Cakes of My Youth: Pistachio Pudding Cake

by Wendy Copley on November 11, 2009

When I was a little girl, my Grandma Paddy made a pistachio pudding cake for almost every family gathering. It had green fluffy icing and it always sat at the right hand end of the buffet, just past all three kinds of potatoes (my family likes potatoes) and the dinner rolls. I started thinking about that pistachio cake a few months ago and I realized that I haven’t tasted it in at least 20 years. In fact, I don’t think I’ve even encountered it in all that time.


When I asked my parents to send me the recipe for this cake, my mom had a hard time finding it. She knew exactly which recipe I was talking about and she even remembered most of the ingredients, but she had to flip through her recipe box several times before she located the card the recipe was printed on. She was looking for something labeled “Pistachio Pudding Cake” but when she finally found it, it was labeled “Watergate Cake with Cover Up Icing”. Ha!

Though I was highly amused by the name, I was also a little baffled. What in the world do pistachios have to do with Watergate? Internet research leads me to believe that the cake got it’s name because Jell-O pistachio pudding was first produced around the time of the Watergate scandal. Hmmmm….interesting!

In any case, here’s how you make this delectable treat (and yes, I’m channeling my inner Pioneer Woman for this post):


Gather the ingredients for the cake: a box of instant pistachio pudding mix, oil, eggs, a box of yellow cake mix and club soda. This is an all natural cake, folks. Martha would be proud!


Stir together the pudding and cake mixes. Then beat the eggs slightly and measure out a cup of oil and a cup of soda water. I mixed them together in one measuring cup and it looked really cool and bubbly. You should try it just because it’s kind of fun.


Dump the wet stuff into the bowl with the dry stuff. It will get all foamy and what not.


Mix it all together really well. It will turn this pretty green color. Pour the batter into a greased and floured 9 x 13 inch cake pan and bake for around 45-50 minutes or until the cake is done. I baked mine for 40 minutes and it got a little too brown around the edges, but my oven runs hot.


OK — you busted me! I totally burned the cake! If you burn your cake too, you’ll need to cut the black parts off the bottom and the edges like I did. If you aren’t an incompetent baker and your cake comes out OK, you can skip this step.


Once you cut off all the gross, tough, burned parts, your cake will be nice and tender. I thought it would still be green after baking, but it came out more of a yellow color. I’m wondering if my Grandma put green food coloring in hers because I remember it being green, but I could be wrong about that.

While the cake cools, make the frosting.


For the frosting, you’ll need a cup and a half of milk, another box of instant pistachio pudding mix and two packets of Dream Whip.


About that Dream Whip….  I’m sure I must have encountered it at some point in my life, but I had no idea what it was when I set off to the store to get ingredients. I found it near the pudding, way up on the top shelf.  It turns out it’s a powdered mix that you combine with milk to make ‘whipped cream”. The recipe my mom sent me said that I needed two “pkg” Dream Whip, which I interpreted as “packages” so I bought two boxes. When I opened the first box though, I found four packets of mix inside. A quick trip to Google confirmed my suspicions that I only needed two packets of the mix, not two boxes.

I forgot to take a picture of the frosting as I was making it, but it’s pretty simple. Combine the two packets of Dream Whip with 1 1/2 cup cold milk until it thickens up a bit. I did this with my stand mixer but even so it took a little longer than I thought it would. Once the mixture starts to thicken, add in the box of pudding. The frosting will turn a phenomenal pale green color at this point.


When your cake has cooled completely, cover it up (har! har!) with the frosting. Wyatt helped with this step.


Here is the finished cake! This picture does not do the green of the frosting justice. It’s much brighter in real life.


Wyatt was ready to start eating the cake right them.


So how was it?

Wyatt declared it was “so yummy, Mom!”

I gave Zach a slice with his lunch while he was doing some heads down programming and ducked out so I wouldn’t break his train of thought. When I asked him later how he thought it was he said he thought it tasted just like any other sheet cake. He didn’t even realize there was any pistachio flavor in it! When he had another slice later in the evening he said he could taste a little bit of pistachio flavor but when I asked him what his verdict was, he wrinkled up his nose and said, “eh.” A ringing endorsement, to be sure.

And as for me, I thought it was pretty good. It wasn’t my favorite cake when I was a kid, so I wasn’t sure how well I’d like it as an adult but it’s definitely a flavor that appeals more to an adult palette. And in a different way, that first bite was pretty incredible. It was like I was back at my Grandma’s house, sitting at the big table with my aunts and uncles around me talking and laughing and giving each other crap. It felt like I was running around with my cousins. It felt pretty nice.

Watergate Cake with Cover Up Icing

1 4oz. pkg instant pistachio pudding
1 pkg yellow cake mix
1 c. canola oil
1 c. club soda
3 eggs
½ c. chopped nuts (optional)

Mix the cake mix and pudding together in a large bowl. Beat the eggs slightly. Add eggs, oil, and club soda to cake mix. Mix well.  Pour into greased and floured 9 x 13 pan. Bake at 350 for 45 minutes or until done. Cool and cover with frosting.

Cover Up Frosting

2 packets Dream Whip (there are 4 packets in a box)
1 ½ c. cold milk
1 4oz. pkg instant pistachio pudding

Mix Dream Whip and milk. Beat until thick. Add pudding mix. Spread over cooled cake. Sprinkle with chopped nuts if desired.

This post kicks off an occasional series of posts I’m planning to do where I revisit the cakes my family ate when I was growing up.

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  • Kristin

    I just love you! You're totally funny! I've so burned stuff before-including cakes! The Watergate Coverup Cake-you crack me up!!!

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  • I totally did not recognize that cake until I saw the recipe written down for it. My great grandmother had that recipe in her recipe box (also labeled Watergate Cake) and I always wondered how it was. 🙂 Totally going to have to try it now.

  • This literally thrills me to NO END! I have been making watergate salad to bring to our family Thanksgiving for many years. And seeing as how I have a true love for all things including pistachio pudding… I will be making this tonight! I'm so excited, thank you for sharing your grandmothers recipe!

  • Oo! I'm very excited about this new ongoing series!

  • That totally reminds me of the kind of recipes Dear Abby used to print in her column!

    Did your recipe specifically call for a yellow cake mix? I bet more of the green would show up with a white cake mix.
    Personally, I don't care for pistacio flavored things, but this cake would definitely be right up my mom's alley.

    p.s. it's way harder than it looks to take pics of foods while you're cooking isn't it?! Pioneer Woman makes it look so easy. I had wanted to photo-journal my way through making bread but gave up just a few snaps in…

  • Your Mother

    I forgot to tell you about the green food coloring. My recipe says “7 drops of green food coloring- opitional.” The whole thing is pretty much fake so whay not go all the way?

  • Ha! I *knew* it!

  • Your Mother

    I forgot to tell you about the green food coloring. My recipe says “7 drops of green food coloring- opitional.” The whole thing is pretty much fake so whay not go all the way?

  • Ha! I *knew* it!

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  • Totally intrigued by this cake. I'm gonna have to try it!

  • i love this.
    thank you

    sort of like my betty crocker cookbook for kids, with photos, and, now, grown up [ish] words.

  • Looks like you really having fun of baking.. what kind of cake do you usually bake? I'm also a baker.. and i love chocolate moose..

  • Peggy

    I recently remembered my Mom making a “green” cake. Knee it had to do with Jello Pudding. Thanks so much for finding this for me

  • mitchdcba

    This is adorable. LOVE the Pistachio Pudding Cake. 🙂 It all came together beautifully…

  • Annie

    I remember making this cake as well as other pudding cakes; very popular. So I guess that means I am the same age as your grandmother! Haven’t thought of this in years!

  • Cditsler

    I made this cake in the '70's and my recipe had become hard to read because of it's overuse. I found yours and compared it. Mine uses Duncan Hines White Cake Mix, but everything else was the same. When I didn't have club soda, I used Diet Sprite and it was still good. Yes, my daughters are in their 30's so the recipe is “Cakes of their Youth” Wow, I didn't realize how old I was!

  • Made this tonight. Delicious! Thanks for the recipe 🙂

  • Kathy Farrey

    My mom used to make this cake, but she got it from a magazine in the 70's and it was re-worked for St Patty's day, complete with green marachino “shamrocks” We made it in a tube pan & sliced it into layers.(Way more room for frosting that way.) but delicious either way.

  • Kathy Farrey

    I was just looking, and my recipe is slightly different (more eggs, less oil) probaly tastes about the same.
    I made it one time & forgot the club soda – really doesn't work that way.

  • Looks like hes having real fun making it…

  • Marge

    Not long ago had this at a fish fry and was absolutely “delish”. Glad I came across recipe because I wanted it and forgot.

  • Jani

    Wendy…. This is awesome… I believe this is the “original” magazine recipie from that era. We had it at most family birthday partys and it was my daughter Sandy's favorite. Great fun to surprise her with this as she turns 29 next week! Many thanks to you and your Mom!

    P.S. There is just one difference I can add from our family's version. We made them in a bundt pan and sliced the cake in half horizontally to add a layer of frosting in the middle. Every bite was creamier that way 🙂

  • Aaaawaqas

    looking very yummy! hmmmmm…

  • Ginny

    My parents used to host a BIG St. Patrick’s Day party every year when I was a kid … my mom used to make this cake in a bundt, 3 of them actually. I remember not liking it all that much but the “grown-ups” seemed to like it (they were usually fairly intoxicated). She NEVER made it any other time … said it was too complicated. Hers is labeled Pistachio Pudding Cake and there is green food coloring in it as well.

  • Hadouni

    This receipe was popular long before the Watergate scandal and in New England we have never used chemical substitutes for the whipped cream icing. The receipe I have always used is with Duncan Hines silver or white cake mix and I make a torte with the batter in three round cake pans. When cooled I slice each cake in half and half the whipped cream icing with one half dark chocolate and the other half pistashio. One layer dark chocolate, the next pistashio and the final icing for the top is pistashio decorated with finely chopped pistashio nut meats and shaved bitter-sweet chocolate. This must be refrigerated and is not easy to transport.

  • Anne

    *sighs* I would sooo love to make this cake sometime.. Unfortunately we don’t have the same stuff here in Holland..

  • I’m going to have to try this! Watergate salad is a staple at our house for family gatherings, but I’ve never heard of making it into a cake 🙂

  • janiev

    Thanks for sharing. I think this would be a great dessert for Christmas!

  • Wow that just brought me back. My Memere used to make a very similar cake. I remember her making it for my uncle’s birthday. I’ll have to try that sometime.

  • I am starting to get hungry with this cake! It really looks so delicious! Lovely!

  • Debralynnwright

    it was called watergate because of the nixon cover-up back in the days long ago.also the white house was full of nuts! just like the pistachios ; )

  • Nancy

    Many years ago, probably in the early 80”s I found this recipe in a Jello-Pudding ad.  It sounded so good and I made it right away.  For years it was a family and friend favorite.  My now 43 yr old daughter requested it for her birthday today and I couldn’t locate the recipe.  I’m so happy you have this on your blog and how colorfully it was represented.  I make it a layer cake so we can have that yummy, creamy frosting in the middle also.

  • LollyJane

    Yummy! I served it chilled and it makes a perfect late summer dessert. Thanks much for the recipe! (:

  • wendy lu

    the “watergate” part comes from the “watergate salad” which began at the watergate hotel. the recipe is:

    1 (4 ounce) package instant pistachio pudding mix
    1 (20 ounce) can crushed pineapple with juice, undrained
    1 cup miniature marshmallow
    1⁄2 cup chopped nuts
    1 3⁄4 cups non-dairy whipped topping, thawed
    this salad is just like the”waldorf salad” made famous from the chef at the waldorf hotel

    but as far as i know the pudding cake was just called “pistacio pudding cake”…i got my recipe from a small booklet from jello co.

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