How to Feed a Finicky Toddler: Turn Leftovers into Treats

Tempting and simple apple cake made from leftover apples.By Laura Holmes Haddad

Patience is not one of my virtues (anyone who knows me will confirm this). But cooking with a toddler requires nothing but. Just when I'd resisted the temptation to open the oven and peek at a cake or incorporate the egg whites too quickly, my daughter dragged her stepstool into the kitchen.

To my 3-year-old daughter, Penelope, cooking and eating should -- and do -- happen simultaneously. She loves nothing more than dumping the flour in while the butter and eggs are still in the early stages of mixing, dipping her finger into a half-prepared cake batter, tasting the raspberries before they become jam and munching on carrots that were intended for the spaghetti sauce.

The real test of my patience begins when I've asked what she would like for dinner. A choice is made, but when she sits down to eat she declares that she asked for spaghetti -- thin spaghetti, in fact. And no, she doesn't like tomato sauce (which she adored only yesterday). I've started uttering the words I dreaded hearing from my own mom growing up -- "This is not a restaurant."

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Penelope leftovers

All of this has led to my latest culinary challenge: dealing with the leftovers that are created by Penelope's ever-changing food moods, as I like to call them. She might point excitedly to the bright yellow bananas in the grocery store, encouraging me to buy the whole bunch, but eat them at home? The horror. Ditto for strawberries, blueberries, and spinach from the farmers market.

This leaves me with two options: to never take her to the grocery store or farmers market (impractical on all counts, and too depressing to contemplate) or get creative with "Penelope leftovers."

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I have stuck with option two, creating smoothies, cakes, cookies and casseroles when faced with the sadly neglected foods that don't satisfy her palate this week. I've tried to bribe, cajole, encourage and suggest, but truly there is nothing you can do to change a 3-year-old's mind about a food she's declared public enemy No. 1. As any self-help book will tell you, you have to change.

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This cinnamon-scented apple cake was created out of desperation: mounds of leftover apples haunted my refrigerator last month with which I was determined to make something other than applesauce. (Since then, apples have taken top position in Penelope's daily diet. Check back next month, I'm sure apples will have fallen out of favor and blueberries will be the star of this cake.)

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This cake is for bakers and non-bakers alike; it's a buttery, slightly dense cake that takes little time to whip up and will use up any apples you have lying around. And the whole wheat flour and fairly low sugar content erase any guilt you might feel about feeding this to your toddler (or husband) for a few days. In short, you need little patience to pull this one off.

Leftover Apple Cake

Serves about 12

Ingredients

2 cups sweet, crisp apples, cut into ¼ cubes (peel on)

½ lemon

1¼ cups unbleached, all-purpose flour

1¼ cups whole-wheat flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

2 teaspoons cinnamon

Pinch of nutmeg

½ cup dark brown sugar, lump-free

½ teaspoon salt

2 large eggs

1 cup buttermilk

¼ cup (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted and cooled

1 cup chopped walnuts

4 tablespoons large-grain sugar (optional; see note)

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 400 F. Butter and flour one 9-inch square baking dish or tart pan.

2. Place the chopped apples in a bowl of water along with the juice of the lemon. Set aside.

3. Sift the flours together in a large bowl and add the baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, brown sugar and salt.

4. In a separate smaller bowl, whisk together the eggs and the buttermilk. Whisk in the melted butter. Pour the buttermilk mixture over the flour mixture and stir until barely combined -- don't overmix. (The batter will be very thick.)

5. Drain the apples, shake off any excess water and fold the apples into the cake batter. Gently fold in the walnuts (do not over-mix).

6. Spoon the batter into the prepared pan, pushing it out toward the edges. Sprinkle the sugar over the top of the cake, if using. Bake on the middle rack for about 25 to 30 minutes or until the cake is just set and slightly golden on top. (Check it at 25 minutes; if a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean the cake is ready.)

7. Let it cool for at least 15 minutes before you slice it. It's delicious as is, but a dollop of whipped cream never hurts. Keep any leftover cake in a sealed container in the fridge for up to 5 days.

Note: To create a crunchy sugar top, add a large-grain sugar right before baking (it's available in baking and specialty stores).

Laura Holmes Haddad lives in Los Angeles with her husband and daughter, where she writes about wine and food and runs her website, gourmetgrrl.com. Her latest collaboration is "Plats du Jour: A Journey Through the Seasons in Wine Country" with the girl & the fig restaurant in Sonoma, Calif., due out in November 2011.

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