Thursday, February 28, 2013

Pani Popo: Samoan Coconut Buns

I have a love-hate relationship with my KitchenAid Stand Mixer.

On one hand, I love that it does pretty much all the hard work with most of my bread/cake/cookie recipes. Heck, it will knead my dough happily for the required 5-10 minutes while I put the ingredients away, wipe down the counter-tops, and sweep the floor. By the time my kitchen is sparkling clean, all I have to do is form the soft, supple dough into a ball and throw it in a bowl to rise. Bread making was never so easy!

On the other hand, my mixer has a ton of quirks that has led me to curse it on more than one occasion.

For example, I set out to make Pani Popo (pani = bread, popo = coconut), a Samoan bread staple that features a sweet dough formed into rolls and baked in a thick, rich coconut custard. It sounded different and pretty awesome since my crazy pregnant lady hormones have had me craving all things coconut as of late. The recipe is extremely straightforward: dump all your dough ingredients into the bowl of your stand mixer and knead away.

Sounds simple, right? And it was...until it came time for me to release the bowl from the base of the mixer.

It would not budge.

I gave it a couple good tugs and ended up pulling a muscle in my back. The bowl remained stuck tight. I unplugged the machine, straddled it on the kitchen floor, and grunted away like a caveman as I tried with all my might to free that dang mixing bowl. At one point, my newly kneaded dough went flying, but luckily I caught it before it fell to the floor for the cat to hurry over and inspect. After another couple minutes of struggling, I finally was able to twist the bowl out of the clutches of the mixer. By that time, I was red in the face from the strain and felt like I had just run a mile. I might as well have just kneaded the dough by hand.

At least these buns turned out to be one of the greatest things I have ever eaten. Baking the buns in the coconut milk enabled the flavor of the coconut to permeate the entire bun and form a wonderful "skin" on the top surface of each roll. A small amount of thick coconut custard (about the consistency of cream cheese frosting) remained at the bottom of the pan under each roll. As we pulled off a roll, one at a time, we would scoop the custard that remained beneath over the top. Heavenly. Paul had three the second they came out of the oven, and he is really not a huge fan of coconut. Matthew freaked out initially at the slight stickiness of the buns, but quickly got over it once he finally took a bite. Between the three of us, all twelve of the buns disappeared within 48 hours. This is definitely a recipe that I will be repeating. And probably soon. With all this nasty snow we have been having, I'll bake anything that might temporarily transport me to a tropical island.

Pani Popo
adapted slightly from King Arthur Flour

For the Sweet Yeast Dough:

3 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup dry milk powder
2 1/4 teaspoon instant yeast
3/4 cup lukewarm water
2 large eggs
4 tablespoons butter, softened
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For the Coconut Sauce:

1 1/4 cups coconut milk, well shakened/stirred
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch
A generous pinch of salt

Mix and knead the dough ingredients together by hand or in a stand mixer. If you're kneading in a stand mixer, it should take 5-7 minutes at second speed, and the dough should barely clean the sides of the bowl, perhaps sticking a bit at the bottom.

Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl. Cover the bowl, and allow the dough to rise, at room temperature, until it's nearly doubled in bulk, about 1 hour. Rising may take longer, especially if you've kneaded by hand. Give it enough time to become quite puffy.

While the dough is rising, grease a 9" x 13" pan.

Once the dough has completely risen, gently deflate the dough, and transfer it to a lightly greased work surface. Divide it into 12 pieces.  Shape each piece into a rough ball by pulling the dough into a very small knot at the bottom, then rolling it under the palm of your hand into a smooth ball.  Place the rolls in the pan, spacing them evenly; they won't touch one another. Cover lightly with plastic wrap and set aside to rise, about 45-60 minutes. About halfway though the rise, preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

During the last 20 minutes of rising, prepare the coconut sauce. Combine all of the sauce ingredients in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring constantly, until thickened slightly, about 5-7 minutes. Pour the warm, thick sauce over the risen buns and bake in the preheated oven for 18-25 minutes, until the buns are golden brown on top and the internal temperature registers 190 degrees on an instant-read thermometer.

Serve the warm buns from the pan, scooping up the thick sauce with a spoon and spreading it over the top of each individual bun. Store, wrapped airtight, in the refrigerator and gently reheat individual buns in the microwave for 30 seconds on 50% power before serving. So delicious.


  1. Can't wait to try this. With another day notice, it would've been on my Thanksgiving table along with my sushi!

    1. I hope you do get the chance to make these! I found them so incredibly addicting and even my coconut-hating husband loved them!

  2. I just made my first batch using a different recipe which didnt include the dry powder milk or any milk for that natter but next batch Im definitely trying your recipe

  3. I love this recipe sooo much thanks for making my life so much better and making this amazing blog.

  4. Hi, just wondering what can be used instead of the dry milk powder?


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