her products through pre-order. Though her selection was small, with only milk bread and a couple of cookie breads, Caroline Bardwell, the founder of The Schenectady Trading Co., said the bakery was still incredibly unique.

“What she’s doing is very different from what anyone else is doing,” said Bardwell. “I had a lot of people travel to come and get her products because there’s not really that much of a presence in the area for Asian baked goods.”

In April of 2021, Lee began supplying milk bread loaves and matcha cookie breads to Saratoga Tea & Honey Co., and in May, she opened a stand at the Schenectady greenmarket that she has attended every other Sunday.

As Ppang Bakery pressed on, the menu began its expansion: mochi crunch cookies, black sesame crisps, pastel bread, all of which feature ingredients from different Asian regions.

Of course, being from South Korea, Lee could have chosen to focus solely on Korean-inspired goods. But Lee’s creations knew no bounds, and if she confined herself to solely Korean cuisine, her food would not be authentic to her life and her love for all types of cuisines.

“I’ve lived here in L.A., Chicago, Boise, here and I experience all different food and I love them all,” Lee said. “It’s basically what I love, and I wanted to have that freedom to express it and show all different Asian cuisines. That’s why it’s ‘Asian-inspired bakery,’ not just Korean bakery.”

So, Ppang Bakery offers baked goods with touches from several Asian cuisines, such as matcha from Japan, dried persimmons from Korea, and yuzu which originates from China and the Tibetan region.

Fast forward to today, and it is clear that Ppang Bakery has reached even greater heights in the Capital Region. Just this past April, Lee began a partnership with Storied, a coffee and milk tea cafe with locations in Scotia and Niskayuna, to sell her products. Every Saturday, Lee drops off her pre-order sales at the Union Street location, as well as a few extra to sell to walk-in customers throughout the weekend. 

“I’m a big fan of what they’re doing and I wanted to bring them into the mix with Storied because we do bubble tea and that is Asian in origin and I thought those two things would complement each other really well,” said Rich Sarnacki, one of the co-founders of Storied. “What I love the most about it probably is that they’re bringing a modern take to traditional Korean, but largely just Asian-inspired, flavors in the realm of baked goods.”

Ppang Bakery has also found its way onto the menu at Rhea, a Saratoga ramen restaurant that opened its doors in late April. Lee’s famed milk bread can be spotted in the description of the restaurant’s shaved beef sliders, which, with their shaved beef, wasabi aioli and kimchi dusted chips, require a sturdy Ppang Bakery milk bread bun to hold them all together. 

In the future, Lee hopes to someday have the space and time to be able to offer even more foods and have them available to be bought and eaten immediately.

“I want to share more things, but I am limited right now,” said Lee. “Even with milk bread — I would love it if people could smell the bread baking or they could buy it half an hour after it was baked, or I could introduce more products I love, but I can’t right now for different reasons.” 

She also hopes to continue using her food to educate people on the breadth and significance of Asian cuisine.

“In the end, it’s just a delicious food, nothing else, but in the process maybe they will get to know a little more about Korea, a little more about Asia, what their flavor is, how they partake in their food or different things, and what it means,” Lee said. “We try to kind of slowly educate about things that people might not be familiar with in this area.”

Lee foresees her partnerships with both Rhea and Storied to be long-term. In fact, Ppang Bakery recently hosted a dessert pop-up at Storied on Union Street, where they completely sold out of their products, including mochi brownie parfaits, cotton cheesecakes, and chiffon cakes with lychee whipped cream and a lemongrass rhubarb compote.

“I think this is a really good partnership,” said Lee. “We mutually benefit from each other and our customers benefit from discovering each other’s business.”

Right now, Lee is taking a short break from the bakery to visit South Korea with her family for the first time in years. She plans to return from Seoul, a city she labels a “bakery haven,” inspired to continue making new creations and sharing them with the community.

“I have a desire, a passion, to share with the town I fell in love with,” Lee said. “Food is my love language.

Ppang Bakery plans to resume business in July, and they will return to the Schenectady greenmarket on July 24.

Categories: News, Schenectady, Schenectady County

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