Pani Popo: Samoan coconut buns bring the islands to Vermont

Confession time. Have you ever stood in your house in the middle of winter, an open plastic container in your hand, taking sniff after sniff of…

…suntan lotion? Consider me guilty.

I just can’t help it. Sometimes when the snow just won’t go away, you need a reminder of warmer times past and future. Scent is the most powerful of the senses, according to many scientists, and can conjure up memories faster than touch or even sight. There’s even recent research that says we subconsciously choose our mates and partners partially based on how they smell to us.

So, back to my clandestine meetings with the Coppertone bottle. For me, the scent of suntan lotion reminds me of Hampton Beach, NH,where my family took a vacation nearly every summer. I remember my parents slathering up three kids, trying to work the thick white cream into our skin so we weren’t too streaky as we frolicked in the sand and surf. It reminds me too of my Dad, who never put enough lotion on himself, earning him the nickname “Lobster Legs.”

For a truly magical memory experience, give me a bottle of lotion heavy on the coconut scent. With one inhale I’m 17 again, spending a month in the Caribbean living on a desert island with only college students, goats, and iguanas for company.

We ate coconuts freshly picked from the palms, drank coconut water, coconut milk, ate coconut ice cream during our week in San Juan, and came to revere the humble coconut for all it could give us.

When I came across a recipe for Pani Popo, a sweet, soft bun bathed and baked in coconut, I was enchanted. When I made the first batch and tasted that first bite I was transported back to that island and beyond, into my lushest coconut dreams. The tender bun melted in my mouth, the thick sauce sweet on my tongue, and so richly coconut. I couldn’t help myself as I blissfully ate bite after bite, licking my fingers to get it all.

Finally, I came back to my senses and stopped. Susan Reid (who was in a similar state of love with the other half of the bun) awoke too, and we dutifully tromped off to Weight Watchers to atone, neither of us really feeling guilty about the points, knowing we had just tasted something special, totally tropical and bewitching to the palate.

Come along, we’ll make Pani Popo together.

Make sweet yeast dough using your favorite method (hand, machine, or bread machine on the dough cycle). Allow it to rise through the first rise.

Here’s a handy list of ingredients for the curious:
3 ½ cups (14 3/4 ounces) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
¼ cup granulated sugar
¼ cup Baker’s Special Dried Milk or nonfat dry milk
2 ¼ teaspoons instant or active dry yeast
3/4 cup lukewarm water
2 large eggs
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 ¼ teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon vanilla or Buttery Sweet Dough Flavor

Pat the dough into a rough rectangle about the size of a sheet of paper.

Using a bench knife or dough scraper divide the dough into 4 equal sections.

Divide each quarter into equal thirds to get 12 small rectangles of dough. If the end pieces seem a little scant, nip off a bit of dough from a larger piece and tuck it into the bottom of the skinny piece.

To form a nice smooth bun, you’ll roll the dough on the counter using your hand as a cage to keep it moving in circles. The best movement that I can think of that is similar is holding your glass by the rim and swirling your ice around like Dean Martin, small little circles all in the wrist.

Start with the ball of dough down near your thumb. It’s going to travel up and round to the left, headed towards your index finger.

As the ball travels up your hand, use the surface tension of the countertop, and press back with your pinkie, to keep the ball tight.

The ball will travel up to your fingertips. Use them to push it back down towards your thumb and keep repeating the motions, around and around. Don’t over-think it too much. Try to build up a rhythm.

If your dough ball just skitters around on the counter top and you can’t get any tension going, either the dough is too dry or the surface too floury. A wet cloth wiped over the surface will help it stick better.

Place the buns in a greased pan to rise. For big buns, use a 13″ x 9″ x 2″ pan. For REALLY big buns divide the dough into 9 instead of 12 pieces; and use a 9″ x 9″ x 2″ pan.

In a medium-sized saucepan whisk together:
1 cup coconut milk powder
1 ¼ cups water
½ cup sugar
½ tablespoon cornstarch
pinch of salt

Why whisk? Coconut milk powder tends to clump up, so whisking will work out most of those lumps ahead of time.

If you don’t have coconut milk powder, you can use canned coconut milk. Most cans are 13.5 to 14 ounces, so you may not use a full can. You’ll still need 1 1/4 cups.  If your can is smaller, you’ll need to add water to total the 1 1/4 cups of liquid called for. A drop or two of coconut flavoring wouldn’t hurt, either.

Place the pan over medium-low heat and bring to a low boil. Cook, stirring constantly, for about 5 to 7 minutes, until the sauce is slightly thickened.

Remove the sauce from the heat and pour over your risen buns. For this batch I was baking in a 9″ square pan. As you’ll see, these are big, big buns.

Be sure to pour sauce over the top of every bun. Its thick texture will cling a bit and coat the buns. Once this bakes to a golden brown, it’s as irresistible as the skin on a holiday turkey.

Looks a little like bubble tea, doesn’t it?

Bake the buns in a preheated 350°F oven for about 25 to 30 minutes, or until golden brown on top and the internal temperature of the center bun is 190°F.

You can either serve the buns straight from the pan, scooping up extra sauce with a spoon; or do a quick invert/re-invert to get the buns out of the pan and right side up again.

Soft, tender, and sporting a fine crumb, these buns rival any squishy dinner roll.

The sauce on the buns will have baked down to a thick, creamy, slightly jelled paste. It’s almost like warm coconut pudding. It looks a little funky, but OH, the flavor!

The force is strong in this one, and the coconut-y goodness as well!

You can learn more about my coconut obsession and time in Puerto Rico, plus score a great recipe for Coconut Ice Cream, in this post.

Please bake, rate, and review our recipe for Pani Popo.

Print just the recipe.

MaryJane Robbins
About

MaryJane Robbins grew up in Massachusetts and moved to Vermont 20 years ago. After teaching young children for 15 years, she changed careers and joined King Arthur Flour in 2005. MaryJane began working on King Arthur Flour's baker’s hotline in 2006, and the blog team ...

comments

  1. Viv

    We love pani popo and make it frequently for parties and potlucks. Here is a conversation from this morning:

    DH: Are we going to game night at church tonight? If we go we need to bring some food.

    Me: I guess I could make a pan of pani popo…

    DH: What about the family party on Sunday? What are we taking for that?

    Me: I guess I could make another pan of pani popo. But I’ll need some more flour first.

    DH: Didn’t we see some King Arthur flour when we were shopping a few days ago?

    Me: Yeah, but that was bread flour. I need all-purpose flour, not bread flour.

    Grandson (9-y-o): *with a confused look* You don’t want RED flour? Why do you want PURPLE flour?

    Me: Because purple’s my favorite color.

    Grandson: You don’t like RED? What’s wrong with RED? And don’t you like BLACK too? Black’s a pretty cool color.

    Me: *laughing* Tui, we’re talking about FLOUR, and I need ALL-PURPOSE flour, not BREAD flour.

    Grandson: *laughing too* Ooohhhhh….

    Reply
  2. Eric

    Just discovered your site and I love it! I supply items such as glass etching cream and stencils to crafters and wanted to see if you would test some of my products for free in exchange for feedback. Can you let me know if you are interested by email? These will be shipped directly to you at no cost. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts. I can’t wait to hear from you! Eric

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      Eric, we’re glad to hear you’re a fan of our website! While we’re honored to be asked to test your products, we don’t currently have a review program in place to provide this sort of feedback. However, if you’re interested in sending samples to our Merchandising Team as a prospective vendors, we do have a process we can share with you. If you’re interested in looking into this further, please send us an email and we’d be happy to assist you further. Kye@KAF

    1. MaryJane Robbins, post author

      Yes, you can leave out the dry milk powder and use 3/4 cup milk instead of the 3/4 cup water. ~ MJ

    1. The Baker's Hotline

      We havn’t tried a GF version of these buns, but you might try your favorite GF sweet roll recipe with the coconut sauce. Happy Baking – Irene@KAF

  3. KCarina

    I understand the starch will thicken the sauce, but will it be okay to avoid it? I have all the ingrdients, but ran out of starch.

    Reply
    1. The Baker's Hotline

      You may want to use a substitute or else it will not coat as well. Try using an instant clearjel or a quick cooking tapioca KCarina. Happy baking! Elisabeth@KAF

  4. Annie A

    yes….pani popo is awesome and Samoan! I grew up eating it every Sunday using fresh coconut milk…stronger coconut flavor!

    Reply

Post a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *