This Watergate Cake Recipe is Easy, Airy, and Retro


Watergate Cake

Active time:15 minutes

Total time:45 minutes

Servings:12 to 16 (makes a 9 x 13 inch cake)

Active time:15 minutes

Total time:45 minutes

Servings:12 to 16 (makes a 9 x 13 inch cake)

Not long ago I channeled Howard Baker and phoned home to interview my mother.

I wanted to get to the bottom of a dessert she made when I was a teenager in Minnesota – the Watergate cake – and that I started making myself this year, the 50th anniversary of a burglary at a Washington monument that led to the downfall of a president.

What did Dorothy Sietsema know, and when did she know it?

Mom kind of blocked me. “I’m not sure exactly when I started doing it,” she says of the sheet cake with the creamy green Shamrock Shake filling and fluffy nut-veined interior. “You can pose the 1970s.”

She was more open about her attractiveness. “I think it looks good because of the color. I like it because it has nuts in it. Mom made the Watergate cake for St. Patrick’s Day this year, but she usually pulls out the recipe, written in her own hand, in the summer. “The whipped cream makes it a lighter dessert, and the pale green brings the outdoors to mind.” Plus, she adds, “it’s easy to serve and prepare in advance”.

My mom is the kind of cook who makes pudding from scratch and took the time to create her own version of Hamburger Helper for her kids back then. But like many women of her time, the former public health nurse enjoys occasionally getting straight to the point in the kitchen.

The Watergate Cake, retro like a shag carpet and harmless like carpenters, is a matter of ease. The base is a box of white cake mix, a box of pistachio instant pudding mix, 7-Up – remember, that was decades ago in the Midwest – eggs, nuts and milk. ‘vegetable oil. Basically, you open several packages, crack a few eggs, chop some “nuts” as the recipe reads, and mix it all together. Slide the dough in the oven for 30 minutes, and what’s to stop a cake with a whiff of intrigue from rising? The filling is another box of instant pudding mix combined with Cool Whip, which explains the durability of the dessert. Cool Whip is like Aquatic net in its ability to hold – not that the Watergate cake lasts long after being served. One slice easily leads to another. For a cake, it’s surprisingly refreshing.

The Washington Post published a cake recipe, similar to my mother’s, in a column called Anne’s Reader Exchange in 1975 and again a year later, along with a feature story. “A new Watergate crisis is sweeping the Washington area, but this time only housewives and a few businessmen seem to care,” wrote Alexander Sullivan. “The crisis stems from the growing popularity of a recipe for a concoction called ‘Watergate Cake,’ which calls for large amounts of powdered pistachio pudding mix.”

At the time, one company, Royal Pudding, distributed the mix in the Washington area; grocery stores were stripped of the product almost as soon as it hit the shelves, a problem preceded by a fortuitous shortage of pistachios. The writer went on to say that the origin of the cake was unclear, nor was its name, although he suggested that the nuts were “‘insects’ in children’s talk”.

Back then, the owner of Watergate Pastry was putting a mile between easy dessert and selections from his shop. “We haven’t invented anything to which we would attach a name like that,” Harold Giesinger sniffed, barely writing. “A private source may have set it up.”

Joseph Rodota, author of “The Watergate: Inside America’s Most Infamous Address” (William Morrow, 2018), says “no response is appropriate” in the scheme of things. “The bakery, like the hotel, was quite upscale. A cake made with inexpensive ingredients was off the mark for a hotel known for its luxury and intimacy.” Yet it was also part of the “Watergate consumerism” that swept the country at the time, he says, noting that a retail store in the complex sold ties with plastic bugs on them. (Rodota tried the dessert, which the native Californian thinks of as “a pistachio version of olive oil cake.”)

Not to be confused with Watergate Salad, featuring smashed pineapples and miniature marshmallows with the pudding mix, Watergate Cake is as receptive as Rose Mary Woods to manipulation. Some recipes substitute nuts, get their fizz from club soda or ginger ale, and incorporate coconut. The dough can take the form of cupcakes, layer cakes and Bundt cakes. The confectionery, coated in what some recipes call “cover glaze,” gives a Christmas vibe with the addition of a maraschino cherry on each slice.

Julie Richardson offers a whimsical and laborious version of this in “Vintage Cakes” (Ten Speed ​​Press, 2012). The author of the cookbook asks you to do the whole thing: cake, pudding, impeachment mascarpone frosting. Oh yes, the surface is finished with caramelized pistachios.

“I just wanted to try to come to a more natural state” with everything from scratch, says Richardson. She never had the old-fashioned version made, but she can understand its appeal: “You quickly get dessert to the table.” Also, “the name is part of our history”.

I love the simplicity of sheet cake, which keeps well in the fridge (remember: Cool Whip) if you’re not the generous type. “When I have a party,” Mom says, “I send her home with people.”

Sharing is caring. Mom, you are forgiven.

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Get ahead: Cake should be assembled and frosted at least 30 minutes before serving.

Storage: Cover loosely and refrigerate for up to 3 days.

  • Unsalted butter or vegetable oil, to grease the pan
  • A box of white cake mix (15.25 ounces / 432 grams), such as Duncan Hines
  • One package (3.4 ounces / 96 grams) of pistachio instant pudding and pie filling mix, such as Jell-O brand
  • 1 cup (240 milliliters) vegetable oil
  • 3 large eggs, at room temperature
  • 1 cup (240 milliliters) club soda or lemon-lime soda, such as Sprite
  • 1/2 cup (1 3/4 ounces/50 grams) coarsely chopped raw walnuts
  • One container (9 ounces) of whipped topping, such as Cool Whip
  • 1 cup (240 milliliters) whole or reduced fat milk
  • One package (3.4 ounces / 96 grams) of pistachio instant pudding and pie filling mix, such as Jell-O brand

Make the cake: Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a 9 x 13 inch baking dish with butter or vegetable oil.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment – ​​or, if using a hand mixer or whisk, in a large bowl – combine the cake mix, pudding mix, oil, eggs, soda and nuts. Beat on medium speed until well blended, about 2 minutes.

Transfer the batter to the prepared pan, making sure to scrape it from the bowl with a rubber spatula. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until the top turns golden. Remove from oven and transfer pan to wire rack; let cool completely before frosting, about 30 minutes.

Prepare the filling: clean the bowl used to prepare the dough. Then, in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a whisk attachment — or if using a hand mixer or whisk, the large bowl — combine the whipped topping, milk, and pudding mix. Beat on medium speed until well blended, about 2 minutes.

Cake Assembly: Spread the filling over the cooled cake, cover loosely with foil without touching the surface of the cake (the plastic wrap tends to pick up the filling) and refrigerate at least 30 minutes before serving.

Per serving (1 slice approximately 2 1/2 x 3 inches, using 2% milk) based on 16

Calories: 365; Total fat: 21 g; Saturated fat: 4g; Cholesterol: 36mg; Sodium: 416mg; Carbohydrates: 42g; Dietary fiber: 0g; Sugar: 26g; Protein: 3g

This analysis is an estimate based on the available ingredients and this preparation. It should not replace the advice of a dietitian or nutritionist.

From food critic Tom Sietsema’s mother, Dorothy Sietsema.

Tested by Tom Sietsema; questions by e-mail to

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