My husband Joe is currently taking French classes as part of his Army training. He’s not used to sitting all day and doing work that is mentally, rather than physically, demanding. But there’s not much in life he doesn’t give his very best at, so I think he’ll do fine.
If you know Joe well, you also know that behind his tough exterior (6’4″ and covered with muscles and tattoos) and blunt honesty is a super sweet guy who will go out of his way to make someone’s day special.
Joe’s teacher is from France. Teaching language school in the military can be a tough job at times. So when she mentioned how much she enjoys religieuse pastries, he thought it would be nice to make some for her and the rest of his class. And since I’m pretty good at baking, he asked if we could do it together.
The religieuse, meaning nun, is a round pastry with another small pastry on top, filled with crème patisserie, and covered with chocolate ganache or one of many exotic flavors of glaze. It’s basically a super fancy cream-filled donut. It looks a little bit like a figure in a nun’s habit, hence the name.
We started this project one evening after Joe got home from work, not realizing how busy he’d be that day or how much work would go into it, partly due to all the measurement conversions. If you ever use a European recipe, I suggest figuring that out ahead of time!
So he made the choux pastry while I made dinner (paleo zucchini sausage roll-ups with pesto that I will have to blog about later) and I had to finish the rest while he ran his tri-weekly Crossfit training group and caught up on French homework.
I was already doubting whether my skills would measure up to those of the bakers in France. But it’s the thought that counts, right? So I put on some French café music and kept going, complaining to Joe about how many pots and bowls I would have to wash. (Seriously, I don’t think anyone considered that when they wrote the recipe).
Our pastries were a little flat, but I managed to squeeze the vanilla crème inside them, and when the ganache reached the right consistency, I spread/poured it over the top. I finally tried one after Joe went to bed, and as I savored the near perfection of what we’d created – a soft, crispy pastry with thick, just-sweet-enough vanilla crème patisserie and an amazingly rich chocolate ganache, I was suddenly reluctant to give them away!
When Joe came home from work the next day, he told me how much his teacher like the pastries. She said I could open up a bakery – in France! We also had some leftover crème and ganache, so I made some quick popovers to use it up (and shamelessly reward myself for all my hard work).
In our modern world of convenience foods, it felt really good to make something that took some time and effort – that felt like not only real food, but art. I kept thinking, these are so legit they don’t even have vanilla extract, they have the seeds of a single vanilla pod scraped out by hand (it tastes amazing and you can see the tiny black specks in the pastry crème). Also, the French are not afraid of butter, which gives the ganache it’s singular richness.
Of course, I wouldn’t cook like this every day, but I was very proud of myself, and I felt I’d had an interesting cultural experience. And, no doubt, helped put a smile on someone’s face.
So if you’re ever in the mood for spending a couple hours on a dessert, here’s the recipe: Choux Pastry Religieuse. I would suggest cutting the ganache ingredients in half.
Let me know if you try it, or if you’ve had a similar cooking experience!