Sandra Lee knows how to maximize her pantry.
The lifestyle expert, who rose to fame as the host of Food Network’s Semi-Homemade Cooking and using a clever combination of store-bought foods and fresh ingredients to create delicious, fuss-free dishes, is all about making the best use of items she has on hand. It’s a skill that’s become even more useful during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, as millions of Americans are staying in and preparing meals at home—some for the very first time.
“During this time when we’re all cooking at home more and certainly watching our budgets, it’s all about being resourceful with the foods we have stocked on our shelves,” says Lee, 53, who is featured in the new issue of PEOPLE, on stands Friday.
To help novice and experienced cooks alike, she launched her new #TopShelf video series on her social channels and Today.com. “We all have those products that we forgot about on the top shelf or way back in the cabinet,” says Lee, who films the cooking videos in her L.A. kitchen. “The idea of Top Shelf may sound elevated, but it isn’t a challenge; it’s a chance to create next-level meals with what you already have and simply aren’t thinking about.”
Exclusively for PEOPLE, Lee looked into her own kitchen pantry to find four common, store-bought staples—a box of macaroni and cheese, a can of stewed tomatoes, a box of dry pancake mix, and a cup of brewed coffee—and turned them into six fast, delicious dishes.
Cook along with Lee here, and check out her Instagram for more recipe and cocktail ideas!
“There are so many quick dinners to make when you think outside the mac ’n’ cheese box,” says Lee. “These Top Shelf pasta recipes take less than 15 minutes from start to finish.”
Open 1 box (7.5 oz.) macaroni and cheese dinner kit; separate pasta from powdered-cheese packet. (Reserve cheese packet for biscuit recipe below.) In a pot of boiling salted water, cook pasta according to package instructions; strain and set aside. Meanwhile strain and chop 1 can (14.5 oz.) stewed tomatoes. (Reserve canned tomato liquid for biscuit recipe below.) In a medium pan cook chopped tomatoes with 2 tablespoons olive oil on medium-high heat until slightly thickened and saucy, about 3 minutes. Add pasta to pan; toss to coat. Season with kosher salt and black pepper; serve immediately.
Macaroni Cacio e Pepe
Open 1 box (7.5 oz.) macaroni and cheese dinner kit; separate pasta from powdered-cheese packet. (Reserve cheese packet for biscuit recipe below.) In a pot of boiling salted water, cook pasta according to package instructions; strain and return hot pasta to the pot. Add 1 tablespoon olive oil; toss to coat. Over medium heat, stir in 1½ cups shredded or grated parmesan cheese until cheese melts and pasta is well coated. Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper; toss to combine. Taste for seasoning, and add kosher salt or more parmesan cheese and/or pepper, if desired. Serve immediately.
“Even if you can’t find flour at the grocery, you can still bake decadent cookies using my secret: boxed pancake mix,” says Lee.
Preheat oven to 350F. Beat 1 cup granulated sugar, ½ cup softened butter and ½ cup cooled, brewed strong coffee or espresso with an electric mixer on medium until fluffy, about 3 minutes. In a separate bowl mix together 2½ cups dry pancake mix and 6 tablespoons cocoa powder. Gradually add dry mixture to coffee mixture, beating on low until just combined. Place 1 tablespoon cocoa powder in a bowl. Form dough into tablespoon-size balls. Roll balls in cocoa powder and place 2 inches apart on a greased baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Pat tops to slightly flatten. Bake until just set, 12 to 15 minutes.
Maple Syrup Cookies
Preheat oven to 350F. Beat 1 cup brown sugar, ½ cup softened butter and ½ cup maple syrup with an electric mixer on medium until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Gently fold in 2½ cups dry pancake mix until it forms a soft dough. Using your hands, gently roll the dough into a 1.5-inch to 2-inch log. Using a sharp knife, slice dough into ½-inch slices. (If the dough is too soft to slice, place the log in the freezer for an hour or until firm.) Place the dough slices at least 2 inches apart on a greased baking sheet lined with parchment paper. (The cookies will spread and expand during baking.) Bake until set and the edges are golden brown, 12 to 15 minutes.
RELATED VIDEO: See Inside Sandra Lee’s New York Estate That ‘Smells Like Cookies and Feels Like Heaven’
Delicate Cheese Biscuits
“There’s nothing better than a hot fresh-from-the-oven biscuit,” says Lee. “My shortcut recipes make amazingly flaky, delicate biscuits—and you only need two ingredients.”
Preheat oven to 450F. In a large bowl mix together 2 tablespoons (from 1 packet) powdered cheese (reserved from the macaroni and cheese dinner kit) and 2½ cups dry pancake mix. Slowly stir in 2/3 cup water until mixture is just combined; do not overmix. Drop dough by 2-tablespoon amounts on an ungreased baking sheet, spacing them about 2 inches apart. Bake until biscuits are golden brown, 10 to 12 minutes. Serve warm.
Tomato & Cheese Biscuits
Preheat oven to 450F. In a large bowl mix together 2 tablespoons (from 1 packet) powdered cheese (reserved from the macaroni and cheese dinner kit) and 2½ cups dry pancake mix. Slowly stir in 2/3 cup stewed tomato juice (reserved from the can of stewed tomatoes) until mixture is just combined; do not overmix. Drop dough by 2-tablespoon amounts on an ungreased baking sheet, spacing them about 2 inches apart. Bake until biscuits are golden brown, 10 to 12 minutes. Serve warm.
Sandra’s Tip! “When you open your can of tomatoes, press the can lid down to drain liquid into a measuring cup. A standard 14.5 oz. can of stewed tomatoes will yield exactly 2/3 of a cup of liquid, which is exactly what you need for this recipe!”