If you’ve never heard of pani popo, then consider me as your spiritual guide into this delicious bread. It’s a Samoan coconut bun that’s made up of a sweet dinner roll that has a rich coconut sauce poured over just before it’s baked. The popularity of this has even stretched here, where I’ve seen it on several dessert tables at local parties. It wasn’t until I was scrolling through King Arthur Flour’s recipe collection (something that I do a lot of now) that I actually saw how to make it. I have far less apprehensions about bread at this point, so I decided to give this one a shot. If you’re new to baking bread, I highly suggest starting with recipes from King Arthur Flour. At this point, they haven’t failed me- with each new recipe I’ve tried from them being super easy to work through and producing really delicious food. Like many of the big guys, KAF really tests their recipes thoroughly. So because bread takes a lot of time and ingredients, it’s nice to be assured that it’ll turn out right.
Like many other KAF bread recipes, it starts off by adding all of the dough ingredients into a mixer with the dough hook attachment and letting it knead for about 7 minutes. This dough is enriched with eggs and butter, apart from the standard bread ingredients- many of which you may already have in your pantry and fridge. The dough is quite sticky- so much so that it didn’t really clean the sides of the bowl like most bread recipes. I’ve learned at this point that a sticky dough means a soft finished bread– so don’t feel the need to add any additional flour. The sticky dough then gets transferred to a greased bowl and covered to rise for about an hour. After that, the dough is divided into pieces and shaped into balls. You can do this by eye, but I actually broke out my digital scale to get perfectly portioned pieces. The easiest way to form dough balls is to gather the edges and fold them into the center. Then, I turn the dough over and drag it across the dry counter with my palm cupped. You actually want them to stick a little so the dragging motion makes the balls taut. The dough balls are placed into a greased 13×9 pan, covered with greased plastic wrap and set to proof for about an hour. If you’re proofing your dough in the oven, then be sure to take it out about 20 minutes before the full time so the oven can be preheated. You’ll also start making the sauce at this point, mixing the sugar, salt and cornstarch in a medium saucepot so the cornstarch doesn’t clump. Coconut milk is then added and the mix is stirred constantly over medium high heat until it thickens slightly. KAF is pretty vague here, so I cooked it until it coated the back of a spoon and then swiped my finger across. If it leaves a trail then it’s thick enough. The sauce is poured over the proofed rolls then baked for 18-25 minutes or until the tops are golden.
Now I don’t know what true pani popo are supposed to look and taste like, but these were damn delicious. The sauce creates this crispy almost crackly top on the bun- similar to like a piece of crispy chicken skin (sorry, that was the best comparison I could think of). The interior is incredibly soft like a King’s Hawaiian Roll. My mom even said that I could bake the bread without the sauce and it would be delicious. But trust me, the sauce makes it. If you’ve had Hawaiian cuisine, it’s basically haupia which pools at the bottom of the pan and gets soaked into the bread. For next time, I’ll probably reserve a portion of it to pour over after the bread has been baked to avoid an overly soggy bottom. The bread is definitely best the same day, as it borders on unpleasantly soggy the next day. It’s worth noting that KAF’s original recipe calls for water and coconut milk powder, but they do provide a note about how to substitute for coconut milk- I mean, who even has coconut milk powder? The only real gripe I have about the recipe is the baking time, as 18-25 minutes is way too big of a range. At 18 minutes, the tops were still quite blonde so I let them finish off, thinking they’d take up the full 25 minutes. I pulled them out at around 21 ish minutes, because they’d already browned a little more than I’d like. Still, the flavor was great. I’d say, just keep an eye out on those final minutes and watch for over-browning. All in all, I’d definitely make this again as it was super saucy and so delicious.
Full Recipe | Method from King Arthur Flour: