when life hands you lemons…
OK, so life didn’t exactly hand me lemons. Rather, sometime during the fall I got a bee in my bonnet about making limoncello. Chicky and I love the stuff- love it- and I’d read that it isn’t terribly hard to make.
My infatuation with this lusciously sweet digestif began on summer trip to Italy, where it’s icy presence made up for the country’s pervasive lack of air conditioning. Since then, I’ve been on a quest to find the best limoncello available in the U.S., perusing the liquor store’s in Boston’s North End and grilling bartenders and family members for reputable brands. Too often though, I’ve found that the limoncello here falls into two categories: gross or grossly pricey. I didn’t feel like I had much to lose by giving it a whirl myself.
However, the gap between setting my heart on making limoncello and actually doing it was rather large. You see, grain liquor and organic lemons aren’t easily found in Massachusetts. Grain liquor is illegal here- I ended up driving to Rhode Island and going to three liquor stores before I found it. And organic lemons… well, they’re kind of precious, i.e. expensive and hard to find.
A few people have inquired as to why I used organic lemons, when conventional ones are so easy to come by. Limoncello is made using the zest of the lemon- the yellow part. Unfortunately, that is also the part of the lemon that absorbs any pesticides that get sprayed and the idea of them leaching into my beverage was sort of scary to me. So I went organic.
I scoured the internet for recipes, and then because of circumstances and the fact that I can’t follow directions to save my life, kind of winged it. I finally found organic lemons at Whole Foods, but they looked like they’d been bullied by the other fruits… there was some serious bruising going on. But since they were all I could find, I decided to plunk down for them and simply avoid the bruised parts when I trimmed off the zest.
Once zested, I put the lemon peels and two liters of grain alcohol into my infuser. The grain alcohol really was something. First off, it was called “Graves Extra XXX Fine.” Second, the bottle came with a warning to keep it away from heat and flames. No wonder this stuff is illegal. Anyway, I left this lemon peel mixture to hang out for a month or so in a dark corner, as many sites recommended. However, I was perturbed one day when I came home to find that my entire apartment reeked of booze. Seems my infuser (basically a glass jat with a glass top) wasn’t airtight, and the alcohol was evaporating. In addition, when I tested the lemon peels, the snapped like a potato chip, and indication that they have infused all they can. But my mixture was hardly yellow… chalk it up to bad lemons.
About this time, I happened upon some lovely looking organic lemons at my local Shaw’s. So I decided to zest these (about a dozen smallish ones), add them to the remaining kind-of-infused liquor and add another bottle of grain alcohol (I’d bought three in Rhode Island, unsure of how much I’d need). I let this sit for about a month, again in my infuser, which I topped with plastic wrap to make airtight.
After a couple weeks, the mixture turned a deep, dark yellow, “Kind of like horse urine,” Chicky said. Mmmmm… yeah, exactly what you want to ingest, right?
At that point, Chicky and I got some cheesecloth and strained out the lemon zest (make sure to wet the cloth so it doesn’t absorb a bunch of booze). Then, I made a simple syrup of equal parts distilled water and sugar. Once cooled, I mixed it with equal parts of the infused lemon liquor. The result was a bright, but strong, limoncello. As my step-dad said, “It’s tasty, but there’s no doubt this stuff carries a kick.”
The whole process took about three months and cost me close to $90, about the equivalent of three bottles of good store bought stuff. So would I do it again? Absolutely! Now that I have a sense of what I’m doing, I want to perfect my recipe, maybe make an all-organic version, try one with oranges… I have visions of arriving at parties with the perfect hostess gift, of serving it ice-cold to friends at late-night summer gatherings on the roof deck and of finding the perfect little bottles to store it in. Warning to friends and family: this could become a years long experiment. Holler if you’d like to be a guinea pig.