All cooking involves a feeling of alchemy. You take a bunch of ingredients, some heat and some water, some fancy knifework, and you end up with a whole that's far greater than the sum of its parts. When friends and loved ones are involved, you often create an experience -- a night to be remembered, or a feeling of home to draw upon. You transform raw materials into nourishment, in all senses of the word.
Making liqueurs can be one of the more dramatic examples of this. You take fruits or grains, and with some time, fermentation or infusion, create something that can last almost forever. And bring people together. In this case, I took some sunny lemons from neighboring California, drew out their oils with alcohol, and made a digestif that can sit in the basement and age for as long as we like. The flavor actually improves with time, and it can be given to friends as gifts, or uncorked whenever you'd like to cap off a lovely evening. Which is all to say that I've been drinking again.
In all fairness, I started this batch of limoncello three weeks ago. I took my own advice and joined in a bulk canning date, where several friends turned 80 lbs of Northwest apricots into a seemingly endless river of jam. We divided into teams and washed, pitted and cut the fruit, measured out sugar and pectin, juiced lemons, sterilized jars, and boiled and stirred and poured and processed until the kitchen table groaned under its load of jam. And then we did it again. The burners on the stove ran for ten hours straight. Preserving on this scale takes a lot of time, sugar, fruit and citrus. In addition to my trove of jam, I went home with an unexpected present: zest from a dozen lemons.
Limoncello is a digestif, or after-dinner liqueur, made from the zest of lemons. Traditionally it's made with a special variety of lemons grown on Italy's Amalfi coast. But the domestic version isn't too bad either. I've made batches with ordinary supermarket lemons (Eurekas), as well as Meyers from the backyards of my lucky California friends, and both are delicious. And shockingly easy.
Making limoncello involves grating the peel off of the lemons, sealing it up with some alcohol to draw out the oils, then sweetening the end product and watering it down to a drinkable consistency. The best alcohol to use is often debated: some swear by high-proof fancy vodka, some recommend the cheap stuff, while others use grain alcohol. I've used them all, and find I like the latter best. Even the nicest vodkas make a limoncello that tastes, essentially, like lemon-flavored vodka. Grain alcohol, with its crazy high proof, draws out more oils and other citrusy compounds, and the end result has the truest lemon flavor.
adapted from several Italian cookbooks by my Italian friend Alex
In general, grain alcohol produces a slightly cloudier limoncello than vodka. Also many have observed that the mixture will be further clouded if the sugar syrup is added while still warm. Some prefer a clouded digestif to a urine-clear version, so use your discretion. If you don't have a zester or microplane grater to expose the maximum lemony surface area, just peel the lemon with a vegetable peeler, and allow it a few extra weeks to infuse.
1 fifth (750 ml) bottle of grain alcohol
1 1/2 fifths water (about 4 1/2 cups)
1 1/3 cups sugar
Grate the zest from the lemons using a microplane grater or a zester with small holes, making sure to get only the yellow skin and none of the white pith (this can impart a bitter flavor). Place the zest and grain alcohol together in a glass jar, seal with a lid, and let sit for about three weeks. Shake occasionally. At the end of this time, the alcohol will have drawn out most of the lemon color from the shreds of peel. Pour through a strainer, pressing down to release any remaining oils, and then discard the peels.
Dissolve the sugar and water together in a pot. Mix this syrup in with your strained alcohol. Filter the combined mixture through several layers of cheesecloth, or, preferably, a coffee filter to remove any remaining impurities. Letting it sit for a month or so before sipping allows the flavors to mellow and develop, although I'm seldom that patient. Chill thoroughly in the freezer before enjoying.