While the state of California was in the grip of the worst freeze in recent history, and citrus producers up and down the valley were suffering catastrophic losses, I enjoyed a bumper crop. Our friends Donna and Dennis had recently moved into a gorgeous house in Hillsborough, complete with a petite but prolific lemon tree in the back yard. One night, they brought us a paper shopping bag full of them.
Some were ready for use right away; others were still on the hard side and would benefit from a little quiet time in the corner, extending our enjoyment. Over the next couple of months, I made spaghetti al limone, chicken with fennel and lemon, a monster batch of preserved lemons and lord only knows how many vodka tonics. And we still had a mountain of the things left over.
I practically had to make limoncello.
I’ve been meaning to do so for quite some time. I’ve often been inspired to do so by my good friend Anita, a fine ‘cellist in her own right. She’s made not only limoncello but a seriously heady bergamocello, an ethereally perfumed Buddhacello (from a Buddha’s hand citron) and a difficult-to-name bloodorangecello, as well as any number of other interesting concoctions (such as a seriously complex nocino that I am still enjoying precious sips of, sparingly, two years later).
At its most basic definition, limoncello is simply the combination of a lemon-infused neutral liquor mixed with simple syrup. It’s less a recipe than a technique or, as I often think of such things, an equation. Algebra.
To wit: Limoncello is the product of lemon zest and vodka of a given proof, left together for a quantity of time, after which you strain out the zest; to which you then add a simple syrup of sugar and water and let it rest again for a period of time to mellow and blend. How much of each of those variables is what drives your final product.
Now, I’ve made a few infusions in my day, so I was well equipped in that arena. In fact, I’ve made more than one lemon infusion, and have certainly learned a few lessons in the process. Many of the recipes I saw online involved the use of the entire rind. In my experience, the rind imparts far too much bitterness even to be offset by the sweetness of syrup, and knowing that these lemons had, shall we say, an aggressive flavor profile, I opted to use only zest, lovingly shaved into a drift of yellow snow (ew…) by my handy-dandy Microplane. This I jammed directly into a 750 of Ketel One, and into the cupboard it went.
I used seven or eight lemons’ worth of zest for the one bottle of vodka. I wanted intensity of lemony flavor and perfume, and as I was not using the entire rind, I certainly didn’t want to skimp. Practically immediately, the vodka began to take on an almost lurid yellow-green color that would intensify as it sat. My yellow snow, by contrast, beame feathery and pallid, fluttering in its medium like a boozy snowglobe.
As for the time element, varying recipes advised resting times of anywhere from 10 to 40 days for each half of the process. Here, I opted to lean toward the lower end of the scale, for a few reasons. One, my delicately zested rind offered nearly 100% exposure of surface area, meaning extraction would happen faster. Two, I was concerned again about unwanted bitterness. Three, I’m impatient.
The end product was satisfactory, delicious even, though I have a couple of takeaways for next time. I might use a vegetable peeler to get just a thin scrape of rind along with the zest; in the end, I think a slight bitterness might have added a little more dimension. Also, I would use 100-proof vodka. I assumed that the standard 80-proof combined with the sugary solution would be sufficient to prevent freezing. I was wrong. But for posterity, here’s how it went down.
Limoncello di Hillsborough
7-8 medium, thick-skinned Eureka or Lisbon lemons (i.e., not Meyer), preferably from a back yard in Hillsborough
1 750 ml bottle of vodka
4 2 c. sugar 5 2.5 c. water
Using a grater (such as a Microplane), grate all the zest off the lemons, avoiding the rind. Put the zest in a sealable jar and cover with the full bottle of vodka; or, if you prefer, just jam the zest into the bottle of vodka and screw the cap shut. Put in a cool, dark place for at least 10 days.
Strain the infusion first with a sieve and then through a coffee filter. Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan, heat the water and sugar until the sugar is fully dissolved and the solution is clear. Allow to cool fully to room temp. Combine the infusion and the syrup, and set to rest in a cool, dark place again for at least 10 days.
Pour limoncello into attractive mason-top bottles and adorn with quaint labels; this is a very important step. Give a bottle to your lemon supplier.
Edit: In making a second batch, I realized I transcribed the proportions for the syrup incorrectly. Corrected above.
One year ago today … I Was Curious. But evidently not curious enough, cuz I still haven’t gone.