Its name means “nun” in French, and this popular pastry is found in patisseries and boulangeries all over France. Made of pâte à choux and filled with pastry cream, two buns, like little cream puffs, are stacked on top of each other and decorated to look like nuns dressed in their habits.
The origins of the religieuse date back to 1856, when an Italian pastry chef by the name of Frascati, living and working in Paris, created it. Though traditionally filled with vanilla, chocolate or coffee-flavored crème pâtissière and covered in matching ganache, modern bakeries offer them in every flavor from rose or violet to salted caramel.
This being a technical challenge, the recipe is Mary Berry’s. The crème pat is flavored with vanilla bean seeds, and the choux buns are coated with chocolate ganache. A whipped cream “collar” encircles the smaller bun that sits atop the larger bun to form the nun’s head.
If you’ve made choux pastry before, these aren’t too difficult. If you haven’t made choux pastry before, I recommend watching the GBBS Masterclass on Netflix where Mary demonstrates how to make these (season 2, episode 4), or watch this tutorial on YouTube.
The basic method involves combining water and butter in a saucepan and bringing it to a boil; you then add the flour all at once and stir until it all comes together in a ball, remove from heat and cool slightly before adding eggs, a little at a time, stirring well after each addition. When all the eggs are incorporated, the dough should be smooth, shiny and stiff enough to pipe. Once piped onto a parchment paper–lined baking sheet, the dough is baked at a high temperature for a short amount of time; then the temperature is lowered to finish baking. The idea is that the water in the dough turns to steam in the oven, which causes the dough to puff up, creating air pockets that can then be filled with pastry cream, whipped cream or decadently flavored mousse.
Because we’re making choux “nuns,” I piped eight 2-inch disks and eight 1-inch disks onto parchment paper. I baked them at 425°F for 10 minutes and then turned down the temperature to 375°F and baked them for another 10-15 minutes. When they were golden brown, I pulled them out of the oven, pricked each one with a skewer to let the steam escape and put them back into the oven for a few more minutes to dry them out a bit.
Mary’s crème pâtissière recipe calls for a little bit of flour and a little bit of cornstarch for stability, plus the seeds of a whole vanilla bean for deliciousness! Once the choux buns were baked and cooled, I enlarged the holes that I created to let the steam escape and used a small piping tip to fill the buns with pastry cream. I then made a chocolate ganache to dip them in and placed one small choux bun on top of each of the larger buns to create my nuns. For a crowning touch, I piped whipped cream around the “necks” of the nuns to form the collar of their habits, resulting in eight delicious, happy little religieuses!
The link to Mary’s recipe is here, but I’ve adapted it for American bakers below.
Mary Berry's Religieuses
For the choux pastry:
For the pastry cream:
For the ganache:
- ½ c. + 2 T. heavy whipping cream
- 7 oz. chocolate (preferably 36-40% cocoa solids), chopped into small pieces
For the whipped cream:
- ½ c. heavy whipping cream
- Preheat oven to 425°F. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper, and use a pencil to draw eight 2-inch diameter circles and eight 1-inch diameter circles on one side of the paper. Then flip the paper over so you can see the circles through the paper.
- Put the butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan with the water and heat over medium heat until the butter melts. Bring the mixture to a boil, and then immediately remove the pan from the heat.
- Add all the flour to the pan at once. Stir vigorously with a wooden spoon until the mixture forms a soft ball. Return the pan to the heat and cook on low for 3-5 minutes, stirring constantly.
- Remove from the heat and leave the pan to cool slightly. Then gradually add the eggs, a little at a time, beating well between each addition to form a smooth, shiny paste. Spoon the mixture into a piping bag fitted with a ½-inch plain tip.
- Pipe the dough onto the parchment paper to fill each circle. Dip your finger in water and tamp down the top of each disk of dough, creating a smooth top. Place the cookie sheet in the center of the oven and bake for 10 minutes. Then reduce the oven temperature to 375°F and cook for another 10-15 minutes until golden brown. Remove the choux buns from the oven and pierce each bun with a skewer to allow steam to escape, then return them to the oven for 4-5 minutes to dry out. Remove them from the oven and transfer to a wire rack to cool.
- For the pastry cream, pour the milk into a heavy-bottomed saucepan and add the vanilla seeds (or extract). Bring to a boil gradually. Meanwhile, in a medium mixer bowl, use the whisk attachment to whisk together the egg yolks and sugar until pale in color, then whisk in the cornstarch and flour. When the milk just begins to boil, remove the pan from the heat and leave it to cool for 30 seconds. Gradually pour the milk into the egg mixture, whisking continuously, and then pour the mixture back into the pan.
- Bring the mixture back to a boil, whisking continuously over medium heat, and cook for 1 minute or until thickened. Transfer the pastry cream to a bowl to cool, covering the surface with plastic wrap to prevent a skin from forming on top. Put it in the fridge to chill.
- For the ganache, put the cream in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Put the chocolate in a heat-proof bowl. When the cream just begins to boil, pour it over the chocolate. Stir until the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth and shiny. Leave to cool and thicken. If needed, transfer it to the fridge to chill until the ganache reaches a dippable consistency.
- To assemble the religieuses, spoon the cold pastry cream into a piping bag fitted with a long thin tip (or alternatively you can use a jam syringe). Pipe the cream into the holes used to let the steam out of the buns, enlarging the holes with a skewer if necessary. (When the cream starts to ooze out around the piping tip, you know they are filled.)
- Dip the filled buns into the chocolate ganache to coat them halfway up the sides. Before the ganache has set completely, sit one of the small buns on top of each of the larger buns.
- For the collars, whip the cream until soft peaks form. Spoon the cream into a piping bag fitted with a small star nozzle. Pipe the cream around the “neck” where the small bun meets the large bun to form a collar.
- Serve immediately or refrigerate for up to 24 hours. They are best enjoyed the same day.