One of the legends, the one I choose to believe, surrounding the origin of limoncello is that during times of a forgotten era, fisherman along the Italian coast would sip a little of this lemony spirit to ward off the cold before heading out onto the Mediterranean in the morning. Having spent a lot of time fishing off the coast of Maine, through predawn fog and rain, and blustery winter days harvesting and processing shellfish, I appreciate attempts, especially one as tasty as limoncello, to ward off the cold and damp while heading out onto the unforgiving ocean.
Our foray into limoncello is far less romantic and was not spurred on by warding off cold, damp conditions. One of our largest winter crops is lemons. Not knowing what to do with the 100 or so lemons we would get off the lemon tree every year, and not wanting to waste such a delectable home-grown fruit, we looked into what we could make. Eventually we came across a recipe in the paper for limoncello. That happy happenstance sent us on our journey.
The most basic recipe for limoncello is lemon peel, alcohol, sugar and water. Over the years we have experimented with varying the potency of alcohol we use to steep the lemon peels. We have tried 80 and 100 proof vodka. We have tried pure grain alcohol, and various combinations of all that. We have found we prefer 100 proof vodka. We have also found that any amount of pure grain alcohol will result in a cloudy end product – the more pure grain alcohol used, the cloudier it will be. We have also varied the amount of sugar used. We like ours far less sweet than traditional.
- 1/2 gallon 100 proof vodka (2 quarts, 1.89 ml)
- Zest (no pith) from 17 fresh lemons and a few lemon leaves if available
- 4 cups spring water
- 2 cups sugar
Zest 17 lemons with as little pith as possible. Put zest and lemon leaves in a container about twice the size as the volume of the vodka. Add vodka. Wait at least three weeks for the lemon oils to be extracted.
Make a simple syrup by combining water and sugar. Heat until sugar is dissolved. Let cool. Add simple syrup to vodka. Wait another three weeks.
Remove zest and leaves, then strain through either a fine strainer or cheese cloth (the latter especially if a rasp zester was used on the peel).
Transfer to a nice jar. Chill and serve.
The major breakthrough in increased production came a number of years ago. The first few years, when we would only do a batch or two, we would use either a vegetable peeler, a zester, or a rasp grater to peel the lemons. These worked ok for a small number of lemons; however, to get to full utilization of the lemons, and increasingly of friends’ lemons, a new method was needed. That is when I decided to try an old-fashioned apple peeler. We disconnected the coring and slicing part, and, with firm lemons, ran them through. It worked like a charm, taking long segments of the peel that are completely free of the bitter pith. As long as the lemons are fresh and firm, this works great and quickly peels the pile of lemons we go through. If we follow that with a rugged juicer we can make lots of limoncello then juice all those lemons and freeze the juice for use the rest of the year.
We enjoy the limoncello ice-cold as an after-dinner digestif and mixed as part of a potent cocktail. How do you enjoy yours?