Milk Bread Panipopo

Asian bread products are so good. I don’t know what else I can add to that except that if you walk into an Asian bakery and take a look around, it’s a wonderland of shapes, smells, and textures. From the steamed bao filled with savoury char siu, to the crumbly sweet top of the bolo bao (pineapple bun), split open and filled with a thick slab of butter, to the fluffy loaves of milk bread, a trip to a Chinatown bakery is always a treat.

I think that the best part of all, whether you go to a Chinese or western bakery, is the aroma of freshly baked bread when you first walk inside. It’s a smell that can evoke so many memories in an instant. The simplicity of spreading butter on a still-warm slice of homemade bread is just the best thing ever.

That brings me to one of the best styles of bread around… Hokkaido milk bread. It’s a white bread, that has a super fluffy texture and a glossy brioche type of finish on top. But there are so many great milk bread recipes out there, that I wanted to do something different. So we’re making the same milk bread, but as a dessert bun known in Samoa as panipopo. Panipopo is a sweet and gooey coconut bun similar to a cinnamon bun, but using coconut sauce instead of the typical cinnamon bun icing. This is gonna be great.

You will need (for 1 loaf):

  • ⅓ cup flour (bread flour or all-purpose)
  • 1 cup water

These 2 ingredients are what you’ll need to make the Tangzhong, a simple roux that is the key to the texture of this amazing bread.

The dough:

  • 2 ½ cups flour (bread flour or all-purpose)
  • 3 tablespoons, plus 2 teaspoons sugar
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons instant yeast
  • 2 large eggs
  • ½ cup milk
  • 120g of the Tangzhong
  • 3 tablespoons room temperature butter

The coconut sauce:

  • 1 can coconut milk
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon corn starch
  • 2 tablespoons water

To finish:

  • roasted sesame seeds

To make the Tangzhong, put the flour and water into a small saucepan on medium heat. Whisk to combine into a smooth mixture with no lumps. Grab a silicone spatula and stir the mixture until it heats up and thickens. Let it cook gently while you continue to stir until it becomes a smooth and thick paste. Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, sugar, salt, and yeast. In another bowl, grab the hot Tangzhong and cool it down with the milk. Whisk to combine. When the mixture is cool, add one of the eggs and continue to whisk until they are all combined. Add the wet ingredients to the dry and mix together to make a dough. This will be stickier than the standard bread dough. Incorporate the butter at this point. Continue to mix until the dough is smooth and elastic. It should come clean from the side of the bowl. If you have a stand mixer, let it run for at least 10 minutes.

Once the dough looks good, get it onto a clean surface and knead by hand into a large round. Pop back into an oiled mixing bowl, cover, and let proof for about 1.5 – 2 hours. 

After the dough has proofed turn it back onto the work surface and punch out the air. Roll it into a large rectangle and divide into 8 equal parts. Roll each part into a ball and let rest again on the work surface, covered, for 15 minutes.

After that, take each round and roll them into small rectangles. Fold the rectangles by the longer side on the top and the bottom towards the center by ⅓. Take that roll, and flatten again into another rectangle. This time, roll the rectangle by the short side all the way. Pinch the seam together on the end. That is the shape of the buns. 

Repeat the same procedure for the remaining balls. Put your rolls into a buttered 9×9 pan. They should fit 3-2-3 per pan. Cover and proof again one final time for 30 minutes.

While you’re waiting for the final proofing, get a small saucepan on medium heat and warm up a can of coconut milk with 1/2 cup sugar. When the sugar is dissolved, whisk in the corn starch and water slurry to thicken. Remove from heat and set aside.

Once the final proof is done, pour in 2/3 of the coconut sauce on the bottom of the pan. Brush the top of the loaf with a mixture of milk and egg yolk from the other egg. Pop into a preheated 355F oven on the middle rack for 25 minutes. When it’s done, remove and let cool before you cut into it. Yeah, it’s tough. That’s why you should make a few loaves so you can dig into a hot one right away. Right before serving, top with more coconut sauce and sprinkle with roasted sesame seeds.

As a result of using the Tangzhong in the making of the dough, you’re going to end up with a very smooth and elastic fluffy texture. You’ll see.