I Made This Cake on My Personal Time: Watergate Cake with Impeachment Frosting

There is a recipe from Julie Richardson's Vintage Cakes that I've really wanted to try for some time -- and yet I have deliberately avoided making it. It's three layers of pistachio cake filled with pistachio buttercream and topped with candied pistachios. This cake is right up my alley. But I didn't want to make it for my co-workers because I generally try to avoid politics at work (in fact, the Hatch Act prohibits me from engaging in political activity on official time) and the name of this cake happens to be... "Watergate Cake with Impeachment Frosting." The headnote indicates that this cake became popular in the late 1970s after Kraft developed pistachio pudding mix; Richardson's version includes homemade pudding.

When my husband Tom arranged to host a small dinner at our house with a Rhône wine theme, I decided to make the cake for dessert. Pistachio pudding is a component of both the cake batter and the frosting and I made the pudding a day ahead. I heated a mixture of ground pistachios, sugar, and half and half; added a tempered mixture of egg yolks, sugar, salt, and cornstarch; and cooked the pudding until it thickened. I put it through a sieve, placed a piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface, and left it in the fridge overnight.

The following day I measured out the pudding to make sure that I had enough -- you're supposed to use a scant cup in the cake batter and a full cup in the frosting. I had less than 1.75 cups and I made the decision to put the full amount in the frosting and shortchange the cake. The cake is straightforward. You beat room temperature butter with sugar; add oil and vanilla; blend in eggs one at a time; alternately add the sifted dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, and salt) and milk; and stir in the pistachio pudding. I also added a dash of almond extract. I divided the batter between three parchment-lined 8-inch pans to bake.
The frosting is a mixture of heavy cream, mascarpone cheese, sugar, and vanilla beaten to firm peaks, with pistachio pudding folded in. This cake is meant to have naked sides, but I was unhappy with the way that the edges of the cake layers looked -- they were unevenly colored and not particularly neat. In fact, as I handled the cake layers I was slightly concerned -- the cakes seemed oily, which is generally not what you want in a butter cake.

It might have been the fact that I made this cake a few days after watching the Christina Tosi episode of Chef's Table on Netflix, but I decided to assemble this cake Milk Bar-style. I own a lot of cake rings in different sizes and I pulled out a ring that is seven inches in diameter and four inches high. I used the ring as a guide to trim the cakes to fit tightly inside, cutting away all of the unsightly browned edges. I stuck a cardboard circle inside the bottom of the ring, lined the ring with a strip of acetate, and then put in alternating layers of cake and frosting. The top layer of cake came right up to the top of the ring.
I garnished the cake shortly before serving with candied pistachios (pistachios coated in caramel made from sugar and water, sprinkled with salt). Since the cake was only seven inches across, it was small -- but appropriately sized for a dinner party with seven attendees. This cake was outstanding. I had been worried about the texture of the cake, but it was dense and wonderfully springy. I'm glad I trimmed off the perimeter of each cake layer because I liked the fact there were no browned edges and only soft cake. The pistachio frosting was the best part. It was creamy and decadent and yet not heavy at all. The ratio of frosting to cake was generous and just right. The caramelized pistachios were sweet, salty, crunchy, and a nice addition.

Our dinner guests could not stop talking about this cake and the memory of it is still vivid in my mind two weeks later. Whatever your political persuasion, this cake is sensational.

Recipe: "Watergate Cake with Impeachment Frosting" from Vintage Cakes by Julie Richardson.

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