Bake the Fluffiest Hawaiian Sweet Rolls for Your Next Dinner

These golden brown buns are a dinner table staple—or, at least they definitely should be.

One of my earliest food memories involves the presence of King’s Hawaiian rolls on my grandma’s dinner table during Thanksgiving. To my dismay however, the bright orange pack of delicious carbs was off limits until food was to be served later, but that didn’t stop me from sneaking in the kitchen while no one was looking to grab one.

Although many people use these fluffy treats to make mini sandwiches, in my family, they were often served solo, letting the sweetness stand on its own. They’re a super staple on the dinner table, especially come time for the holidays, like Thanksgiving.

The original founder of King’s Hawaiian, Robert R. Taira, graduated at the top of his baking class, which helps to explain why the distinct sweet taste makes them so popular. But even though most people refer to these rolls as Hawaiian rolls, the type of bread is actually influenced by pão doce, or Portuguese sweet bread.

Chad Donvito, chief marketing officer of King’s Hawaiian, says Taira created the Hawaiian rolls out of a desire to make the Portuguese sweet bread he loved last longer than a few days.

“Growing up in Hawaii, founder Robert R. Taira loved Portuguese sweet bread. The one problem with it was that after a day or two it became hard as a rock,” Donvito says. Taira wanted to make a bread that could retain those soft, sweet and delicious features longer and allow people to enjoy the bread day after day.

After months of experimentation, Taira created the popular dinner rolls we know today that still have the sweetness and softness of fresh Portuguese sweet bread.

Alana Kysar, Hawaii resident and author of Aloha Kitchen: Recipes From Hawaii, says she thinks everything in Hawai‘i is typically sweeter than the point of origin—in this case, sweet bread made in Portugal—because of Hawaii’s history with sugar cane production.

“I think you'll find most dishes in Hawaii are sweeter than their predecessors. For instance, teriyaki beef in Hawai‘i is very sweet, but if you have it in Japan, it’s not as sweet,” she says.

“I also think they’re probably fluffier,” Kysar says of the sweet rolls. “When I was doing research, I found out the Portuguese pão doce is usually denser than I thought. When you think of a King’s Hawaiian roll, you think of these super sweet and fluffy rolls and I think the traditional Portuguese bread is a little more dense.”

Portuguese sweet bread
Portuguese sweet bread | Granadeiro/Shutterstock

Kysar grew up in a family that was always in the kitchen and she learned how to cook many Hawaiian dishes, including the sweet bread, from recipes her mother passed down to her. During her childhood, whenever her mother went to the Big Island, she would bring back sweet bread and serve it for breakfast everyday, and sometimes slice it up to make sandwiches.

“When I went to school in San Diego for university, I was nostalgic for anything from Hawaii,” she says. “I didn’t realize that we had such unique dishes and flavors. I didn’t think it was something that you could only get there.”

Luckily, with the commercial success of King’s Hawaiian rolls and being able to find them in almost every grocery store, you don’t have to catch a flight to Hawaii or Portugal to enjoy them. Or if you’re feeling adventurous and want to take a crack at making them yourself, Kysar created a recipe for them in her cookbook. 

“The recipe was something that I just kind of dreamed up to match that sweetness, softness, and texture that you get with a King’s Hawaiian sweet bread roll, but you can do it at home with no preservatives,” she says. “You don’t get that magical squish but it’s because I don’t think you can do that without preservatives. I did a ton of research on all the recipes in Hawaii and this was like a mash of everything.” 

Even though I haven’t had the pleasure of venturing to Hawaii yet and trying all of the dishes it has to offer, I found comfort in snacking on a treat that not only reminded me of home, but also the fact that it’s a food that bridges geographical and cultural gaps. 

“What’s not to love about it?” Kysar says. “It’s light, sweet, and fluffy and you don’t have to necessarily have any connection to Hawaii or to the Portuguese culture even to appreciate that it is just damned good bread.”

Hawaiian Sweet Bread Recipe

Ingredients:

  • 3 1/4 cups of bread flour
  • 3 tablespoons of potato flour
  • 1 teaspoon of kosher salt
  • Two 0.25-ounce packages of active dry yeast
  • 1/3 cup of water, warmed to between 100 and 110F 
  • 1/4 cup of whole milk, warmed to between 100 and 110F
  • 1/2 cup of sugar
  • 2 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 large egg yolk, at room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
  • 6 tablespoons of unsalted butter, at room temperature


Directions:

Day 1: Make the Dough
1. In a medium bowl, whisk together 2 3/4 cup of the bread flour, 3 tablespoons of potato flour, and 1 teaspoon of kosher salt and set aside.

2. Remove the bowl of your stand mixer and combine the remaining 1/2 cup bread flour with 4 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast and 1/3 cup warm water, mixing until it comes together and most of the dry bits are incorporated — it's okay if it looks a little dry. Let the mixture rest for 45 minutes at room temperature, uncovered.

3. Return to your stand mixer bowl and fit it to the stand mixer along with the paddle attachment. Turn the speed to low and add 1/4 cup warm milk, 1/2 cup sugar, 2 large eggs, 1 large egg yolk, 1 teaspoon vanilla, and 6 tablespoons butter in that order. Mix until well combined, about 2 minutes. 

4. Turn off the mixer and change the attachment to the dough hook, scraping the paddle attachment clean. Turn the speed to low and add the dry ingredients, slowly increasing the speed to medium. Once combined, knead the dough on medium speed until the dough is smooth, about 5 minutes. 

5. Turn the dough out onto a clean surface and form into a ball. Clean the bowl and coat it lightly with neutral oil. Place the dough back in the bowl, turning once to coat both sides. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

Day 2: Shape and Bake the Bread
1. Lightly grease a 9 by 13-inch baking pan with neutral oil. Punch down the dough and divide it into twelve equal pieces. Roll each piece into a ball, each around 2.60 ounces, and evenly space them in the pan. Cover the pan with lightly greased plastic wrap and let rise until doubled and puffy, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours.

2. Halfway through the rise time, position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350F. 

3. In a small bowl, make the egg wash: whisk together 1 large egg white and 1 teaspoon of water. Brush the top of each roll with egg wash and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until browned. An instant thermometer inserted into the middle of a roll should read 190F. 

4. Let cool in the pan on a wire rack for 5 minutes, then turn the rolls out onto the wire rack. Serve warm. Leftover rolls can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for 3 to 4 days.

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