So, tell me, when do you call it a day and wear your most comfortable pajamas? Normal people probably would change themselves into their night attire around nine or ten in the evening, after dinner and after a good shower, just before getting into bed. During my childhood and teenage years, when I went to school, I would put my pajamas around three o’clock in the afternoon, after lunch, before my homework.
As soon as my summer holidays were over, I would enter into my lethargic and lazy phase. I remember how I enjoyed those slow afternoon spent quietly over my homework, wearing my pajamas, with the radio playing in the background, huge plush slippers at my feet, my grandma in the next room or reading a book next to me on the couch. Books would lie down on the marble table in the living room, I would open my case and notebooks, and let the hours slide quietly. Have I ever told you that I was a swot at school?
My favorite moment of those days was merenda, the afternoon snack. Every afternoon spent at home studying, from elementary up to the end of high school, every afternoon at five o’clock tea was brewed. It didn’t matter if for the next day I had just a few pages to read or perhaps a theme, a summary, to draw the physical map of Russia in colours or in recent years to translate Seneca or study physics (my Achilles’ heel). At five o’clock I would allow myself a half an hour break for a snack. Merenda, it is a sacred right of every child of school age!
Today with the girls of the Italian Table Talk we are going to deal with this exceptional moment of the day, merenda, the afternoon snack, a tea break. Emiko will explain you a classic, and perhaps one of my favourite ways to have a snack, pane e pomodoro. Valeria has baked instead a tray of cookies that would be perfect with a cup of tea, her version of grancereale. Jasmine finally is offering us a cup of sweetness, zabaione.
Autumn is here, with its fiery colours, children got back to school and my first thought after all these years in mid-afternoon is still to put on a kettle to make some tea, suspend my activities for five minutes and nibble on something good. Biscuits with tea are just the latest of many possible combinations that cheered my afternoon while I was growing up. As a child it would usually be bread and… olive oil, tomatoes, jam, ham, chocolate spread (only in very rare and lucky cases). Sometimes a hot toast with ham and cheese, especially if it was cold outside and I needed to warm my hands, numb after holding a pen for hours or browsing the Greek dictionary.
With the arrival of Claudia things changed, and for better. I always had to limit sweets, for this strange tendency to become plump, while Claudia has always been thin and picky, so in the afternoon were introduced sweetness of all kind were introduced to support my sister in her growth. The sponge roll, apple fritters and even a simple cup of pastry custard, dusted with some cocoa.
The custard – our Italian custard, crema, thicker than an English custard, something that you can eat up with a spoon then clean the cup with your finger – was one of the first desserts I learned to make, overseen by my grandmother, a summary of family warmth, precise rules and superstitions. Crema is made only with the wooden spoon, on the lowest heat.
You can not make a good crema in those days, and this spread a veil of mystery over the changes of the female body so that, growing up, I would say with a mixture of pride and embarrassment: no, I just cannot do that today, you know (whispering in a conspiratorial tone) I’m in those days… A good custard is made with care, without looking at the TV, because then you get distracted and it will go crazy, you’ll get scrambled eggs! I bet you can still hear my grandmother saying it in a firm tone, right?
The pastry custard is also the starting point to make zuppa inglese, literally English soup and basically a trifle, which was made when there was sponge cake or some savoiardi, lady biscuits, an acclaimed afternoon snack, perfect for those days when you needed a boost of energy or an extra cuddle, to be added to the wool blanket on the couch and to grandma’s caresses.
Apparently zuppa inglese was born at the same time in Italy around 1500 both in Emilia Romagna and in Tuscany, inspired by the English trifle and turned into something more Italian by replacing the pound cake or Madeira cake with a lighter sponge cake and the whipped cream with our custard.
Another explanation wants the zuppa inglese to be invented in Tuscany, in the hills of Fiesole over Florence, in the mid nineteenth century, when a Tuscan maid of a wealthy English family put together the leftover biscuits, chocolate pudding and custard from the lunch to create a hearty dessert. I do like this second origin, it tells so much about the love of Tuscan people for using up leftovers and turning them into delicious new recipes.
Far from any canon or tradition, this is my family zuppa inglese, the afternoon snack of my lucky days.
- 500 ml (2.11 cups) fresh whole milk
- 1/2 vanilla bean, split open
- 2 eggs
- 4 tablespoons sugar
- 2 tablespoons corn starch
- 80 g (2.82 oz) dark chocolate
- Savoiardi, lady fingers or sponge cake
- cocoa powder, to decorate
- Heat the milk in a saucepan with the vanilla pod and remove it from the heat as soon as it starts simmering.
- In another saucepan whisk the eggs with the sugar and the corn starch: do it carefully to avoid any lumps. Pour slowly the hot milk in a thin stream over the eggs, stirring constantly with a whisk to prevent scrambled eggs!
- Bring the saucepan back on a low flame and stir constantly with a whisk until it starts to thicken, you will need about 5 minutes. Remove the custard from the heat and divide it into two bowl. Combine the chopped dark chocolate in one bowl and whisk to melt it, until perfectly combined.
- Pour half a cup of Alchermes in a bowl and add half a cup of water. Use this to soak briefly the savoiardi.
- Now make the zuppa inglese in a bowl or into individual cups, by making layers of custard, savoiardi soaked in alchermes, chocolate custard and savoiardi again, until you end up with custard.
- Sprinkle the surface with cocoa powder or chopped darl chocolate and let it sit in the fridge for a few hours. Take it off ten minutes before eating and enjoy with a spoon wrapped in a blanket on your couch.
Not to lose a single post by the Italian Table talk girls, these are our Social Accounts:
- Emiko, her blog is Emikodavies.com, @emikodavies on Twitter, and her Pinterest
- Valeria, her blog is Life Love Food, @valerianecchio on Twitter, her FB Page and her Pinterest
- Jasmine, her blog is Labna.it, @labna on Twitter, her FB page and her Pinterest
- Juls, my Twitter @Julskitchen, FB page and Pinterest
The hashtag to follow the conversation on Italian Table talk on Twitter is #ITabletalk (easy, isn’t it?) and now you can find us also on our new Facebook page Italian Table talk. Do you have merenda? or do you make something special for your children in the afternoon?