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My husband’s family is rich in cultures from around the world. We have relatives from Europe, South America, and the Pacific Islands, plus many who have traveled to all of the corners of the globe, including myself. It’s incredibly wonderful to see the way all of those cultures come together in the food we make when we gather as a family. My husband’s Aunt Robin and her family make loads of traditional Tongan, Samoan, and Hawaiian foods, which is pretty much the best thing ever.
I still remember the day I was over at the house for one of Robin’s legendary parties and there was a pan of pani popo in the center of the table. I had never heard of such a thing, but soon realized what the fuss was all about. Pani popo is basically rolls cooked in a sweet coconut milk syrup. And I know what you’re thinking – what could possibly be wrong with that? And the answer is NOTHING. Nothing is wrong with that. It’s the most right thing in the world. Ever since then, I have been hooked.
I was astonished how easy it is to make pani popo. Coconut is one of my very favorite things in the world, and I’ve been missing pani popo something fierce. So I decided to finally come up with a gluten-free pani popo recipe to take to Aunt Robin’s for Easter. Easter is not complete without coconut! I went to work planning out a recipe that would remain true to the non-GF pani popo recipe I’ve made before.
I went for a little different dough than I’ve used in my other gluten-free yeast bread and rolls recipes. This one is made with a higher percentage of rice flours and more eggs to make them lighter and fluffier. They also soak up a lot of the sweet coconut syrup, which is a plus. These border on dessert, but we have also eaten them for breakfast. They are purely addictive!
I love using Red Star Dry Active Yeast. (It’s always in my freezer!) For this recipe I let the dough rise a little bit before forming the rolls. Normally for the gluten-free rolls, I only do one rise after they’ve been shaped. I think that also added to the light, fluffy texture.
The coconut milk syrup is pretty spectacular. I used light coconut milk and thickened it with a little corn starch (more on that below), but coconut cream will work great too and doesn’t need to be thickened. Some people add sweetened condensed milk too, but I made these dairy free. All of those variations are in the notes below the recipe.
I was so happy my little experiment produced the rolls I was hoping for – light, fluffy, and sweet with plenty of coconut flavor. I hope you’ll love them too!
Check out my other gluten-free rolls and yeast breads:
- For dough:
- 1/2 cup warm water (110 degrees F)
- 4 teaspoons Red Star Active Dry Yeast
- 1 cup coconut milk
- 6 Tablespoons pure vegetable shortening
- 1/3 cup sugar plus 1/4 teaspoon, divided
- 1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt
- 4 large eggs, lightly beaten
- 4 cups gluten-free all-purpose flour (see below)
- rice flour, for shaping rolls
- For coconut syrup:
- 1 1/4 cups coconut milk
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch (optional)
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla paste
- A generous pinch of salt
- For the rolls – Dissolve yeast and 1/4 teaspoon sugar in the 1/2 cup warm water. Stir and let stand until foamy, 5-10 minutes.
- Heat the coconut milk, shortening, sugar, and salt in a small saucepan or large measuring cup in the microwave. Don’t let it boil, but it should be hot enough to dissolve sugar and salt. Stir and let cool a bit.
- Place the eggs in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Turn mixer on low and beat eggs for a few seconds. Add the warm milk mixture to the eggs in a slow, steady stream.
- Add half of the gluten-free flour and mix well. Add the proofed yeast to the bowl and mix well. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, if needed. With mixer running on low, add the remaining flour. The dough will be pretty sticky, and that’s fine.
- Remove the bowl and paddle from the mixer. Scrape the dough off the paddle and sides of the bowl. Let stand for about 15-20 minutes in a warm place. During this time, the dough will thicken/set up a bit and start to rise.
- Sprinkle a little rice flour on a clean surface. Turn dough out onto the flour and sprinkle with a little more rice flour. Pat it into a thick disk. This will help with creating evenly sized rolls. Coating your hands with a little flour each time, divide the dough into 15 evenly sized pieces. You can use a knife, but the dough is very, very sticky, so your hands are a bit easier.
- Gently pat the dough and form into balls. Don’t overwork the dough too much or they won’t be as light and fluffy after they bake.
- Grease a 9 by 13-inch glass baking dish. Place the rolls in five rows with three rolls in each row. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rise for about 45 minutes.
- Meanwhile, prepare the coconut syrup. Place coconut milk, sugar, cornstarch (if using), vanilla, and pinch salt in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil and cook for 60 seconds, whisking constantly. Remove from heat and let cool until slightly warm, but not hot. Set aside.
- Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Pour the warm syrup over the raised rolls, allowing some to drip over the top of each rolls. Place pan in oven and bake for 25-30 minutes.
- To serve, let cool slightly and serve from the pan or turn them out onto a serving platter, coconut syrup side up.
GF flour blend:
1 cup (168 grams) white rice flour
1 cup (168 grams) brown rice flour
3/4 cup (86 grams) potato starch
3/4 cup (94 grams) tapioca starch
1/2 cup plus 1 Tablespoon (86 grams) sticky rice flour
4 teaspoons (16 grams) xanthan gum
Sift together or place in a blender or food processor and pulse to blend. Store in an airtight container in the freezer. Before using shake the bag, whisk, or sift again.
-regular milk can be used in place of coconut milk in the roll recipe
-butter, coconut oil, or another oil can be used in place of the vegetable shortening, though it might alter the texture a bit (the shortening does help make them very soft)
-I do not recommend using an egg replacer for this recipe as it would completely alter the texture of the rolls.
-Coconut cream can be used in place of the coconut milk and cornstarch. Mix the coconut cream with sugar, vanilla, and salt and gently warm before pouring over the rolls. It will thicken as the rolls bake and make a richer sauce.
-If using sweetened coconut cream, such as the Coco Lopez brand, omit the sugar from the syrup.
- Prep Time: 1 hour 15 mins
- Cook Time: 30 mins
- Category: Bread, Gluten-Free
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Disclosure: I was compensated for my time in developing this recipe. All opinions expressed are 100% my own. I only recommend products that I use and love in my kitchen.