Martha Stewart, the doyenne of entertaining, will cook all day to prepare the perfect meal for guests.
They are from two different worlds.
One is an elegant hostess, willing to cook all day to make the perfect party a good thing. The other is a hurried homemaker who doesn’t want to spend time or effort in the kitchen, but still wants to eat good food.
Both have written dozens of cookbooks. Both have their own magazines. Both became immensely popular on television.
On the one hand, you have Martha Stewart, doyenne of entertaining and creator of the cream cheese-stuffed sugar snap pea hors d’oeuvre that was seemingly served at every single party from 1982 until about 1985.
On the other hand, you have Sandra Lee, who parlayed a decorator’s interest in creating beautiful tablescapes into an empire based on the concept of “semi-homemade” cooking, which relies heavily on prepackaged foods for the sake of convenience.
Two different attitudes. Two different styles.
What would happen, we wondered, if you put them side by side? If we made the same dish as envisioned by both Martha Stewart and Sandra Lee?
So I made the same three dishes from the recipes of both women. And here is what I found: Sometimes it can be hard to find the ingredients that Lee specifies.
I spent far too much time in the grocery store looking for Duncan Hines’ Moist Deluxe Swiss Chocolate Cake Mix (which I never found), Greek seasoning (an employee directed me to it) and Birds Eye Garlic Pasta and Vegetable Combo (which hasn’t been made in years).
So I substituted a Duncan Hines chocolate cake mix and two frozen SmartMade Roasted Vegetables with Angel Hair entrees.
The question is: How did it taste? How did any of them taste?
I began with minestrone soup, which Stewart makes in the classic way, with fresh vegetables (though the beans are canned), including a potato and thin slices of cabbage, flavored with a hint of rosemary and a dash of basil. Lee’s version uses just five ingredients, plus shredded Parmesan for a last-minute garnish.
Lee’s minestrone gets most of its flavor from the frozen pasta with vegetables, a can of Italian-seasoned tomatoes and a good hunk of tomato paste.
The tomato is so overwhelming that the minestrone seems like a tomato soup with vegetables, plus some angel-hair noodles. There is also an unpleasantly sharp taste of something, but it is possible that comes from the frozen vegetables and noodles that I used and that a different brand may make it more pleasant.
Stewart’s minestrone tasted clean, classic and simple, despite using many more ingredients. It took considerably longer to make, though it was still less than an hour, but the convenience inherent in Lee’s version also cost more.
In addition, Lee’s dish registered more calories and more sodium. These are trends we will see for all of the recipes.
Next up was chicken prepared in a Greek style. Stewart’s version, Roasted Chicken Thighs with Tomatoes, Olives and Feta, has a lovely presentation (I used multicolored grape tomatoes). And the taste is bright and fresh, which comes both from the natural ingredients and the garnishes — a pop of mint and a scattering of briny feta cheese — that are added just before serving.
Lee’s Greek Chicken has the more earthy, rounder flavor that comes from spending a long time in a slow cooker. Along with the boneless, skinless chicken thighs, it is made with frozen chopped onions, Greek seasoning, a can of Italian-style diced tomatoes, a can of sliced black olives and a can of condensed cream of chicken soup.
An energizing splash of lemon juice at the end makes a lovely counterpoint to the other, well-blended flavors.
Dessert was a pair of chocolate Bundt cakes topped with ganache. Once again, it was a battle between pre-packaged tools (a box of cake mix, a box of powdered instant pudding) versus a cake made from scratch.
To my surprise, a number of the taste testers preferred the Sandra Lee version from the boxed mixes. It was unquestionably lighter and more moist, with the moisture coming both from the pudding mix and the addition of vegetable oil.
The Stewart cake was definitely denser, which one tester noted is the way Bundt cake is supposed to be. But just about everybody liked the extra-chocolatey ganache more on the Lee cake, and the chocolate chips mixed inside got their share of praise, too.
Stewart doesn’t use chocolate chips. Perhaps they are too difficult to make from scratch.