Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Julie's Watergate Cake

Served with Cover Up Icing and chock full of nuts!

I've never really been a huge fan of debating or trying to pinpoint the most important moment in history. How is that even something you can quantify? Even if you narrow it down to American history, or recent American history, or American history within the last fifty years, there are so many different candidates for the title that arguing about it has always felt a little pointless and silly to me, like the historian's version of "Could Superman beat Batman in a fight?"

That being said, I don't think anyone could ever question that the Watergate scandal is one of the biggest, most defining moments in American history, especially in terms of the world we live in today. It rocked the nation's trust in the presidency (and politicians in general) and let loose a runaway freight train of journalism and media frenzy that's mutated into the ratings hungry monsters we have to deal with in 2016.

(For the record, while I support what Woodward and Bernstein did, in most cases, I'm not a big fan of the media and what it's turned into.)

So, what does a cake have to do with the biggest scandal in our nation's history?


Bet you didn't see that coming, did you?

On May 17, 1973, the Senate's hearings regarding the Watergate scandal began being televised across the country, running until August 7 of that year. Because this was a huge deal politically and this was a time when there were really only three channels to watch on any given TV set, according to the Museum of Broadcast Communication, it's been estimated that 85% of the population watched at least part of the hearings. I always find this bit of history funny because at the time, my mom was about nine years old, and (like most nine year olds) at the end of the day, she really didn't care much about what the president had been caught doing and would definitely would have preferred watching The Brady Bunch or something similar to boring legal hearings. When a family friend pointed out to her that she was watching history unfold, she still wanted to know why history couldn't be happening at a time when she didn't have shows she wanted to watch.

So there's a pretty good chance that Julie really didn't care all that much about the Watergate hearings, the same way I didn't really care about Monica Lewinsky and kids today don't really care about the antics politicians get up to.

However, according to Julie's Cooking Studio, she was definitely a fan of this pistachio flavored cake that's come to be associated with the scandal!

Watergate Cake is basically a white box mix cake that's been souped up by adding a packet of pistachio pudding mix and chopped walnuts to it before being liberally covered in a thick Cool Whip frosting, making it a perfect example of people trying to blend modern convenience while still putting in an effort in the kitchen, much like we discussed with the molded salad Maryellen introduced you to a couple weeks ago. It first started showing up in magazines and other publications around the same time Nixon resigned.

No one knows who first invented this recipe, or where it got its name, or if there's really any link between it and the Watergate Hotel or Richard Nixon. Some people have tried to say it got its name because Nixon liked pistachios, others have claimed that the Watergate Hotel was the inventor of the Watergate Salad (a similar recipe using pudding, canned fruit and marshmallows, kind of like a southern or mid western ambrosia), but there's no real definitive connection. One story I find the most interesting is a magazine claiming they named the dish specifically to attract interest because the name had such strong political and social associations for people that they were bound to do a double take when they saw the recipe instead of skimming on by. Imagine if I did the same thing by publishing a random pie recipe and calling it a Benghazi Pie, despite having no connection to Benghazi or Hillary Clinton!

What we do know is that the cake recipe - and enthusiasm for Watergate Salad - was extremely popular. Stores couldn't keep the mix in stock, and blamed the popularity of the recipe in magazines and newspapers for inspiring the craze. They're not treats I've really ever heard mentioned before, but they're evidently popular enough that you can even find a recipe for Watergate Salad on the box of pistachio pudding mix today!:

American Girl has included a recipe for Watergate Cake in Julie's Cooking Studio in the Favorite Foods chapter, although it's just called Pistachio Cake and only mentions the Watergate link in the margins. I often question whether the recipes AG has included in their cookbooks are totally authentic or not, but this one definitely is: I checked it against period recipes available on The Food Timeline, and it matches up pretty neatly with several 70's versions of this semi home made cake. One of my favorite versions comes from a cookbook that had lots of clever politically themed naming, so the Watergate Cake is served with Cover Up Frosting, and is appropriately full of nuts! That's the kind of food related humor I can really get behind.

So, time to get cooking. First, you take your white cake box mix - any brand will do - and dump it in a mixing bowl. One packet of pistachio pudding mix gets tossed in along with three eggs, and one cup each of vegetable oil and club soda. The club soda will make the batter start to foam, so make sure your vessel is big enough to hold about eight or so cups of liquid to make sure it doesn't spill over. As soon as the pudding gets wet, it'll turn bright green!

Next you mix, mix, mix. First just on low speed for two minutes to get everything combined, and then for about four minutes on medium speed.

And then you add in a half cup of chopped walnuts, which gets mixed in. Julie's Cooking Studio says these are optional, but most of the recipes include them. I was surprised the recipe didn't call for actual pistachios, to be honest, but none of them seem to.

The batter gets poured into a greased bundt pan and is baked in a 350 degree oven for about forty minutes.

My cake needed a tiny bit more time to cook through all the way, but came out of the oven looking awesome and slid right out of the pan with no tearing, even though this is a light, fluffy and slightly delicate cake! I was very excited.

Now came my only speed bump: the frosting. The frosting is a Cool Whip (or other non dairy whipped product...) base, and I'd never worked with it before. I was surprised to find out that it needs to live in the freezer, and that it needs four hours to defrost. As I was slightly in a rush and didn't want to wait until eight at night to frost my cake, I figured I could just start defrosting it in the microwave on a low setting.

Spoiler alert: this will basically melt your Cool Whip. The packaging even tells you not to do it. Oops!

I soldiered on because the Cool Whip wasn't totally liquid. You take another package of pistachio pudding mix and whisk it together with one and a half cups of cold milk until it gets thick. Then you fold in an eight ounce package of defrosted Cool Whip and smear it all over your cake. If you've done it right, it should look nice and fluffy. You can add more chopped walnuts for texture and decoration if you want. Make sure the cake is completely cool before you frost it!

Because the Cool Whip can melt and generally get gross, the cake should be refrigerated when you're not snacking on it. It's really nice and soft, and makes a pretty slice when you cut it with a sharp knife.

Right off the bat, I could tell why this was so wildly popular. I honestly haven't cooked with a box mix cake in a really long time, and it was kind of fun to go back to using one for this recipe. Don't get me wrong, I like making cakes from scratch quite a lot (as you can probably tell from how many of them I've made for this blog), but even with the additions of nuts, pudding and club soda, this cake took way less time to make than the Hartford Election Cake, or Mary Todd's awesome White Almond Cake. There was no hassle of needing to measure dry ingredients or clean up measuring cups, and virtually all of the other ingredients either come or can be bought in the correct proportions. You really only need to measure out the oil and the club soda! I'd think this also makes it an ideal recipe for a young aspiring chef, and I'd confidently recommend it to my younger readers as a fun way to see what Julie liked to eat without making their parents worry about them making a mess in the kitchen.

But aside from the ease of making this making it an appealing treat, it's a genuinely really tasty cake! I don't usually think of myself as a pistachio fan, but I might be a convert after this. The cake was super light and fluffy, and it was fun trying something different. I've never had a pistachio flavored cake before. I was especially pleased to hear my grandfather - a life long pistachio flavored anything fan - really enjoyed it, because I was counting on his feedback as someone who's more of a fan of the flavor than I am. I would definitely make it again and definitely went back for seconds.

The only thing I didn't really love about this was the Cool Whip frosting, and this goes beyond me making a mistake and just not knowing how to work with it. The truth is, I don't really like how Cool Whip tastes, and so while it's authentically 70's, it's something I think I'd like to avoid when I make the cake again. Honestly, I'd rather just fold in real whipped cream. A little extra trouble, a lot better flavor.

So, I'm not any closer to cracking the case of who came up with this recipe and why they named it after the Watergate scandal, but I'm happy to report that we've got another entry to the "New Favorite Desserts" log. Whether or not this was Nixon's favorite kind of cake, it's a really interesting slice of food history with delightfully sketchy origins, even if I'm not sold on the frosting.

It's proof that there's at least a little value in the mid century semi-homemade approach to cooking!


  1. My mom makes cookies out of pistachio pudding that are delicious. I may have to give this one a try, because pistachios, though sold in the nut aisle in most stores, are actually seeds not nuts and I can eat them. I'll just leave the walnuts out.

    1. Maybe you could replace them with chopped up pistachios! :D

  2. *From Julie's doll mom:*

    In May of '73, I was nearly 7 years old, and Julie would have been 7 , ('cos her birthday is in May), and I can tell you that I didn't care about the hearings and was angry at the fact that it was pre-empting my normal TV viewing. And I must correct you, depending on where you lived, (in the city as I did, or out in the sticks) you can get as many as 7 channels at that time. 3 network, 3 syndicated and 1 PBS station. That's how many we got anyway in NYC. My mom however was a big fan of bundt cakes and piund cake so she always combined the 2. she made yellow cake mix in a Bundt pan, and left one egg out of the directions. I love pistachios, and I have Julie's Cooking Studio book. Who knows? Maybe I'll give it a try. Thanks for "listening".

    1. I should have said independent, not syndicated, although those stations did air network shows in syndication.

    2. It could definitely be that I'm misquoting my mom or she was just using hyperbole, but thanks for the clarification! I'm also pretty certain they had a limited selection for financial reasons, so I definitely don't think they had as many as physically possible at the time.