Pani Popo are soft and delicious Samoan coconut buns baked in a luxurious coconut sauce. Meet your dinner-rolls-on-steroid with golden brown top, fluffy cloud-like interior, swimming in a pool of creamy coconut sauce.
My first time trying Pani Popo was at a Hawaiian festival called Heritage of Aloha in Southern California. We go every year mostly for the amazing food, but of course there are lots of fun activities, performances, and awesome vendors you can check out if you ever have a chance to attend.
Since the festival has been canceled this year, I’m going to miss that nice lady with those big fat Pani Popo trays, the juicy Huli Huli chicken, and my favorite chicken long rice. I had no choice but to come up with my own Pani Popo recipe to get me through the days.
How to make Pani Popo from scratch
The two elements for Pani Popo
- The bread dough is the same as my easy milk bread dough but at a higher quantity. I love this dough because it yields a super soft texture.
- The coconut sauce is the same as the sauce I used in this Tropical Cinnamon Buns.
The bread dough
You can make this bread dough with a stand mixer or by hand. It does not need to be kneaded for a very long time, but a stand mixer certainly helps. This dough will be a little bit sticky, but resist the urge to add more flour.
- First, heat the cream, milk and sugar until sugar dissolves and the mixture comes to a simmer. Let it cool to 110°F and add the yeast to activate it.
- Add flour and salt to the yeast mixture once it is bubbly. Mix and knead with the dough hook or by hand until a wet dough forms.
- Scrape the dough out onto a floured surface and shape into a ball. Place the dough into an oiled glass bowl.
- Cover the dough and allow it to rise in a warm spot until at least double in size.
Assemble the buns for baking
After about 1 to 2 hours, the dough should have doubled in size and it will be much less sticky and fairly easy to work with.
- Divide the dough into 12 equal portions. Roll them into balls and place into a buttered 9”x13” baking dish. Let them rise for the second time until doubled in size.
- When the buns are puffy and ready to go into the oven, pour about 1 cup of coconut sauce all over the buns.
- Bake until golden brown.
The coconut sauce for Pani Popo
You should prepare the sauce while waiting for the buns to rise the second time in the baking dish. This coconut sauce is made with canned coconut milk and sugar, thickened with cornstarch, like this Haupia (coconut pudding) but not as thick.
The recipe makes almost 2 cups of sauce, but I only add 1 cup to the buns before baking and save the rest to drizzle over the bread when serving. You could use all of it for baking, you’ll end up with more thickened sauce at the bottom of the pan once baked.
For the best Pani Popo
- The dough should be a little sticky when you first mix it in the bowl, resist the urge to add more flour because this will yield softer bread in the end.
- The bread dough is made with heavy cream, heavy cream has high fat content which will result in a softer dough. I don’t recommend replacing heavy cream with milk.
- The bread dough is also made with whole milk, this is preferred but you can use 2% milk if you don’t have whole milk.
- Be sure to use canned coconut milk for the coconut sauce and not coconut milk from the carton. Coconut milk from the carton is much more diluted with less fat content which will not result in a creamy and luxurious sauce.
This bread dough can be made 2 – 3 days ahead and allow to rise slowly under refrigeration for its first rise. So in Step 4 (above), instead of letting the dough rise in a warm spot, cover and refrigerate it. When you are ready to bake, let the dough come to room temperature and continue with the rest of the instructions.
You can also refrigerate the dough during its second rise (Step 5) if you have space in your refrigerator to store a large baking pan. In this case, I recommend letting the dough rise overnight only instead of a couple of days, then bake it in the morning.
Storing leftover Pani Popo
These buns can be kept at room temperature for 2 – 3 days, wrap tightly. They can also be refrigerated for up to a week. Warm them up in the microwave for about 20 – 30 seconds before serving.
If you love these Samoan Coconut Buns and anything with coconut or tropical flavor, you need to check out my collection of all my favorite tropical Hawaiian recipes!
More delicious dinner rolls
- Sweet Potato Dinner Rolls
- Purple Sweet Potato Dinner Rolls
- Hawaiian Dinner Rolls
- Easy Dinner Rolls
- Orange Cranberry Hot Cross Buns
If you make this recipe, please let me know! Leave a comment, send me a photo, rate it and don’t forget to tag me @wildwildwhisk on Instagram. I’d love to see what’s cooking up in your kitchen. Cheers!
- ¾ cup heavy whipping cream (180 g)
- ¾ cup milk (whole milk preferred, but 2% will work, 180 g)
- 6 tablespoon granulated sugar
- 1 ½ teaspoon active dry yeast
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 3 cup all-purpose flour (390 g)
- Additional flour for rolling
- Melted butter for baking dish
- 1 can coconut milk (13.5 oz)
- ⅓ cup sugar (65 g)
- A pinch of kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch
Prepare the buns
- Add cream, milk and granulated sugar to a small saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring constantly, about 5 minutes. Transfer to the stand mixer bowl and allow the mixture to cool down to below 110°F, check with a thermometer.
- Sprinkle active dry yeast over the top of the milk mixture, stir and let it bloom for about 10 - 20 minutes. The mixture should visibly puff up.
- In another mixing bowl, sift the flour and stir in the salt. Add the flour mixture to the liquid mixture and knead with the dough hook on low speed until everything is incorporated and a wet dough forms.
- Scrape the dough out onto a floured countertop and knead a few times to form a ball. Place the dough ball into an oiled large bowl, cover with plastic, and allow it to rise in a warm spot until doubled in size, about 2 hours.
- Melt a tablespoon of butter and brush it all over your baking dish and set aside.
- When the dough is ready, dump it out onto a floured countertop and divide it into 12 equal portions. You can eyeball this step or use a scale to be exact, each buns is about 67 grams or about 2 ⅓ oz.
- Shape each portion into a round bun and place them into the buttered 9”x13” baking dish and allow them to rise for another hour until double in size.
Make the coconut sauce while the buns are rising
- Whisk the cornstarch with about ¼ cup of room temperature coconut milk until completely dissolved. Set aside.
- Add the remaining coconut milk to a small saucepan along with sugar and salt. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently until the sugar dissolves completely and the mixture starts to simmer.
- Drizzle the cornstarch mixture into the simmering coconut milk, stirring constantly. Continue to cook for another 2 - 3 minutes until the sauce starts to thicken. Take it off the heat and set it aside to cool a bit.
Bake the buns
- When the buns have doubled in size, preheat the oven to 400°F.
- Drizzle at least 1 cup of coconut sauce over all of the buns and bake for 20 - 25 minutes until the top is golden brown.
- Take the buns out of the oven, allow to cool slightly before serving. Serve with the remaining coconut sauce.
- The dough can be made without a stand mixer, just mix the flour into the liquid with a spatula or wooden spoon and knead by hand.
- This dough is very soft and sticky when it first comes out from the mixing bowl. Try not to add too much flour when handling it. After the first rise, it will be much less sticky and easier to handle.
- Be sure to use canned coconut milk for the sauce and not coconut milk in the carton.