Mum’s food is like soul food for me, and pani popo are all memories. They’re sweet yeasted buns baked with a creamy coconut sauce and you can find them in all the homes and markets in Samoa. As kids we’d hover around the tray once they came out of the oven, but we knew not to eat our pani popo too soon – they’re best once they’ve cooled and the sauce has all soaked in.
– Michael Meredith
For the buns:
- 1 cup whole milk
- 1/2 cup caster sugar
- 11g fresh yeast or 4g instant dry yeast
- 4 cups high grade flour, divided, plus extra for dusting
- 2 small eggs, lightly whisked
- 5 tbsp vegetable oil
- 2 tsp water
- 1 1/2 tsp salt
- 3/4 cup raisins
For the coconut sauce:
- 1 x 425g can of coconut cream
- 425ml water
- 250g coconut sugar
- 1 vanilla bean
Prepare the buns:
Gently heat milk in a saucepan or microwave until lukewarm. Stir in sugar, yeast, and a quarter cup of the flour. Leave in a warm place until the yeast bubbles and the flour has formed a raft on top; around 20-30 minutes for fresh yeast or 5-10 minutes for dry yeast.
Pour yeast mixture into the bowl of a stand mixer or a large mixing bowl. Stir in eggs, oil, water, and salt, then mix in remaining flour. Knead for 8-10 minutes with a dough hook, or 15 minutes by hand, until dough comes together but remains slightly wet and sticky. Avoid adding extra flour; although a drier dough is easier to knead, the stickier dough gives a much nicer texture once the buns are baked. Once dough is ready knead in raisins until evenly distributed. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, move to a warm place, and let the dough rise until doubled in size; around 40 minutes.
Line a 32cm x 32cm x 8cm deep baking tin with baking paper. Once dough has risen, gently knock it back down with your hands. Divide dough into 16 equal portions and gently roll each into a ball. The dough will still be quite sticky so dust your hands and the counter top with a little flour as needed. Arrange the balls in a single layer in the tin, evenly spaced and just lightly touching each other. Cover the tin with plastic wrap and let the dough rise in a warm place a second time until doubled in size with only a few small gaps remaining; again around 40 minutes.
Prepare the coconut sauce
With 15 minutes left until the dough has finished rising, preheat the oven to 190°C. Stir coconut cream, water, and sugar together in a medium saucepan. Slice the vanilla bean open lengthwise and use the blunt side of a knife to scrape out the seeds. Add the seeds and the scraped pod to the pan. Bring to the boil on the stovetop, stirring occasionally, then turn off the heat and let sit for 10 minutes to infuse the flavour from the vanilla pod. Remove and discard the pod. Keep the sauce warm until using.
Finish and bake the buns
Once the dough has risen remove and discard the plastic wrap. Pierce each bun a few times with a skewer, then pour on the warm coconut sauce a few ladles at a time, pausing to let each batch of sauce soak in before adding the remainder. Place the tin in the oven and place a second, larger rimmed tray underneath to catch any drips if the sauce bubbles over. Bake for 25-30 minutes until the buns are dark golden and firm to the touch.
Let the buns sit in the tray until warm (or room temperature) before removing and serving – this is important to allow the coconut sauce to be absorbed into the buns. Serve warm or at room temperature.
To easily measure the water for the sauce, just fill the empty can of coconut cream – that will give you 425ml of water.