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

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 ...


  1. Gambles

    I’ve really been looking forward to trying this recipe as I already bought the coconut milk powder from KAF, but I’m finding myself intimidated by the description of rolling the buns on the counter to get the correct “tension.” So I have to ask: Is the goal just to make round buns which could be done with one hand on the counter or simply between both hands OR is there something to that word “tension” that I’m overthinking – exactly as the instructions say NOT TO! I can make round dough balls, but if my goal is more than that, I guess I need a little more clarification please.

    “Tension” is a hard technique to describe. When rolling the dough between your hand and the counter, you will feel the dough suddenly “tighten up” into a nice round (smaller) ball. You can use plenty of pressure as you cup your hand. You can also roll the dough between both hands, but you will not achieve the tension you would with the counter technique. Still, don’t over think it, practice makes perfect. Betsy@KAF

  2. Hanaa

    These sound amazing. I would love to make them but I’m allergic to coconut (so, coconut powder and coconut milk are not an option). Any thoughts on what I could substitute? Milk, half-n-half??

    You could likely do a switch to any favorite flavor using some a tweaking: I would use an equal amount of dried milk powder to replace the coconut milk powder, keep the rest of the ingredients the same, and add a drop or three of your favorite flavoring (almond, hazelnut, vanilla, etc.). If the sauce looks thin, add 1-2 Tbs more of milk powder and cook down gently until thickened. You could also do half milk and half condensed milk to replace the coconut milk powder and water in the sauce recipe (I’d watch the sugar if you sweetened condensed milk as it is quite sweet on its own!). Then cook down with the cornstarch and salt to create a sauce! Happy Experimenting! We ‘d love to hear back if take on the changes! Kim@KAF

  3. Mardee

    I know my project for tomorrow!! Mmmmm coconut. P.S. LOVE the Star Wars quote “The force is strong in this one”
    I realized a couple of weeks ago that my 18 year old didn’t know who Lando Calrissian was. *sigh* . Where did I go wrong? 🙁 ~ MaryJane

  4. AnnieN

    I had these on my first trip to Hawaii when I was 15. I didn’t know what it was called but it would haunt me for the next 20 years. I scoured Hawaii dessert books and websites. Then a couple of years, it occured to me that that it might be Polynesian or Samoan. I whooped with joy when I finally found out what it was called (gotta love Google). It’s really delicious, rich and luscious without being cloying and heavy. Do make these rolls and the sauce. It really is all about that delicious coconut sauce.

  5. livingintheburg

    I grew up eating these and have made them since I was an adult. My husband is Samoan and we have these all the time though never with coconut powder – always with one can of coconut milk and I add about 1/4 c of cornstarch not the teaspoon. It is quite common to freeze the dough in advance and then thaw it when you’re ready to let it rise. Hope that helps those who are looking for the powder and can’t find it. Any main grocery store has canned coconut milk available in the Asian section of the grocery store including Wal-marts.

  6. mrstwinkeys76

    I was wondering if I can let rolls rise overnight in the fridge and make sauce and bake them the next day. I would like to take to work but I don’t want to have to get up at 4am to make them fresh.

    I think that would work out just fine. Enjoy! ~ MaryJane

  7. Melodymom

    These were fabulous for my son’s graduation breakfast. Softest, sweetest rolls I’ve ever made. Remind me so much of ones my Grandma made except even better with the sweet coconut sauce. Nice change, too, from cinnamon rolls (although we still love those). Thanks so much for the great recipe and helpful step-by-step directions with hints for substitutes (I wanted to cry when I first read the recipe and it called for coconut milk powder until I saw the directions suggested the coconut milk substitute – it worked just fine).

  8. CiCi

    Coconutty High!! From an Asian shop, I bought a frozen bag of young coconut ribbons, finely processed a hefty 1/4 cup of fresh coconut with about 2 TBSP of the juice and added that to the sauce. The ingredients of your sauce is similar to Haupia (Hawaiian Pudding of my childhood). Opted for the 9×13 pan. Oh my! The 9-inch pan must produce killer size buns as the 9×13 rolls were super generous. Sighhh! If you love coconut, these are eye closing, mouth watering bites of coconutty bliss!! Mahalo for sharing your Pani PoPo with us. BTW, PoPo is chinese for Grandmother.

    Thanks for sharing your authentic tips with those of us on the mainland! Now, if we could jet over to do some action research.and soak up some sun…. Irene @ KAF

  9. Viv

    These were awesome. I made the dough in my bread machine on the dough cycle. Only change I made was to substitute a half cup hi-maize flour, and canned coconut milk since I didn’t have any powdered. My Samoan son-in-law loved them and said the only thing he’d want done differently is more of the coconut pudding on top, haha. Have to say the ones straight out of the oven were much nicer than the ones leftover until the next morning, though.

  10. Stephanie

    We usually LOVE all the KAF recipes I try, but for us, these were a real miss – sorry. My husband loves coconut, so I made these as soon as I saw the blog, following the recipe exactly. We both agreed they were like damp dinner rolls that tasted faintly of coconut- very disappointing. Our college-age son, who will normally eat anything, didn’t touch them, complaining of the “slime.”
    Sorry to hear these didn’t work out for you. ~ MaryJane


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