A few weeks ago after a slew of midterms, I took the whole day to just bake. And, obviously, after weeks of no-baking I decided to go big with a fancy French pastry: religieuses. Put your skills to the test with this one. You'll be making choux buns with cookies on top, whipping up some pastry cream and heavy cream, and trying your hand at marshmallow fondant.
19th century origins
Just like eclairs, religieuses have a choux base and are filled with a crème patissière. The difference, though, is in the presentation. Stack a smaller choux bun on top of a large one, and these little pastries start to resemble... well, people. In fact, religieuses, which translates literally to "religious" or to "those who are religious", were originally created to look like nuns in their habits. Traditionally, religieuses are filled with a chocolate or coffee pastry cream, dipped in the matching flavour of ganache, and piped with buttercream. But don't let this limit you; there are lots of ways to add flair and creativity. Check out Carl Marletti's fab religieuses here. If you also happen to be going to Paris soon, please go eat one and let me know how amazing your experience was.
A 21st century take
There are a lot of things happening in this recipe. For one, choux pastry. Once you get it right, you'll never look back. It is versatile, and you'll be whipping up all sorts of choux-based desserts like eclairs, croquembouche, and the magnificent Gâteau St. Honoré in no time. What is important to understand about this recipe is that once you have a handle on the traditional elements like the choux, the pastry cream, and the ganache, you can take these traditional ingredients to new and exciting places. Add craquelin to your choux, or add exotic flavours to your pastry cream. The key is understanding the origins of what you're making but also to make it your own.
How do you like your choux? Soft and fluffy, or with a little crisp on top? Here I've gone for crisp, using Thomas Keller's craquelin. This is a simple cookie dough of butter, brown sugar, and flour that is rolled out very thin and added to the top of your piped choux pastry. I don't think craquelin is a traditional feature of a religieuse, but this addition adds so much more texture to these choux buns that I don't think I'd ever leave this component out again. While the cookie itself seems insubstantial, it becomes a part of the choux, creating a perfect crunch on the choux bun that you don't get otherwise.
The key to making this cookie dough is maintaining a cool temperature. It can be difficult to work with and crumbles easily. You'll get a sense of how to work with it, and you'll need to tag team this with your freezer: it needs to be warm enough to roll out and then cold enough to cut and hold its shape on your choux.
The traditional religieuse is actually dipped in ganache, both the top and the bottom choux buns. To add a bit more flair, I opted for a fondant topping for this recipe. The idea came to me when staring at the full bag of mini marshmallows in my pantry. It all starts with a cold, winter evening: you're really craving hot chocolate but you're adamant that said hot chocolate won't be complete without three mini marshmallows. So you go out and buy a bag of 500 mini marshmallows because that's all the grocery store has, and then you have 497 mini marshmallows in your cupboard that you dont know what to do with, and you're pretty sure you won't be craving another hot chocolate with marshmallows for a while. If this situation is an all too familiar one, I highly recommend this fondant recipe. It also works well with food colouring. A fondant alternative would be to make a liquid fondant, which is also well-suited to this type of pastry. You'll need some fondant powder for it. This is on my to-do list.
How do I get started?
All in all, this recipe is a good place to start if you're looking to challenge yourself, and to make things easier for you, there are several components to this that don't need to be done all at once. Make the pastry cream, the craquelin, and the fondant the day before the choux buns and store in the fridge overnight. Use different colours and piping nozzles. I really love this recipe because it is so customizable and, of course, absolutely delicious!
Choux buns adapted from IronWhisk
Craquelin adapted from Thomas Keller's Bouchon Bakery
Fondant adapted from Gemma's Bigger Bolder Baking
Total active time: 3 hours
Total time before mass consumption: 4 hours
Servings: 6 religieuses
75g whole milk
75g salted butter
5g granulated sugar
2g fine sea salt
100g bread flour
150g eggs, (~3 large eggs)
60g light brown sugar
50g all-purpose flour
10g almond flour
28g salted butter, (room temperature)
270ml whole milk
2 egg yolks
40g granulated sugar
20g all-purpose flour
1/2 vanilla pod, (seeds scraped out)
150ml heavy cream, (cold)
115g miniature marshmallows
1 tbsp water
1 pound powdered sugar, (as needed)
100ml heavy cream, (cold)
Tools & equipment
round 1.5 cm diameter piping tip
Make the craquelin by mixing together the brown sugar, almond flour, and all-purpose flour in a small bowl.
Rub the butter into the dry ingredient using your fingers until the dough comes together. The dough may be slightly crumbly or dry, but it will come together after resting in the freezer.
Wrap in plastic wrap and freeze for 20 minutes.
Weigh the bread flour and have it ready in a bowl.
Whisk together your eggs and have those ready in a separate bowl.
Combine water, milk, sugar, butter, and salt in a saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium heat.
Once simmering, remove the pot from the heat and mix in the flour.
Return to heat and mix the dough until a thin film appears at the bottom of the pot and the dough is approximately 170ºF (~2 minutes). This step removes moisture from the dough so that the choux buns are able to dry out enough in the oven.
Transfer the dough to the bowl of a stand mixer and using the paddle attachment, mix the dough on medium speed until it cools down to 140ºF. This can be done without a stand mixer.
Add half of the eggs and mix on low speed until just incorporated.
Continue to add the eggs, one tablespoon at a time, until the dough is the right consistency. To test its consistency, dip your finger in water and run it through the choux dough. You should be able to create a trough in the dough that doesn’t collapse. Continue adding egg until you achieve this consistency. You may not need all of it. If you put too much egg, your dough will be runny and won’t hold its shape when piped. Go slowly here.
Once the dough is ready, transfer it to a pastry bag fitted with a round tip of about 1.5cm in diameter.
The dough may still be warm. Put it in the fridge to cool down for about an hour. If the dough is too warm, it won’t hold its shape when piped. We really want a solid structure here, so we have to do everything possible to achieve this! Patience, alas, is key.
In the meantime, preheat the oven to 350ºF.
While waiting for the choux pastry to cool, remove the craquelin from the freezer and let sit at room temperature until malleable but not warm.
Sandwich the craquelin dough in between two pieces of parchment paper. Roll it out gently until about 1/16 inch thick: quite thin.
Return the dough to the freezer for 10 minutes.
After 10 minutes, begin by cutting out four 6cm diameter rounds and four 3cm diameter rounds. Refrigerate until ready to top the choux.
Prepare a baking sheet with a silicone mat or parchment paper.
Pipe half of the choux batter into rounds of about 6cm in diameter on the prepared baking sheet. Pipe the remaining batter into smaller rounds of about 3cm in diameter, leaving space between all the choux for expansion in the oven.
Remove your craquelin rounds from the fridge and place gently over each choux.
Using a strainer, lightly dust your choux pastries with powdered sugar.
Bake the choux buns for 30-40 minutes until the craquelin has molded onto the buns, and the buns are golden brown in colour.
Remove from the oven and place on a wire rack. As soon as you are able to handle the pastry without burning yourself, pierce the bottoms of each bun with a paring knife, making the smallest sliver. This will prevent deflation.
Cool completely before filling and decorating.
Combine the milk and vanilla seeds in a small pan and gently bring to a boil over medium high heat.
While the milk is heating up, put together a cold water bath. Add ice cubes and water to a clean bowl and let that sit until needed.
Remove the milk from heat once boiling and strain into a clean pan.
In a separate bowl, whisk the egg yolks and sugar together until light and creamy.
Add flour to the eggs and fold gently until thoroughly combined.
Slowly pour the hot milk into the egg mixture, whisking constantly to prevent the eggs from cooking.
Pour the mixture back into the pan and return to the heat, turning the temperature down to low.
Whisk continuously until mixture begins to thicken, about 5 minutes.
Remove the pan from the heat and strain the pastry cream into a clean bowl. Place the bowl in the cold water bath.
Cool the pastry cream in the cold water bath, stirring occasionally to prevent any lumps.
Once cool, cover the surface of the pastry cream with plastic wrap to prevent a skin from forming and transfer to fridge until cool.
Put the bowl of a stand mixer in the freezer.
In a pot, melt the mini marshmallows and the water over medium heat until the mixture is smooth.
Transfer the marshmallow mixture from the pot into a large, clean bowl.
When the mixture is cool enough to handle, gradually knead the icing sugar into the marshmallow, one cup at a time, until the fondant is soft and shiny.
At this stage, stop adding icing sugar and knead the fondant for 7 minutes.
The fondant should now be pliable and shiny. Divide it into two equal parts and rub canola oil over one half. Flatten it into a disc, wrap in plastic wrap, and store it in the fridge until ready to use.
Add food colouring to the other fondant half and knead the colour in until nice and evenly distributed. Rub canola oil over it, flatten into a disc, and wrap in plastic wrap. Store in the fridge until ready to use.
When the pastry cream is cold, put the heavy cream into the stand mixer bowl from the freezer. Whip the heavy cream using a whisk attachment until smooth stiff peaks form.
Gently add the whipped cream to the pastry cream and fold together with a spatula. The crème diplomat should be smooth and hold its shape when piped.
Put your crème diplomat in a piping bag fitted with a small round 3mm nozzle.
Push the nozzle through the bottom of each choux pastry and fill with cream until the choux is full and heavy when picked up. Be sure not to overfill the choux to avoid the cream from spilling out.
Roll out your white and red fondants to 1/8 inch thickness. Using a 7cm diameter round cutter, cut out 2 rounds of white fondant and 2 rounds of red fondant. Repeat this step using a 2cm round cutter.
Place one of the larger choux on a plate with craquelin side-up. Take the 7cm fondant cut out and place on top of the large choux. You can shape the sides of the fondant with your fingers to make it look like a skirt or simply have it lie flat.
Using your finger, dab a little water onto the middle of fondant and stick a small choux bun on top. Place a small white fondant round on top of the small choux.
Continue this process until you have two religieuses decorated with white fondant and two with red.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, whip the heavy cream until smooth and stiff.
Place the whipped cream into a piping bag fitted with piping tip #17 (small star nozzle) and trace a line from the top of the large choux to the top of the small choux on top. You can find an example of this here. Ultimately, your religieuses decoration is up to you! Experiment with different piping here with different nozzles.
After all these steps, it's time for a taste test! These religieuses will last at room temperature for about six hours before the choux starts to soften, so invite some friends over and enjoy!
Religieuses can be kept at room temperature for 4-6 hours and are best eaten the day they are made.