Korean bakery will open in downtown Columbia this month

Monday, September 17, 2012 | 6:59 a.m. CDT; updated 9:51 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, September 18, 2012
Helena Shih, who has been baking since she was a teenager, is the owner of the new UKneadSweets bakery. Shih plans to feature unique items such as Asian sweet breads and French style treats, as well as traditional baked goods in her bakery.

COLUMBIA — Some of Helena Shih's most vivid childhood memories are the daily walks her family would take by the local bakery in Daegu, South Korea.

For Shih's hard-working family, desserts were a luxury.

"I would get a birthday cake every two or three years, sometimes longer than that," Shih said.

Although she couldn't have cake, she loved looking at the puff pastries on the counter and the ice cream cones in the front window.

"I remember the aroma, it was was so soothing," Shih said. "But all I could do was look through the window and watch the other families eat sweets."

Forty years later, Shih, 50, is on the other side of the window. She is about to open UKneadSweets, an Asian-inspired restaurant and bakery at 808 Cherry St. in downtown Columbia.

UKneadSweets will offer the same desserts that Shih fell in love with as a child in South Korea — red bean sweetbread, green tea-flavored shaved ice, French macaroons and chocolate mousses.

"The Asian palette is lighter and less sweet," Shih said. "I think that the people in Columbia will be more open to trying new things."

Red bean sweetbread is the most popular dessert in Korea, made with flour, butter, eggs, sugar and red bean paste. Shih carefully kneads, proofs and shapes her dough into the traditional round bun shape, but she adds a "secret ingredient."

"Many people think the red beans are chocolate," Shih said laughing. "They get a surprise when they realize it's beans."

Although Shih's focus is on Korean desserts, she will sell cookies, cupcakes, brownies and other American desserts. 

"One of my favorite desserts is the MIZZOUster," she said. "It's a brownie-cookie combo that I think students will love."

The MIZZOUster has a brownie base and a cookie top with three flavors of chocolate chips — bittersweet, semi-sweet and milk chocolate.

With only three weeks left until opening day, Shih has increased the number of trips from her home in Jefferson City.

Shih has been making those trips since July 2011 to monitor the progress of the bakery, review business plans and finalize menus, while her husband oversees her late father's restaurant, Yen Ching, in Jefferson City.

"It's scary. It's stressful. But I think about my father opening his business, with little English speaking skills," she said. "I see how much hard work he had to do. Pursuing the dream— that's why he brought us here."

Shih's family of six emigrated from South Korea to Berkeley, Calif., in 1974. Besides adjusting to a new culture and language, Shih discovered something that would change her life. An oven.

At that time, the majority of South Korean households didn't have them, and the ordinary person couldn't afford to buy cakes and desserts from a bakery.

So, it was a surprise when a neighbor brought a cake to the Shih's home to welcome them to the neighborhood.

Shih recalls standing at the door, marveling at the yellow confection her neighbor held in her hands.

"I was amazed, like 'Wow, you can make this?'," she said. "My neighbor came into the apartment and showed us how to use the oven, and taught me how to bake a cake." 

In 1976, her family moved to Jefferson City, where her father opened his Chinese restaurant on Missouri Boulevard.

"My father wanted me to help run the business," his daughter recalled. "When I went to MU, he would call me and say, 'Helena, make sure you come back!'"

A year after graduation, Shih's father died unexpectedly, and she took over the family business with her mother and younger brother, Lucas.

For the next 28 years, Shih ran Yen Ching, raised a family of four with her husband, Allen, and polished her baking skills at the Chicago Culinary Institute.

"I had always wanted to get professional training, but I couldn't with children and a family business," she said. "When my children became teenagers, they didn't need my attention as much, so I decided this would be a perfect time to go."

For three months, Shih flew to Chicago to take classes where she learned to make bread, scones, chocolate, candies and jellies. Then, she enrolled in weekend master's classes where the chefs taught her to make macaroons, puff pastries and other French delicacies. 

"I had to pinch myself," she said. "Here I am, this homemaker sitting among all these chefs."

At home, she practiced the desserts, testing them on family and friends.

One of her friends, Alice Hansen, recalls a hand-painted butterfly cake Shih made for her wedding shower.

"I had never seen a more beautiful cake," Hansen said. "But, the most amazing thing was that she went to Chicago to get some of the ingredients. She always gives her best. That's the type of person she is."

After years of baking, Shih decided to start writing her recipes down. The first was for an Oreo cookies and cream cupcake.

"That was the first time that I put my dream on paper," she said. "I thought, 'I'm 50, I don't have many physical years left. This is the time to do it.'"

A year ago last summer, she found the space at 808 Cherry St. while walking downtown with her daughter, Erica.

"The windows were taped up, and I wasn't sure about the space," she said. "I thought it was too small, so I decided to keep looking."

For the next seven months, Shih looked at other possibilities, but none fit the vision for her bakery.

In March, Shih still hadn't found the perfect property, so she decided to revisit the space on Cherry Street.

"I just knew the space had to be taken," Shih said. "It was the perfect location for a bakery."

Disappointed, she started to walk away, but her daughter encouraged her to call the real estate agent.

"She knew that this was a dream for me," she said. "She told me, 'Mom, you have to call.'"

To Shih's delight, the space was available: "I knew at that moment that God had saved this place for me." 

By July, Shih had the lease and the keys. Since then, with the help of family and friends, she has been working hard to get her bakery open by the end of September.

Judy Perovich, a long-time friend, has been with her every step of the way.

"I was just going to help her pick out colors," she said. "But it's turned out to be more than that."

Perovich's favorite project has been designing the main seating area for a restaurant, which features a curved wall covered with words that refer to baking ingredients, such as mocha, chocolate and caramel.

"I really love this wall," Perovich said. "I want it to be the best. I'm just excited for what God's doing in her life."

While standing in the middle of her future bakery, Shih reflects on how far she's come from her small Kitchen-Aid mixer and how far she has to go.

"I'm anticipating those 14- to 16-hour days. But I think about my father opening a restaurant barely knowing any English," Shih said.

"If he could do it, I can do it. It's what he would've wanted."

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