Like almost all young children, my 5-year-old son has certain, shall we say, strong preferences about what he eats. Zephyr loves peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but only if I cut the crusts from the whole-wheat bread. Apple slices are a preferred snack — as long as I remove the peels. Broccoli is his favorite vegetable, but he just eats the bushy florets, never the trunk-like stems.
For years, I dutifully subtracted these shunned parts from preparations. It was the act of a realist who just wanted to get his kid fed without having to navigate an argument to make it happen. That doesn’t mean I was happy about it. Though I usually composted the scraps, I still felt guilty about the waste. I don’t want to think about how many pounds of perfectly edible ingredients wound up fueling my garden.
I don’t always have the time or inclination to cater to my son’s whims at the dinner table. So I employ an arsenal of techniques to convince him to try new foods or eat those that give him pause.
One is the “celebrity endorsement.” When he was younger, he wouldn’t touch a mandarin until I told him it was a “Batman orange.” Then he practically ripped it out of my hand and stuffed it into his mouth. He has been a devoted fan ever since. The key is to stay up to date with his passions, so I can invoke the character he loves the most. Right now it’s a tie between his grandmother and Harry Potter.
I also try to present food in intriguing shapes. I’ve accumulated an impressive collection of cookie cutters — dinosaurs, woodland creatures, stars and skulls — which I use to add appeal to new vegetables, fruits, cheeses and sandwiches packed with novel ingredients.
Finally, the Vitamix is our secret weapon. Pretty much any vegetable can be blended into a spaghetti sauce or soup, while new fruits (and even some veggies) can go into smoothies. But Zephyr has a surprisingly astute palate, so more often that not, he will often call me out (and stop eating) when I’ve added an ingredient he doesn’t like.
None of these techniques have worked particularly well with bread crusts, apple peels and broccoli stems. But earlier this year, while walking out a pile of perfectly good crusts to the composter, I nibbled on one and had a revelation. The browner edge was so tasty, possessing a nuttier, grainier flavor than the soft part of the slice. Just imagine the bread pudding they would make! Some of the food scraps I was discarding obviously had the potential to be utterly delicious dishes my son would love — if I presented them the right way.
I returned to the house, put the crusts in a gallon-size zip-top bag, and stuck them in the freezer. Over the next couple of weeks, I accumulated enough to fill the entire bag. By that point, my wife had given up on asking me when I was going to make something with them and simply gave me weird looks every time I added to my collection.
One morning, when Zephyr asked for more maple syrup on his whole grain pancakes, the idea came together. Rather than cutting up the crusts into the usual cubes, I laid them crisscross in a baking dish as if I were building with Lincoln Logs (I didn’t bother defrosting, much less toasting, them when I took them out of the freezer). To bind them together, I used a syrup-sweetened mixture of milk, heavy cream, eggs and spices.
The finished dessert has a delicately crispy top, featuring added crunch from a scattering of toasted pecans, but it’s creamy like the core of a French toast once you plunge your spoon in. Though it’s sweet on its own, it needed a next level topping. I created a salted maple caramel sauce, so the whole presentation comes off like New England inspired sticky toffee pudding. It earned two thumbs up from Zephyr, who didn’t seem to notice the crusts he usually spurned were its building blocks. Chalk up a win for dad and his crusade against food waste!
That success gave me the confidence to tackle apple peels, which I thought would make for a great snack. I simply tossed them with sugar, cinnamon and lemon juice, and then baked them low and slow until they transformed into featherweight, crackly chips. I earned approval from my son for this creation, too; he was once again blissfully ignorant of the fact he was eating something he had previously despised.
My final experiment was with broccoli stems, which are just as tough as they look. Perhaps Zephyr was just reacting to the unpleasant fibrous quality, which I could solve by peeling them. After cutting the stalks into rods, I tossed them with Middle Eastern za’atar spice and roasted them. Unfortunately, served alone, they weren’t enough to tempt my son. Undeterred, I created a whipped feta dip, inspired by one our family enjoyed at Domenica restaurant in New Orleans. So many children have been convinced to eat broccoli because their parents drown it in cheese — this is pretty much the same thing. I’m convinced if I slathered the dip on a Lego minifigure, Zephyr would be tempted to eat it.
I wouldn’t need to, though: Unlike apple peels, bread crusts or broccoli stems, he would never reject a Lego.
Martell is a Washington area writer. He will join our online chat Wednesday at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.
6 to 8 servings
With a crunchy toasted pecan topping and a creamy core reminiscent of French toast, this decadent bread pudding features whole-wheat bread crusts that might normally end up in the trash or compost.
The author baked this in a 9-by-7-inch baking dish (Pyrex); it’s helpful to choose a receptacle that allows for multiple layers. Whichever baking dish you use, it should be able to hold 10 to 11 cups total. In testing, we used a 9-by-6 /12-inch disposable aluminum pan.
Serve with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream, if you’re feeling indulgent.
MAKE AHEAD: You will have some salted maple caramel sauce left over, which can be refrigerated for up to 1 month. Warm through before serving.
From Washington area writer Nevin Martell.
For the bread pudding
8 cups leftover whole-wheat sandwich bread crusts
4 large eggs
1 cup whole or low-fat milk
2 cups heavy cream
¾ cup maple syrup, preferably dark in color
¼ packed cup dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
¼ teaspoon ground coriander
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ cup chopped pecans
For the sauce
2 cups maple syrup, preferably grade B
4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature
½ cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
For the bread pudding: Use cooking oil spray to lightly grease a baking dish that can hold a total of 10 to 11 cups (see headnote). Arrange the crusts in 3 or 4 alternating layers (vertical/horizontal).
Whisk together the eggs, milk, cream, maple syrup, dark brown sugar, vanilla extract, nutmeg, cardamom, coriander and salt in a large liquid measuring cup. Pour over the crusts, then gently press to make sure they are all thoroughly moistened. Let sit for 15 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Bake the bread pudding (uncovered, middle rack) for 35 minutes. Remove from the oven just long enough to scatter the pecans on top, then return to the oven and bake for 15 to 25 minutes, until the pudding has puffed up and is lightly browned around the edges.
Meanwhile, make the sauce: Pour the maple syrup into a deep saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Once the syrup has thickened enough to coat the back of the spoon, add the butter, stirring until it has melted completely.
Add the cream and salt, stirring for several more minutes to form a smooth sauce that has thickened just a little more. Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla extract.
Let the bread pudding stand for a few minutes before serving. Top each portion with some salted maple caramel sauce, and serve warm.
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