School is back in season and that means it’s time for a snack for hard working students who need a little something that bridges the gap between the end of the school day and la cena (dinner). In Italy, an afternoon snack is known as "la merenda". The term comes from the Latin verb merere (to merit or deserve) and in the course of a day looks something like this
12 p.m. – 1 p.m. > Lunch
4 p.m. – 5 p.m. > Merenda (snack)
8 p.m. – 10 p.m. > Dinner
It can be sweet; a biscotti or slice of bread spread with chocolate hazelnut spread (Nutella), a piece of crostata or a ciambellone (a donut-like tea cake) or bread smeared with ricotta and honey or marmalata. Or it can be savory; bread rubbed with a raw tomato or olive oil or a tramezzino, a little sandwich with a slice of cured meat. The adult version of la merenda is the Italian aperitivo with an extended time frame. An after work ritual that offers a well-deserved moment of relaxation at the end of a day where you go for a pre-dinner drink to relax, nibble and nip and socialize with your friends.
The childhood tradition of an after-school merenda has gradually changed over the years. Homemade merenda bread and cakes once made nella casa with stone-milled, GMO-free flours have been replaced with processed supermarket snacks cakes and junk food. However more parents are increasingly concerned about their children’s nutrition, reviving the old-school merenda tradition When merenda snacks were homemade or picked up at the local gelateria or neighborhood forno (bakery).
Family and social connections are a very important part of Italian culture and living and the nostalgia of la merenda remains for a new generation of parents who remember a well-deserved after school snack prepared and shared with their family. A ritual that not only satisfied their hunger but provided an opportunity to unwind after school and share stories of the day with their families
Here are 2 recipes for a well-deserved Italian inspired merenda for after school snacking. One sweet and one savory that parents and kids can both enjoy.
Ciambellone is a classic Italian cake with the texture of a spongecake and the crust of freshly baked bread. Also known as ciambella cake it is made in a tube or bundt pan to give it a traditional donut shape.
4 medium sized eggs
¾ cup + 2 tbsp sugar (granulated or raw cane sugar)
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
⅔ cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
finely grated zest of one orange or one lemon
2½ cups all purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
Preheat oven to 340°F and generously butter and flour a 9-inch bundt cake pan. In a large bowl whisk the eggs and sugar using a hand or stand mixer until pale and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Continue to whisk and slowly pour in the extra-virgin olive oil, followed by the milk, then whisk in the vanilla extract and zest. Place a sieve over the bowl, add the flour and baking powder and sift the ingredients into the bowl. Whisk all the ingredients gently until just combined, do not over mix.
Pour the cake batter into the prepared bundt pan. Place in the oven and bake for about 40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove the ciambellone from the oven and allow to cool completely at room temperature, then remove from the cake pan. Sprinkle some confectioner's sugar on top if you like. 12 servings.
To serve and store: At room temperature for up to 2 hours, or longer when placed under a cake cover in a cool dry spot in your kitchen. To store: Cut the cake into slices and transfer them to a ziplock bag or another airtight container to store in the refrigerator where they will keep well for 3-4 days.
In Italian the word tramezzzini literally translates to "in between the half" referring to the time of day it is suitable for eating as a late afternoon snack before dinner. Made from soft white crustless bread cut into thin slices (1/4 inch thick) each slice of bread is spread with a thin layer of softened butter or mayonnaise before adding the fillings. Tramezzini can be prepared in advance and stored, making them a convenient la merenda for after school snackers. Some of the most popular tramezzini are filled with prosciutto and cheese, tuna and tomato, tuna and artichoke, cheeses, all kinds of vegetables including eggplant, broccoli rabe and spinach. For older more sophisticated snackers tramezzini can be multi-layered, with an additional slice or two of bread and more elaborate fillings.
Sun-Dried Tomato and Basil Tramezzini
Mix the following ingredients throughly to combine. Remove crusts from soft white bread. Cut bread into thin slices (1/4 inch thick). Spread one side of each slice of bread with a thin layer of softened butter or mayonnaise before adding the filling.Cut into triangles and serve.
8 ounces cream cheese
1/2 cup lightly packed sun-dried tomatoes (chopped)
1/4 cup lightly packed frozen spinach (thawed and squeezed dry)
1-2 Tablespoons of garlic (minced) (optional)
1/4 cup shredded parmesan cheese
pinch of sea salt
3-4 leaves of fresh basil finely chopped (optional)