Sandra Lee’s Semi-Unhinged Thanksgiving Leftovers Cake

Sandra Lee has a bit of a reputation for unhinged holiday baking. How does her Thanksgiving cake hold up?

November 23, 2021 6:38 am
Food Network star Sandra Lee holds a glass of red wine and gestures toward a Thanksgiving tablescape of pilgrim figurines in this screenshot from Semi-Homemade Cooking With Sandra Lee
Sandra Lee presiding over a semi-unhinged Thanksgiving tablescape
Food Network

Like many disordered eaters, I used to spend a lot of time watching shows about food in lieu of actually eating it. (That’s a real thing — those of you who have somehow managed to maintain a normal relationship with food can look it up; through no fault of its own, Food Network is the compensatory drug of choice for many a restrictive eater.)

These days, teens with eating disorders have any number of food programming options available to them on demand via the streaming service of their choice. But back in my day, (the early 2010s) my options were limited to whatever the Food Network happened to be running on cable at any given time. This meant that during weekday afternoons on school vacations, I watched a lot of Semi-Homemade Cooking With Sandra Lee. To this day, the Food Network star and former de-facto First Lady of New York turned undisputed breakup victor holds a special place in my heart. 

For the uninitiated, Semi-Homemade Cooking With Sandra Lee was a perhaps surprisingly long-lived Food Network show that ran from 2003 to 2011. According to the show’s intro, it’s based on Lee’s probably patented “Semi-Homemade philosophy,” which boils down to a formula of “70-percent store-bought, ready-made, plus 30-percent fresh ingredients and creative touches.“

In practice, this mostly amounts to Sandra Lee sprinkling packaged taco seasoning over leftovers and adding a teaspoon or two of an odd-flavored extract to boxed cake mix. The result is one of the most low-key unhinged shows to ever grace the Food Network. There’s always a cocktail recipe; there’s always an elaborate and often kind of deranged “tablescape” Sandra claims was easily assembled from items she happened to pick up at some vague gift shop or craft store, and our valiant host — bless her heart — always sounds just a little out of breath. 

Before we go any further, I want to make one thing perfectly clear: I fucking love Sandra Lee. I think her show is wholesome, entertaining and occasionally hilarious — if unintentionally so. She is, to my knowledge, largely unproblematic (with the exception of having had the misfortune of dating the disgraced former governor of New York, but if you judged women based on the shitty men we’ve fucked, we’d all be in jail). She comes off enthusiastic and well-meaning, and she looks like a grown-up version of Alice in Wonderland with cheekbones to die for. As a woman who loves food but doesn’t cook and has no intention of getting better at it, Sandra Lee is my girl. I wish her nothing but the best, and as I’ve previously expressed, I’m just really happy for her.

Still, Sandra has found herself on the wrong side of internet virality a handful of times, and perhaps deservedly so. Most infamously, Lee is known for an utterly deranged “Kwanzaa cake” from a Season 1 episode. While I have little reference for what the response to the cake was when the episode first aired back in 2003, it reached a level of internet virality in 2010, when the recipe writer behind the abomination published a (since-deleted) mea culpa on HuffPost, admitting she phoned it in that time knowing Lee had a preference for “tasteless” dishes. 

While I usually wouldn’t stand for such Sandra slander, I will admit that the Kwanzaa cake is offensive both culturally and gastronomically. As we now know, it’s simply never a great idea for a white woman to attempt to participate in a culinary tradition — or to pay edible tribute to a culturally specific holiday — about which she knows absolutely nothing. As  Jessica Harris, culinary historian and professor emerita at Queens College, told Salon of the semi-homemade cake in 2010: 

“The thing that’s potentially offensive to me is characterizing/determining a holiday about which neither the cake preparer nor the recipe designer has the first clue. When you create a recipe to be attributed to someone else’s culinary tradition, that demands a knowledge of the culture and a judicious handling of things. But this cake has no cultural relevance.”

Still, one might argue that perhaps the most egregious thing about this cake is that it consists of a boxed-mix angel food Bundt cake frosted with cinnamon-chocolate icing and filled with canned apple pie mix dumped unceremoniously into the center. (There are also candles involved, but we don’t need to get into it.)

Knowing what I do of Sandra Lee’s tendency to get a little extra unhinged around the holidays, I figured there had to be something approaching a Thanksgiving equivalent of the ill-advised Kwanzaa cake buried somewhere in the 15 seasons worth of semi-homemade Thanksgiving specials. So, in the interest of journalism, I binge-watched them all. 

To my partial relief as a devoted Sandra Lee stan, much of her Thanksgiving content is pretty normal. Over the course of 15 seasons, she makes several fall-themed Bundt cakes (the lady loves a Bundt cake), extends some legitimately good advice for fixing Thanksgiving emergencies (Just cut off the bottoms of burnt rolls! Under-browned turkey? Just coat it with a mixture of butter plus “anything in your pantry that’s full of sugar” and pop that bird back in the oven for an extra five minutes), and there’s only one instance of taco seasoning.

In a Season 7 episode, however, Sandra Lee delivers the semi-unhinged dessert of my dreams in the form of a Thanksgiving leftovers cake (it’s always a cake). To be fair, the cake isn’t nearly as deranged as it could’ve been; she’s not frosting it with mashed potatoes or anything, and there are no candles involved. (I’d like to add that the episode also includes a number of seemingly good — and dare I say classy? — ideas for repurposing leftovers, including green-bean-stuffed mushrooms and caviar-topped potato blinis.) 

In true Sandra Lee form, the Thanksgiving leftovers cake starts with a boxed mix (spiced, though she suggests boxed carrot cake as an alternative). The boxed mix is combined with leftover mashed sweet potatoes and coconut extract, because why the hell not? The frosting is of the canned cream cheese variety, mixed with some rum extract, which, okay!

A white-frosted cake coated in toasted coconut flakes
The semi-unhinged cake itself
Food Network

Things take a turn for the semi-unhinged, however, when Lee fills the center of the cake with leftover cranberry sauce spooned directly from a Tupperware container. I, also a Holiday Baking Championship aficionado, would have probably at least boiled that shit down into some kind of cranberry compote, but that’s simply not Sandra Lee’s game and we must respect it.

It’s worth noting that this episode also includes one of the most extravagantly absurd Sandra Lee tablescapes mine eyes have ever glimpsed, featuring a staggering army of pilgrim figurines that Lee says she picked up — wait for it — from a gift shop.

Of course, someone trying to get rid of Thanksgiving leftovers (whose house is presumably already filled with autumnal desserts) might ask themselves, “Do I really need another dessert?” Probably not! But just in case you do, Sandra’s got you covered with a characteristically weird-ass cake, and it’s also covered in toasted coconut flakes, because okay, sure!

You can find the recipe for Sandra Lee’s Thanksgiving leftovers cake here. In the meantime, please know that I’m wishing you and Sandra Lee a very happy, semi-unhinged Thanksgiving.


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