The Cake (Maybe) Named After a Presidential Scandal

Some things just go together. Picnics and watermelon. Thanksgiving and turkey. impeachment and… pistachio pudding.

Sponge Cake with strawberries

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In 1976, the Jell-O company debuted its pistachio pudding mix. It was the ’70s, so one of the first things that people did was turn it into a “salad” — the word here meaning, of course, a combination of pudding, Cool Whip, pineapple, and nuts. (Maraschino cherry optional but encouraged.) General Foods, which owned Jell-O, published a recipe for what would later become “Watergate Salad.” They initially called it “Pistachio Pineapple Delight.” The Watergate scandal was a year in the past, but in a time before internet news, it was still as fresh in people’s minds as pudding powder in a factory-sealed packet. Somebody came up with the name, and as these things do, it caught on. (It has also been claimed that the name originated with a chef at the Watergate Hotel, who non-scandalously served a form of the salad to guests. But that’s just not as fun a story, is it?)

The thing about Watergate Salad, however its moniker developed: it’s a combination of pudding, canned fruit, and imitation whipped cream. For the modern palate, there are more enjoyable ways to consume pistachio pudding. Enter: Watergate Cake.

Watergate Cake

This recipe, adapted from Vintage Cakes by Julie Richardson, uses homemade pistachio pudding instead of the boxed kind. It’s a little more effort, but the flavor is much more “real,” and the rich texture is worth the work.



  • 1 cup pistachios (unsalted and shelled)
  • ⅔ c sugar
  • 1 ½ c whole milk or cream
  • 4 egg yolks
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 1 tbsp cornstarch


Finely grind pistachios and ⅓ c sugar in food processor. Transfer to saucepan. Add milk to pistachio-sugar mixture and warm over low heat until hot (don’t let it boil). In a separate bowl, whisk the egg yolks, remaining sugar, salt, and cornstarch. Slowly pour ⅓ of the pistachio mixture into the egg mixture, whisking all the while. Pour back into saucepan with the remaining milk mixture and whisk over medium-low heat until it begins to bubble. Whisk and heat for about one minute after the bubbling starts, until thick. Pour into a mesh sieve and strain through. Cover and chill 1 hour.



  • 2 c white flour
  • 1 ½ tsp baking powder
  • 1 stick salted butter
  • 1 ½ c granulated sugar
  • ⅓ c vegetable or canola oil
  • 1 tbsp vanilla
  • 4 eggs
  • ½ c milk


Preheat oven to 350°. Prepare 2 8-inch cake pans by buttering and flouring the bottom and sides. Place an 8-inch circle of parchment paper in the bottom of each. In a medium bowl, sift and mix flour and baking powder. Set aside. Blend butter and sugar until fluffy using a stand or handheld electric mixer set to medium-high. Add oil and vanilla extract and mix well. Add eggs one at a time. Lower mixer speed to medium-low. Alternate adding flour mixture and milk until both are incorporated. Do not overmix! Measure 1 cup of prepared pistachio pudding and stir in by hand. Pour batter into pans and bake until done, about 30 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool.



  • 1 c whipping cream
  • 1 c mascarpone cheese
  • 2 tbsp powdered sugar
  • 2 tsp vanilla


Whip cream with stand mixer on medium. Stop before peaks form. Add mascarpone, sugar, and vanilla. (If you want a brighter color, add a couple drops of green food coloring at this stage.) Increase mixer speed to high and whip just until peaks are firm. Fold in ½ c prepared pistachio pudding, then another ½ c.

To assemble: Start with one cooled cake layer. Frost entire top with pistachio frosting. Add second cake layer. Cover entire cake with a thin crumb coat, then frost top and sides to desired thickness.

Featured image: Shutterstock

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  1. Is the cake at the top of this article the cake? I googled the watergate cake and it looks completely different. The recipe listed here also does not match the cake in the picture


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