Pan de coco, which essentially means “coconut bread” in Spanish, is a type of roll that is made with coconut milk. It is most commonly associated with the cuisine of Honduras, but versions are popular in the Philippines as well. The recipe was most likely taken from Central America to Southeast Asia by Spanish settlers during the 1600s. Some Filipino bakeries still make pan de coco that looks very much like the iterations made in Honduras, but variations are very common.
Traditionally, the roll was an unleavened cake that was easy and quick to bake in rudimentary stone ovens. Coconut grows prolifically along the coasts and inner rainforests of Honduras, which made it an easily accessible ingredient for many cooks. Basic pan de coco ingredients include little more than coconut milk, flour and water or animal's milk. When combined, these ingredients produce a stiff dough that yields a dense, cake-like bread.
Despite the presence of coconut, Honduran pan de coco generally is not a sweet bread. It is often served with savory foods such as fish and stew. The density of the bread makes it a good accompaniment to soak up extra juices on a plate.
There is some controversy about whether leavened versions of pan do coco are as traditional as the Honduran original. It is unclear precisely when Honduran cooks began adding yeast to their coconut breads, but the practice has been common for at least a century. Leavened versions of the bread are lighter and fluffier but generally are served in the same way — that is, as an accompaniment to a hearty meal.
Most of the pan de coco iterations popular in the Philippines are much sweeter and generally are enjoyed more as a dessert or teatime sweet than a meal accompaniment. It is common for Filipino cooks to add sweetened coconut milk as well as sugar to their pan do coco. Shredded coconut also is a common garnish. Some are stuffed with coconut custard or cream, which makes them much more of a confection than a simple bread roll.
Aside from the name, Filipino pan de coco usually has very little in common with its Central American counterparts. How Filipino cooks came to adopt a Spanish name for their confections is something of a mystery, but it is believed to have originated with the Spanish explorers who landed in the Philippines during the 1600s. These explorers might have also visited Honduras or known of sailors who had. Explorers during this period were notorious for sharing ingredients, spices and culinary traditions from various places.