Monday, August 9, 2010

Pistachio Cake

When my wife and I were first trying to figure out what recipe to start with, we were at odds. We each grabbed some of our favorite awful cook books and began flipping through recipes trying to find the perfect example of a classically “convenient” recipe. My wife was knee deep in church cook books, and I was searching for something that involved Jell-o, as what could be better than a recipe that jiggles. We knew we found “the recipe” when we stumbled upon the same recipe in two cookbooks. Its list of ingredients screams “You made what”; boxed white cake mix, vegetable oil, eggs, soda, pudding mix and whipped topping. When we first found it, it was simply titled Pistachio Cake, but a little research led us to an interesting story and a trip back in time that is a prime example of kitschy convenience foods.

I will freely admit that my attraction to this recipe is based upon a guilty pleasure. For some reason I cannot explain, when it comes to instant pudding, my favorite flavor is pistachio. Maybe its the artificial green coloring, maybe its the nuts (which are almonds, not pistachios), maybe its relatively instant satisfaction of a “dessert” that is ready to eat in just moments. I'm not sure why, but if I was forced to select a favorite flavor of instant pudding, it would be pistachio. Its not like I'm a huge fan of pistachios, I could take them or leave them. If anything, I'm more partial to almonds (maybe my subconscious figured out that pistachio pudding is made with almonds a long time ago) or cashews. I am also known to enjoy a pistachio ice cream cone at my local handmade ice cream stands (again, my pistachio ice cream experience is limited to cones from hand made stands, never buying a carton of pistachio), but I digress.

Back to my point, what could be better than a recipe that uses pistachio pudding?
A recipe that uses two boxes of pistachio pudding.

Yes you heard me right. Two boxes.

And with that, the recipe that got us started

Pistachio Cake, submitted by Pauline Cherra (listed as Miss America)
from the St. Lucy's Church Altar and Rosary Society Cook Book, Scranton, PA

1 box Duncan Hines cake mix (yellow or white)
1 box Royal pistachio instant pudding
4 eggs (whole)
1 cup club soda
1/2 cup Crisco oil

Place in large bowl and mix until well blended. Put in Bundt pan (9-cup) or square pan or layers. Bake at 350 degrees 35 to 40 minutes. Cool.

1 twin box Dream Whip (use only one envelope)
1 box pistachio instant pudding (Royal)
1 ½ cup cold milk.

Beat until peaks form. Spread on cool cake.

A cool cake indeed.

We quickly found an alternate version of Pistachio Cake in another our “favorite” cook books (American Profile Hometown Cookbook, A Celebration of America's Table, by Mary Carter, Susan Fischer, and Candace Floyd). This one used three packages of pudding mix. (Using Quint voice from Jaws ) “He can't go down with three barrels...not with three barrels on he can't.”

Pistachio Cake
“This is the first choice of any dessert I make for my children and grand children. Wherever I take it, I know I'll be handing out recipes. Once you bake this cake, be prepared to make it over and over.”
-Diana Kowalski, Danville, Indiana

1 box (18.25 ounce) white cake mix
4 eggs
1 cup water
1 cup vegetable oil
3 (3 ounce) packages instant pistachio pudding
1 (10 ounce) tub whipped topping

Preheat oven to 275°. Combine the cake mix, eggs, water, oil, and 2 packages of pudding mix and blend well. Pour batter into a non-stick or greased cake pan, and bake for 10 minutes at 275°, another 10 minutes at 300°, and then 35 minutes at 325°. The cake is done when a knife inserted into the center comes out clean.
For the topping, gradually add the remaining 1 package of pudding mix to the Cool Whip. Spread on the cooled cake and refrigerate.

Three packages of pudding mix, cool whip, and three changes in oven temperature. No recipe with box ingredients should involve such an elaborate baking schedule, unless you need to feel like you're really baking. Needless to say, we only used this recipe as a point of reference.

My wife and I took the finding this recipe in two of the three cook books we were reviewing as a sign that this was the first one to test. A quick search of the internet turned up many entries for similar recipes, one with a comment that explained that this recipe was originally named Watergate Cake. We changed gears and began researching Watergate Cake, and quickly found some background information. Apparently Kraft Foods released pistachio flavored pudding in 1975, and to promote the product, they developed a recipe for a salad called Pistachio Pineapple Delite. The story goes that Kraft distributed the recipe to newspapers, and an editor in Chicago changed the name to get more interest. Kraft knew nothing about the name Watergate Salad until customers began contacting them asking for the recipe. Since then attempts were made to find the editor, to no avail. So we have the name Watergate Salad, but not Watergate Cake. If the salad was popular enough, one my guess that transforming the recipe into a cake would be easy enough, but we have found no direct link or source for the cake recipe. There are rumors that the name stems from Richard Nixon's love of pistachios, or that the nut pieces in the cake and frosting are the “bugs.” We even found multiple references to the name Watergate Cake with Cover-up frosting. At this point we knew we had to make it.

Baking Watergate Cake
Being Sunday, and shopping day, when we ventured out to do our weekly grocery shopping, we gathered the necessary supplies; white cake mix, pistachio pudding and whipped topping (we figured it would be the modern equivalent to powered whipped topping mix). We got home, stashed our groceries, and began baking.

At first we were amused by the colorful display of mixing the batter. The powdered pudding mix made some real interesting patterns when combined with 4 eggs, vegetable oil and water (we opted for the richness of the fourth egg that appeared in some recipes, and decided against club soda, lemon/lime soda, or ginger ale).

It blended without incident, and with the batter prepared, we decided that cupcakes would be the best format, allowing for easy transport, distribution, and review by taste testers. We found recipes that mentioned baking the pistachio cake in bundt pans, and layers, but 13” x 9” cake pans were reference most often. The batter was dished to lined muffin pans and baked at 350° for 18 minutes.

As the cupcakes cooled, we started to make the frosting. We thawed the frozen whipped topping, and blended it with powder pudding mix in a large brown using a hand mixer. We found the frosting looked gritty and very unattractive. It wouldn't work for our testing.

I hopped on my bike and took a quick trip to the store for more pudding mix and powdered whipped topping mix. The powdered whipped topping version of the frosting came together quickly and easily, and had volume and smoothness that was missing in the batch made with frozen whipped topping.

While the cupcakes were being frosted with frosting batch #2, I added some milk to frosting batch # 1 and was able to beat it to the correct consistency. After frosting we conducted a taste test on the frosting, and found that they were very close, so close that you could use either.

With the cupcakes frosted, we gave them a taste. Perhaps it was that they weren't chilled, or that we had just tasted the frosting, but we felt underwhelmed. The cake had an acceptable texture, but pistachio cake with pistachio frosting left me wanting some contrast. The cupcakes were like Jay Leno's trademark outfit, a canadian tuxedo, perhaps a little too much of the same thing.

Later that evening, my wife decided the cupcakes needed a second chance, So we gave them another shot. A few hours in the fridge allowed things to cool and change a bit. Flavor improved, and there was more contrast between the cake and frosting.

Overall, the pistachio/Watergate cupcakes are what they are, a cake made with two mixes topped with frosting made from two mixes.They were very easy to make, and once chilled, delightful to enjoy. If you are looking for a fun, retro dessert, put on some Captain and Tennille, fix yourself a Harvey Wallbanger and bake like its 1975.

This was an interesting project for sure. What started as dissecting a simple recipe quickly became a gold mine of information. We found so many versions of pistachio/Watergate cake, each with subtle differences, but that was an indicator of how popular this cake was. If you have a church cook book from the 70's, a version of this recipe is probably in there. We also stumbled upon another gem. A search of the contributing parishioner's name from the first cookbook led us to a photo of her, attending a benefit fashion show, reading and afternoon tea in the Spring of 1967. Thank you Mrs. Pauline Cherra, of St. Lucy's Church in Scranton, PA.

Another interesting side not is that my wife's maternal grandmother is also in this photo. Terry Belancini is standing in the back row, second from the right.

Sources Watergate Salad

Watergate Salad Retro Recipes 1975

the gourmanderie - Watergate Cake with Cover-up frosting