Food You Can Eat: Celebrity Sunday Matinee: Sandra Lee’s Kwanzaa Cake

Try to think of a food (aside from avocado toast) that has generated this much controversy in the last 20 years

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Merry Christmas everybody! Since you’ve all been naughty and nice, for this season of joy Santa Mattie is gifting you Sandy’s bio and a recipe for her Kwanzaa cake, so you can celebrate that holiday, which kicks off tomorrow.

But first, perhaps you have heard of her Kwanzaa cake? Do you know the story behind it? It has an interesting backstory, just like the Blessed Infant Jesus Himself. It seems that Sandy, like most “celebrity” “chefs,” employed recipe developers (I don’t think she’s in the biz anymore), and she is not the originator of this Kwanzaa cake recipe. No. According to this Jezebel post (and note with sadness the 232 comments that you can still read—-those were the days) she had a woman named Denise Vivaldo under contract to come up with stuff for her. One of Vivaldo’s tasks was to come up with ten angel food cake recipes. Sayeth Vivaldo:

As a matter of fact, the more tasteless the recipes got the more she [Sandy] liked them, the faster she approved them, and I could get home and drink some medium-priced wine after our meetings. She’s not a good role model for abstinence.

https://jezebel.com/the-underbelly-of-the-celebrity-chef-industry-5714274

So that’s where that came from.

I was going to be very dismissive of Disgraced Former Governor Andrew Cuomo™’s Gal Pal but I have completely changed my mind. Here’s why. Sandra Lee Christiansen, her full maiden name, had a hardscrabble childhood and growing up it seems like neither her mother, her father, nor her step-father really cared about their children, so at a young age she was put in a position where she raised and fed her three younger-step-siblings on what she could scrounge from food stamps. Her recipes do have a kind of child-like innocence about them. 

She survived that and even went to college for a little bit but, and this makes no sense, she moved from Wisconsin to Malibu to be closer to relatives. If they were so impoverished who was living in Malibu? Malibu does, believe it or not, have trailers, but they’ve been expanded with decks etc. and people own the lots so they go for well into the seven figures. Doing the math she would have done this around 1986, not 1886. We’ll let that pass. Around this time she  also attended a two-week course at Ottawa’s Cordon Bleu, so where did that come from?

Next thing you know:

In the early 1990s, Lee created a product called “Sandra Lee Kraft Kurtains,” a home-decorating kit designed to turn a wire rack and sheets, or other spare fabric, into decorative drapery. It was sold via infomercials and cable shopping networks. Home-shopping network QVC hired her as on-air talent. In her first 18 months, Lee sold $20 million worth of merchandise. QVC also selected Lee to launch its craft and home decorating categories on its networks in the U.K. and Germany. In 1994, she released her first DIY home improvement video series, which sold more than a million copies. 

If my last name were Christiansen I think I would steer clear of naming my product Kraft Kurtains, just sayin’. But there she is, and she’s still in her 20s. 

Then in 2003 Semi-Homemade Cooking With Sandra Lee joined the Food Network and ran for a remarkable 15 seasons (and reruns galore are available all over the Internet.) It was during that inaugural season that the Kwanzaa cake appeared. During its first five years it was in the network’s Top 3 weekend shows. So success well-earned. Sandy is credited with creating the term tablescape from this show. During this early time, from 2001 to 2005, she was married, to KB Home CEO Bruce Karatz, for whom she converted to Judaism. You don’t often run across Jews named Christiansen, do you? Presumably she took his last name, theoretically and legally, but at this point she’s only Sandra Lee. No sooner had she consciously uncoupled from Karatz did she “enter into a relationship” with the aforementioned Disgraced Former Governor Andrew Cuomo™ and he moved into her Chappaqua house. If that hard-to-pronounce town (CHAP-a-QUA) sounds familiar, that is the town the CIintons chose to live in when Hillary was anointed Senator and they had to find somewhere actually in New York State to live. That’s where Chelsea got married and among the wedding attendees was one Ghislaine Maxwell, but I digress.

Sandy gave Handsy the boot in 2019, just in the nick of time since less than two years later all the scandals came to light and that’s when he earned his well-deserved title “Disgraced Former Governor.” She has since moved on to a somewhat hot former model-actor named Ben Youcef. He’s 13 years younger and they’re engaged and everything. Friends (“friends”) reportedly refer to them as “Bendra.” Problem was, when they got engaged he was still married and in a bitter divorce and custody battle for his children. He is now divorced. He is an Algiers-born Algerian-American and is also “an interfaith leader” so despite the fact that his real name is Abdulwahab Benyoucef and is presumably Muslim she may not have to now convert from Judaism to Islam. (Accounts vary but Sandy was either Seventh Day Adventist or Catholic originally; could have something to do with her somewhat chaotic childhood.)

Sandy is a breast cancer survivor and earlier this year underwent a grueling hysterectomy, which I did not know, and has been a cancer advocate (I mean, she doesn’t advocate that people get cancer, you know what I mean) since her 2015 diagnosis. She also co-founded the LA chapter of UNICEF in 2000. Didn’t LA have one before 2000? Were no young Angelenos trick-or-treating for UNICEF before the dawn of the 21st century? She is also involved in various food charities like God’s Love We Deliver and serves on the Board of Elton John’s AIDS Foundation, so good for her. 

Here is the recipe for the Kwanzaa cake. How was it received when it first entered the consciousness of the nation? Anthony Bourdain, never one to mince words, called it “a war crime.” A general criticism of Sandy is that often her recipes are much less healthy and much more expensive than if you did a few simple things from scratch, rather than buying store-bought equivalents. Others complain that her whole aesthetic is that cooking is something unpleasant but necessary, like changing diapers, so rather than guiding the curious into culinary pleasures, the whole act is treated as something that must be dispensed with as quickly and as fuss-free as possible. During the pandemic, though, many pointed out that for the first time loads of people were forced to fend for themselves in their own kitchens, and of all the hundreds of cooking resources available her contributions may have been the most valuable to the greatest number. You be the judge. I have my own opinions and you can guess what they are.

Without further ado:

The Kwanzaa Cake That Shocked The Conscience Of A Nation

1 (10 to 12-ounce) purchased angel food cake
1 container (16 ounce) vanilla frosting
2 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 (21-ounce) container apple filling or topping
1 (1.7-ounce) package corn nuts

1/2 cup pumpkin seeds, toasted
1/2 cup popped popcorn

Special Equipment:
Kwanzaa candles

Using a serrated knife, cut cake horizontally into 2 layers. Place bottom cake layer, cut side up, on a serving platter. Mix frosting, cocoa powder, vanilla, and cinnamon in large bowl until combined. Spread about 1/4 of the frosting over top of cake layer on platter. Top with second cake layer, cut side down. Spread remaining frosting evenly over top and sides of cake to coat completely. Spoon apple pie filling into hole in center of cake. Place candles atop cake. Sprinkle top of cake with some corn nuts, pumpkin seeds, and popcorn. Sprinkle remaining corn nuts and pumpkin seeds around base of cake.

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9 Comments

  1. I’m not so hung up on her recipes but I do wonder what she was doing while Cuomo was attacking so many women. Although based on what we know about him, it’s certainly possible she was getting assaulted herself too. What a creep.

    I think Guy Fieri has gotten a bad rap. Diners Drive Ins and Dives is a really good show — I think Fieri does great job explaining what’s going on with the food and why it works.

    I always loved the interview with Bourdain where he explained why he buried the hatchet with Emeril Lagasse and realized the show biz  hef was OK, but he would never forgive Kissinger.

    • Did Guy Fieri explain why he could never forgive Kissinger? I mean, me neither, but Kissinger’s crimes (you should read the Christopher Hitchens book) happened while I was a child, and Fieri is younger than I am. Maybe Fieri’s father was in Vietnam or something?

  2. When I read the title, I though it was this person…

    Sandra Dee.

    I thought “Geez that’s pretty progressive of her.”

    Upon further reading, I went “WHO?”

    Poor lady, living Handsy Andy.

    • Sandra Dee’s Pucci (or Pucci-like) blouse would look sensational on any woman but with her coloring it was like it was designed for her. Blessings for finding that celebrity head shot of her.

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