Wednesday, March 08, 2006
Our favorite after-dinner drink, or digestivo, is easily the Italian Limoncello. This is easier to find in the States than it once was, but it is still generally found in specialty shops or larger liquor stores. Even then, most of what they have is not very good. Limoncello is relatively simple to make, but requires a little patience.
One bottle (750 ml) Everclear
One bottle (750 ml) vodka (I would recommend a decent bottle, like Smirnoff, but nothing too extravagant)
20 organic lemons
Four cups sugar
Four cups water
Wash the lemons in hot water and clean with vegetable wash (organic and nontoxic) and scrub vigorously.
Rinse. Lemon peels are how you create the drink's flavor and color, so it is important that the lemons are clean. I found the vegetable wash at Whole Foods for pretty cheap (less than $3). I've found that nearly every lemon sold in a store is coated in food wax. You need to remove this wax as much as possible before you peel the lemons. I looked everywhere for lemons without wax (Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, local markets) without success.
Peel the lemons (retaining the peels for later) being sure not to peel any of the white part under the peel, otherwise known as pith.
Peeling is another key step. It is very easy to get the pith when peeling. You'll inevitably get some while you're peeling, but if you keep it at a minimum, you should be OK. The pith creates a bitter finish to the limoncello that you want to avoid. We used a super sharp, large-size vegetable peeler to get the peels off. Keep the peel in long strips to make it easier when you strain later. You can use a sharp knife if you're not afraid of losing a thumb. I've heard of others using a zester for this step, but I've found that to be prohibitively tedious, especially if you're doing a double batch, like I did with the last batch.
Put the lemon peels in a large glass container with the vodka and everclear.
I found a great, huge container at CostPlus World Market. Pier 1 has good containers, too. A suntea container could work, but the spigot leaked on the one I got from Jewel. Note: Some people will use only Everclear and some only vodka. I've found that a mixture is the best recipe. You're not so over the top alcoholic by using the Everclear, and vodka alone can be too low in the alcohol content, resulting in a limoncello that freezes in the freezer Â which is where it is ideally kept. The higher alcohol content of Everclear prevents it from being diluted to the point where it freezes.
Swirl the lemon peel and alcohol mixture together daily in the jar.
This step can last for as little as two weeks or up to four months.
The longer you leave the peels in contact with the alcohol, the more yellow and lemony your limoncello will be. After two weeks, you'll likely get a limoncello as good as anything you can buy in a store for $20 or so. A little longer will get you the type of limoncello that you can find only in Italy in small shops on the Amalfi Coast (and on Capri) or in the freezers of Italian grandmothers throughout the country.
After you get to the point where you're ready to finish the limoncello, remove the bigger peels with a slotted spoon.
If you want to be especially frugal with your mixture, like I am, remove the peels to another container so that the "drippings" can be poured back into the larger container.
Once you've removed the bigger peels, you need to strain the entire mixture through coffee filters to remove as many of the impurities as possible. You can do this by putting the filters into funnels and straining that way. Note: If you pre-wet the filters with water, they won't absorb as much of the liquor mixture, reducing waste.
Meanwhile, you can be working on the sugar syrup. Mix the sugar and water. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Let boil for at least seven minutes.
Let syrup cool to room temperature, then combine with lemon-alcohol mixture.
At this point you can bottle using funnels. You should ideally let the limoncello "marry" together for a week in the bottle before consuming, but no one's going to fault you if you sneak a taste or two.
If you think that you're going to be making limoncello, start holding onto bottles, especially interesting, decorative ones. Limoncello makes a great gift that's homemade. If you want to stretch your limoncello stash and still spread the love, get miniature decorative bottles with swivel tops from Cost Plus World Market and fill those as the gift. You generally get two good shots from the bottle. My friend, Ed, and his wife gave these as wedding favors, which is the best idea ever. My pockets were full when I left the reception.