Surprise! As you might have guessed by the title of this article, I’m back with a special additional holiday-themed version of Cooking with the Stars! December has always been an important time of year for me personally as well as for this column because so many of my favorite classic movie stars were born during this season and there are always tons of festive recipes to try. Moving forward into the final month of the year, I felt conflicted because I knew that I wanted to honor Frank Sinatra and recreate his delicious fettucine alfredo, but this recipe kept lingering in the back of my mind, practically begging me to bring it to life in my kitchen. Finally I decided that I could spread a little bit of cheer just before Christmas by whipping up both dishes for you all as a small gift from me to you! I am so incredibly thankful for every single person who reads my articles; every like, every comment that I read warms my heart. I can’t believe how far I’ve come this year and it’s so overwhelming and exciting to imagine what lies in store for 2019! I hope you all continue this journey with me and read on to learn about the fabulous Gina Lollobrigida and for instructions on how to make her delectable cookies!
Luigina Lollobrigida was born as the second-eldest of four daughters in Subiaco, Italy on July 4, 1927 to a furniture manufacturer and his wife. As a young woman, Lollobrigida began modeling and appearing as an extra in numerous Italian pictures. She successfully competed in beauty pageants, notably placing third in the Miss Italy contest at the age of twenty. The national exposure from the event led to a visit from none other than notorious film producer and aviation magnate Howard Hughes, who offered to fly her to Hollywood and make her a star. Not wanting to leave her beloved country, she declined the offer, marrying physician Milko Skofic in 1949 and continuing to appear in Italian, French, and even American pictures that were shot on location in Europe. It was one of these, John Huston’s Beat the Devil (1953) also starring Humphrey Bogart and Jennifer Jones, that skyrocketed her to fame. The fifties proved to be a golden period for the international starlet as she appeared in what are now considered some of the greatest films of her career like Pane, amore e fantasia (1953), which earned her a BAFTA nomination, La donna più bella del mondo (1955), the film that gave her the first-ever David di Donatello Award for Best Actress (her first of three), and the iconic Trapeze (1956) costarring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis.
Coined “The Most Beautiful Woman in the World” after her earlier hit movie, by the end of the 1950s Gina was at the top of her game. She continued to maintain a successful career in Hollywood and beyond by costarring with our other star of December Frank Sinatra in the drama Never So Few (1959). She also made the astute decision to couple up with Rock Hudson in two features, becoming half of one of the finest yet most surprising onscreen couples of all time in Come, September (1961), which earned her a Golden Globe, and Strange Bedfellows (1965), my personal favorite picture of her astounding career. She enjoyed a few more successes in film throughout the remainder of the 1960s, but by the time the 1970s came around, Gina had become well-aware that her time as an actress was at an end and she began a second career as an eminent photojournalist, using her connections to snag exclusive interviews and photograph an array of influential figures like Audrey Hepburn, Ella Fitzgerald, Salvador Dalí, Paul Newman, and most importantly Fidel Castro, who rarely met with the press at the time. In 1973 she released her first of four books filled with her captivating photography, Italia mia, and has spent the last forty years traveling the world on the international film festival circut as both a judge and a spectator. In 2013, Gina auctioned off her vast jewelry collection through Sotheby’s, beating a number of records held by Elizabeth Taylor and others and donating the entire $5 million profit to stem cell research. This February she was finally honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and as of this writing she continues to grace us with her presence at the age of 91.
This may sound strange, but it’s been a sort of dream of mine to find and cook this recipe for years. As is the case with many classic film star recipes, I first discovered the existence of Gina’s holiday cookies through Jenny of Silver Screen Suppers. She never posted the recipe itself, but I was instantly intrigued after hearing her thoughts about them and after seeing the pictures. As I’ve gotten to know her, she’s been gracious enough to send me many, many amazing recipes, but I thought that instead of simply asking her for a copy of this one, it’d be a delightful challenge to use my researching skills to track down the origin of the cookies myself. A simple Google search led me to this article, in which the dessert was found by June Van Dusen Smith of West Palm Beach, Florida and entered into a cookie contest, where surprisingly it won the award for Most Unusual Cookie! The article also mentions that the recipe was found in a 1964 issue of Redbook magazine. After quite a bit of sleuthing, I discovered that the true origin of the recipe was actually the December 1964 issue of Good Housekeeping magazine, and not only does it contain Gina’s holiday cookies, but an entire celebrity cookbook filled with a variety of delicious-looking Christmas dishes! I ordered an original copy immediately, and I was over the moon with the selection of dishes within its pages. I think I’ll make it my first blog tradition to try out one of these exciting recipes every Christmas for you all, but in the meantime here’s Gina’s recipe in full, straight from the original magazine itself:
Gina Lollobrigida’s Christmas Wreath Cookies
To quote the magazine, “Gina Lollobrigida manages to give even her cooking a colorful personality (and ingeniously, too).”
- ½ cup soft butter or margarine
- ⅓ cup granulated sugar
- 1 egg, separated
- ¼ teaspoon vanilla extract
- ¼ teaspoon almond extract
- 1 cup sifted all-purpose flour
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ¾ cup chopped, shelled pistachio nuts or tinted walnuts (see below)
- ½ cup strawberry jam
Make any time up to two weeks ahead:
- Start heating oven to 300° F.
- With electric mixer at medium speed, beat butter until creamy. Beat in sugar, egg yolk, extracts, then flour, sifted with salt.
- Form into balls, using about 1 teaspoon of dough for each.
- Dip in slightly beaten egg white, then roll lightly in nuts.
- Arrange cookies on greased cookie sheets. With fingertip, make a depression in the center of each.
- Bake 25 minutes, then remove to wire rack and, while still warm, fill centers with jam.
Store tightly covered. Makes 36 cookies.
To make tinted walnuts:
- Start heating oven to 300° F.
- Add 2 dashes green food color to 2 teaspoons warm water, then add ¾ cup chopped California walnuts and toss thoroughly.
- Spread on cookie sheet and bake 8 minutes.
Makes ¾ cup.
I went the tinted walnut route when I made these as I not only wanted to review all of the instructions included in the recipe, but I also didn’t care too much for the look of the pistachios in the pictures of Gina’s cookies that I had previously seen. Despite loving the taste of pistachios, I had the hunch that green walnuts would still taste great and look prettier for the end result. This recipe was full of firsts for me; for one thing, I had never used food coloring in a dish before. I was quite nervous about under-dyeing or over-dyeing the nuts, and after seeing how black the coloring was in the mixing bowl, I didn’t feel very optimistic about the end result.
I’d also mistakenly bought what I believed was going to be a lime green shade, but luckily when I pulled the tinted walnuts out of the oven they looked exactly how I hoped they would, lovely holiday green and all! This was also my first time working with almond extract. I’ve always been very familiar with vanilla extract, and if I thought that the scent of that was warm and inviting, the smell of the almond extract was even more enticing. It smells exactly like every Italian dessert I’ve ever come across, so I’m not surprised that it’s a favorite of Gina’s and a perfect addition to these cookies! Now for the moment of truth: how was the end result? In a word, fantastic! These were a marvelously elevated version of what you’d normally expect from a Christmas cookie. I wasn’t able to try many of them as I sent most of the batch to my family members, but from my experience I’d give these a solid four out of five Vincents.
They were great, but not the absolute best cookie I’ve ever had, and the recipe had its flaws. For one thing, I followed the recipe exactly and it only yielded 12 cookies, far from the promised 36. The dough was extremely crumbly, so much so that towards the end it was difficult to form into balls. The egg white was essentially unnecessary, as if anything it made the surface of the dough balls slick and harder for the cookies to adhere to. Yet at the end of the day, the rich flavor of the walnuts, the complex and buttery cookie itself, and the welcoming taste of the strawberry jam makes this essentially a winner for me, and I have no doubt that I’ll make these in my household next year as well! I definitely encourage you all to bring a little bit of cheer into your own homes, too! I’m always nervous about trying a new recipe if I’m going to be sending the dish to others and showing off my cooking skills, but this is a cookie that you can make for relatives or cookie trading parties without being ashamed of the result. It’s great for beginners, too! Let me know your favorite Gina Lollobrigida film, what you think of these cookies, and who I should spotlight and make a recipe of next year! I adore hearing your thoughts and suggestions, and I’ll see you with a blogathon entry before the year is out, and another installment of Cooking with the Stars in 2019!