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Don’t Throw Out Your Kids’ Uneaten Sandwich Crusts


Bread is bread until it goes stale. Then it is Stale Bread, which obeys its own set of rules. How to learn the new rules? Perhaps you’ve already taken Stale Bread 101, whose basic lesson is that a loaf past its prime doesn’t have to be thrown away. Just barely stale loaves can be wrapped in wet towels, then put in a three-hundred-degree oven to crisp. (I’ve had just as much success quickly running the loaves under a trickling tap, then letting them recover in an oven on medium heat.) Once it’s past that point, stale bread can be ground into crumbs; turned into stuffing, bread pudding, or bread soup; or torn into craggy croutons, tossed with lots of good olive oil and salt, and toasted at four hundred degrees until crisp, golden, and delicious. These croutons can be put on salad, or they can become the salad, as in a panzanella, which, in my kitchen, involves cucumber or tomato and thinly sliced onion soaked in salt and vinegar, with spoonfuls of cool, creamy ricotta on top.

A proper education in Stale Bread must survey the many cuisines that rely on bread—those of South Asia (roti and maani), the Middle East (pita and sangak), and Western and parts of Northern Europe (pane, pan, baguette, boule, bauernbrot). Each region has its own stale-bread recipes. An Indian or Pakistani cookbook might have seyal roti or seyal maani—staling flatbreads simmered with herbs, aromatics, and dried spices until stewy. A Lebanese book will list fattoush, a salad of crisp vegetables, fresh herbs, sumac, and baked or fried pita. A Tuscan one will include bread soups like pappa al pomodoro (tomato and bread) and ribollita (beans and bread), an Austrian or German one knodel, a savory dumpling made of white bread, eggs, milk, and salt—and perfect for setting to bob in wild-mushroom ragout. You’ll soon be an expert on letting no loaf or slice go to waste.

Then what? Then you’ll grow curious about those bits of bread that aren’t featured in the intro-level course: the crusts smeared with strawberry jam and peanut butter that your three-year-old insists are inedible, the cream-cheese-topped onion-bagel ends and bits of cinnamon-raisin toast left over from breakfast, the ketchup-dabbed bun that didn’t get eaten on burger night. I recently collected a menagerie of these bready bits, determined to find them a home. I found myself reading about bread upma, a South Indian breakfast dish so redolent with its tadka of curry leaves, cumin, and mustard seeds that bits of leftover peanut butter or jelly or cream cheese or ketchup barely register. Or, if they do, they might improve the final result—a perfect balance of salt, sweetness, savor, acidity, crispness, and chew. On a Web site called Hebbar’s Kitchen, I read advice to toast stale bread for bread upma; I’ve also fried it in ghee or canola oil. But it’s also entirely permissible to skip crisping altogether. Most bread upma recipes take a similar route from here: heat some kind of fat; temper curry leaves and mustard seeds; add ginger, freshly chopped chili, and asafetida. I follow the recipes that ask for tomato and onion, simmered with some water into masala thickness, with the bread tossed in at the end. To finish, I like to follow the advice on the site Cook with Manali. Manali adds toasted peanuts to her bread upma, and tops it with a squeeze of lime and sev, a crunchy Indian chickpea-noodle snack. This freewheeling approach inspired me to top mine with fresh cilantro and finely chopped onion, some of the irresistible spice mixture chaat masala, and some crushed Funyuns. (Wasting Funyuns, after all, is as rash as wasting bread.)

From there, your mind restlessly alights on other things bread-like that routinely get tossed. For instance, what about the crackers you slathered with goat cheese or cashew butter or nutella, and packed for the picnic but nobody ate? Do they have any shot of avoiding an ignominious end? Yes! Recently, after unpacking a picnic basket, I stored my leftover cracker sandwiches in a container on the counter; a mere three weeks later, I nervously opened it. They smelled fine; they tasted a little aged but otherwise great. I poured the contents into a food processor and pulsed them into sandy crumbs, which I then turned into a cracker crust. I’m willing to testify that an old-cracker piecrust is nearly as great as a graham-cracker one—pleasingly salty and with a slight complexity from whatever bits of cheese or dips or schmear the crackers had on them. Fill the crust with cream cheese, beaten with eggs and sugar, for a cheesecake—or with lemon curd or chocolate pudding and fresh whipped cream. If there’s any of the resulting cheesecake or pie left over, you may be ready to turn your attention to Pie 101, a whole other field of study.

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