I’m one of those people who always remembers the food from important occasions and trips (amazing potted pork at my brother’s wedding; moose with blueberry compote on my first Montreal trip; a lot of HobNobs and dim sum when I lived in London). So it’s not surprising that I have many food memories from a trip to Italy I took several years ago with my mother, the person who inspired my love of cooking in the first place.
The highlight of our trip was a stint at a very small cooking school. Classes were held in a 13th-century farmhouse in the mountains of Le Marche. We made pastas and breads, picked (and cracked) the almonds off the almond tree for our biscotti, fished in the nearby pond for our lunch, harvested vegetables from the garden for ratatouille, and picked sloes to make sloe gin. And after 12-hour days of almost nonstop cooking, the seven or so of us sat down to feast on the results of our hard work and enjoy several hours of conversation (and many bottles of wine).
These dinners always concluded in the wee hours with the appearance of a tray of limoncello, grappa, and sloe gin. We’d have one more toast, enjoy one more round of conversation, then turn in happy, full, and exhausted. It was the perfect finish to every night. I almost always went for the limoncello. It was my ideal balance of sweet, tart, refreshing, and boozy—just the thing to liven me up for a little more chatter and have me ready for bed at the same time.
After returning from that trip to my then-home in Austin, I continued to make limoncello the way we made it at cooking school. All it took was a few pounds of lemons, grain alcohol, sugar, and water. But when I moved to Boston, I soon discovered grain alcohol wasn’t sold anywhere from Massachusetts to Maine. So I set out to make this version, which works with the next best thing I can get: 100-proof vodka. While limoncello is a classic choice for the warm summer months, the fact you can get lemons year round makes it a great DIY project any time of year.
Limoncello’s bright lemony flavor (and iridescent color) is achieved by extracting the flavorful oils from the peels of a couple pounds of lemons. Since you also end up extracting anything else that might be on the peel, I always start with organic lemons to avoid pesticides. Conventional lemons work fine; just make sure to scrub and clean them very well. I use a full 2 pounds of lemons (size of lemons can really vary so weight is more reliable than count) to ensure maximum lemon flavor.
Use a vegetable peeler to remove the peel in wide strips from the lemons.
Then remove any white bitter pith from the zest strips using a sharp paring knife. They don’t have to be 100 percent pith free, but try to get off as much as you can. Then put them in a non-reactive container, like a glass or ceramic bowl with at least a 3 1/2-cup capacity (I’ve used oven-to-table cookware many times).
Pour a 750-ml bottle of 100-proof vodka over the peels. Yes, most traditional recipes call for grain alcohol (like Everclear), and that’s what I used to make it with when I lived in Texas where grain alcohol isn’t hard to find. But this is a vodka-based recipe because I can’t get my hands on the strong stuff very easily in New England. Both Smirnoff and Stoli make a 100-proof vodka that you should be able to find at most liquor stores.
Cover the container and stash it in a cool, dark place. Comparing a dozen or so existing limoncello recipes, I found that the steeping time really varied from recipe to recipe. Some call for a mere four days, others for four months. I decided if the results permitted, I’d keep it to a month or less for the simple reason that I didn’t want to have to plan any farther in advance than I had to. Two weeks was okay, but 4 weeks was the clear winner. The lemon flavor was loud and clear but still smooth. Perhaps I could have gone longer, but a 28-day steep delivered a flavor I have been completely satisfied with.
After 28 days, the vodka should be very yellow. I’ve seen the shade vary from batch to batch a surprising amount. Sometimes it was almost neon yellow, other times it had an orange tinge. But it all tasted just fine. (Of course, if it smells or tastes off, you should throw it away and start over.) You can give or take a few days here if you need to. Pour the liquid through a fine mesh strainer into a large bowl or measuring cup. Then press on the peels to extract as much liquid and flavor as possible.
Because using 100-proof vodka meant a less-boozy base than my grain alcohol–based versions, I started over on figuring out how sweet to make my simple syrup, and how much of it I needed to add. I prefer limoncello that isn’t syrupy sweet, so I tested simple syrups made with a range of water-to-sugar ratios, and I also tested adding these syrups to my base in various amounts. I ended up with a not overly sweet syrup, with just 1 cup sugar to 1 1/2 cups water. And while I only add 1 3/4 cups of syrup to the base, my recipe makes 2 cups just in case you want to add more. I think I’d like 1 1/2 cups syrup, but that might be a little too much burn for most folks.
Combine the sugar and water in a saucepan and cook until the sugar dissolves, swirling the pan as it heats. This should only take a couple of minutes.
Add the simple syrup to the bowl with the infusion, then swirl to combine (it might look a little cloudy when you do this).
Transfer the limoncello to whatever bottle(s) you want to use. I usually use a pitcher or liquid measuring cup plus funnel to make the transfer easy. With rare exception, limoncello recipes call for a mellowing time, so I let it sit for 5 days at room temperature before putting it in the freezer. If your freezer is very cold, it might partially freeze, in which case you can transfer the bottle to the fridge, or just let the bottle sit out to thaw for a few minutes before serving.
This is definitely a recipe that allows for tinkering: You can try adding some lavender, thyme, or rosemary to the vodka during the 28-day steep. I suspect some warm spice could be nice for a more wintry version. You can play with the simple syrup proportions and total amount, too. I made one batch with a caramel simple syrup; it made a limoncello that was a little sweet for drinking straight but was a great mixer for pairing with bourbon or gin.
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