How to Make Limoncello
Updated: Oct 26, 2019
First you look at all the lemons growing on the two lemon trees in your backyard. You ponder all the possible things you could do with them. Ah! You think. You could make lemon pickle. You bust out Ammini Ramachandran's cookbook, "Grains, Greens and Grated Coconut". You look up “Naranga Currry”, and get started. You fry lemons lightly in olive oil, instead of sesame oil. You let them cool. You season with mustard seeds, fenugreek, asafetida and chili powder. Not the American chili powder, that has cumin and various other things and is used to make chili with beans etc., but ground cayenne pepper. Seriously hot stuff.
The lemon pickle turns out to be freaking hot. You realize that is perhaps the point, personal preference nothwithstanding. You bottle it up and let it sit, thinking, heck, maybe time will mellow it. It's done that to many curmudgeonly people you know, hasn't it, so why not lemon pickle. It doesn't really mellow. Remains hot as heck. Fine with rice and yogurt. But without the yogurt to take the edge of the heat off? Sets your mouth on fire. Then you think, didn't Sunita make some killer limoncello one time. So you email her and say hey how do you make limoncello? She replies with a recipe. It’s quite simple, she says.
Get the peels of six large lemons (leave a little of the white pith if you want it to be bitter: just a little. You want nice long ribbons of peels). Put them in a glass bottle with a cap, along with a bottle of cheap vodka and let steep for 3-6 weeks in a non-refrigerated place. You should have room in the bottle to eventually add your sugar syrup.
When the infused vodka has turned a chartreuse yellow - or even a bit orange - you can add your sugar syrup. Put a cup of sugar into a saucepan, and stir lightly over a low flame, then add two cups of water. Let it cook for a bit until it thickens slightly. (if you like a sweeter limoncello, you can add more sugar, but I like mine tart and bitter). Let it cool, then add to the infused vodka, which still has the peels. Let it steep for a couple more weeks, then - using a strainer - pour into bottles.
You pluck a whole bunch of lemons from your trees. Two varieties. Meyer and Lisbon. You wash them carefully and dry them.
You carefully peel off the rinds, trying to minimize the pith and get just the zest.
You do not want to waste the juice of the lemons, so you squeeze the juice out and store some in a bottle in the refrigerator, or pour it into ice cube trays, from where you can later remove the lemon juice cubes and use in a drink, or in a recipe!
Use cheap vodka, Sunita had mentioned. Vodka is not your favorite poison, so you know little about it. But lying around is a half full bottle of cheap vodka that a house guest left. You stuff the rinds down the narrow neck of the bottle, put a sticky label on it with the date, cap it tightly and leave it on the kitchen counter. With all good intentions to continue with the recipe in about 4 to 6 weeks. Life happens, and you look at it periodically and observe the two months have passed, then six months. Then almost a year. You have a new harvest of lemons. Time to make more limoncello, you think. You buy a large bottle of vodka from Trader Joe's. And buy two large bottles from Tuesday Morning. You peel the rinds carefully off the lemons, put the rinds in the bottles, add vodka, cap them tightly, put a sticky label on, and leave it, this time on a shelf in the garage.
Several weeks later, you invite Sunita over to help finish making it. She comes over and checks out the year-old bottle. The lemon rind looks gray she says suspiciously. She uncapped the bottle and sniffs it and says I think this needs to be thrown out. Really?! you exclaim, wondering if it could be salvaged. Here, she says kindly yet firmly, compare it to the newer bottles. A tiny sip and the evidence is incontrovertible. It tastes awful. The contents of the old bottle get poured down the sink. The bottle neck is too narrow to allow the lemon rinds to be shaken out before the bottles can be recycled. Just put the whole thing in the trash, she says. You ruefully acquiesce. Then you start making sugar syrup. Not turbinado sugar! Sunita exclaims, use white sugar so the color of the lemon is preserved. You make sugar syrup with refined sugar. You let it cool. You pour it into the bottles that have the steeping lemon rinds and vodka. You cap it tightly, and return the bottles to aforementioned shelf in the garage. Pour it out and away from the rinds in a week, she says before she leaves.
A month later, you remember. As before, life has happened. You retrieve the bottles, and realize that you do not possess a funnel. You conduct a Google search on how to make a funnel. You learn that all you need is a plastic cup and some tape, both of which you have in your possession. Delighted at this discovery, you make a funnel by cutting a vertical slit down the plastic cup, cutting off the bottom, rolling the plastic into a funnel shape and taping it up. You find two tall bottles with wire and gaskets seals.
You recruit your daughter to hold the funnel as you pour or vice versa because this is a two person operation. "What is this stuff? It smells terrible!" She declares. You explain vodka to her. And Limoncello. With her help you manage to pour the limoncello into the two bottles. There's some leftover that didn't fit in the bottles and you pour that into smaller old jam bottles. You take just a tiny sip to taste, because it is after all the middle of the day here even if it may be 5pm somewhere. Needs to be chilled but even at room temperature it is promising. You put all bottles in the refrigerator because there is no room in the freezer. Once again you think, when this one conks out, you really need to get a refrigerator with the freezer drawer in the bottom instead of just a long narrow one on the side.
The next day, you take one of the big bottles and small cordial glasses over to the neighbors. You've also purchased a box of lemon bites from Trader Joe's for the kids. The three grownups enjoy lemon cello. The kids demolish the lemon bites before you can say Limoncello.
You buy little bottles to give samples to your friends. You sip a small glass of the stuff periodically, Ah, the taste of summer.
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