How do we welcome the bright tang of lemon in summer’s heat? In salad dressing with olive oil, squeezed on seafood, lemon slices baked with chicken in piccata, lemon juice added to hummus, lemonade on a porch or at a picnic or vended at the roadside by a youthful entrepreneur.
Then there is limoncello (pronounced “lee-mon-CHELL-oh”), a lemon liqueur. Served in a cordial glass following a meal, it promotes digestion and acts as a fitting conclusion to a dinner with friends. You can blend limoncello with other ingredients in cocktails or use it as you might any other cordial, for instance, making lemon sorbet when a recipe calls for a couple tablespoons of alcohol, or to flavor panna cotta or cake.
A friend once described limoncello as a “granny drink” because it was easily a homemade beverage, lemon peel soaked in clear alcohol, strained and sweetened, offered as a wee sip around the kitchen table when a friend came to call. Very cozy.
The effort required to make it is pretty minimal. Most of the process involves six weeks of soaking peel in pure unflavored alcohol, during which you do nothing except shake the jar once in a while. Soaking is preceded by skinning a few lemons and putting the peel in a jar, and then the soaking is followed by merely straining the alcohol and adding simple syrup more or less to taste.
You may prefer to acquire organically raised lemons, or at the very least scrub them well before removing only the yellow portion, no white pith. Everclear, a neutral grain alcohol with a very high proof, is the best choice. (I used one at 151 proof, or 75.5 percent alcohol by volume.) A decent quality unflavored vodka will do. Make your own simple syrup, equal parts water and sugar heated until the sugar dissolves and cooled before using.
How much you make depends on the size of your jar. I used a pint-sized wide-mouth canning jar and filled it loosely packed with lemon peel from about five lemons and covered it with the Everclear. You will want to keep your jar out of the light while it is steeping. Make a note on your calendar of when six weeks is up. Alternatively, you may wish to soak the peel for the traditional and biblically inspired 40 days — part way between five and six weeks.
Strain the liquor through a sieve. The peel is pretty useless at this point, so just discard it. Add simple syrup gradually, tasting from time to time, until you arrive at the flavor you prefer. You can always add more simple syrup later if you change your mind. The liquor will be a little cloudy.
To enjoy limoncello, plan to serve it very cold. Put the bottle in the freezer an hour before pouring it into cordial or shot glasses. You can even chill the glasses by filling them with crushed ice, which you discard before pouring the liqueur into them.
Start making some now to enjoy during the Dog Days of August.
Makes roughly one half of a standard 750 ml bottle, or two to three cups.
2 cups grain alcohol or vodka
Using a vegetable peeler or very sharp knife, remove the zest from the lemons in long strips. Put them into a pint or slightly larger sized jar with a tight lid.
Cover the zest with the grain alcohol or vodka.
Let stand for 40 days, or six weeks. Shake the jar occasionally.
At the end of the soaking time, strain out the zest and discard.
1 ½ cups of white granulated sugar
1 ½ cups water
Mix together the water and sugar and heat until the sugar dissolves completely.
Add the syrup to the lemon-flavored alcohol, tasting occasionally to find your preferred amount of sweetness.
Store the limoncello in the refrigerator, and chill for an hour in the freezer before serving.