Monday, January 24, 2011
Meyer Lemon Limoncello
I wish I had some poetic, evocative, feast-of-the-senses type limoncello story to tell you, I really do. Maybe something involving a breezy terrace shaded by an arbor of lemon trees, possibly overlooking the sea in Amalfi or the like, in which refreshing little sips of unbelievably fresh liqueur, like bottled sunshine itself and made, of course, with local Sorrento lemons and to the specifications of the proprietor’s ancestors reaching back into time in memoriam, were brought at the end of the most sumptuously gratifying meal to refresh me body and soul.
Unfortunately most of my memories of limoncello involve forcing down complimentary, headache-inducing cordial glasses full of sickly, syrupy, lurid liquid (“so as not to be rude” I tell myself blearily) when I’ve already eaten and drank far too much, brought by well-meaning Italian waiters before they pour me into some long-awaited taxi to trundle home, head propped against the window, and sweat it out alone in misery wherever in that foreign city I’m camping out for the night. “L-cello” my notes from the meal usually trail off in some desperate scrawl.
And yet in theory Limoncello seems like such a good idea, doesn’t it? I mean digestivos can make a wonderfully restorative, even medicinal, end to a special meal, and lemon has to be one of my all-time favorite flavors. It’s so naturally uplifting, so mouth-puckering, so cooling, so fresh. So why does limoncello so often end up tasting like discount cough syrup? Well I’m determined to fix all that. There must be a reason a whole nation of Italians still prepares and serves limoncello. It can’t just be for the tourist restaurants and duty free. I mean no one knows unadulterated, fresh-tasting food like Italians, right?
Just like when I made crème de cassis for the first time, this is an experiment and an invitation to join me in it. I’ve chosen meyer lemons because their flavor is so heavenly, maybe even possibly a step closer to that of the glorious Sorrento lemon originally used for limoncello. Plus meyer lemons are available here for such a short season - they’ve just started arriving in stores in the northeast over the past 10 days - and they're worth celebrating. If this recipe is a success, I’ll have a wonderful new way of keeping their beautiful essence with me throughout the year. But please use regular lemons if that’s all you have on hand – I’m running a test on those too. And take heart in the fact that, just like with the crème de cassis, now a yearly tradition in our house and something friends eagerly request at the end of dinners here, this limoncello has been exhaustively researched before go-time.
I’m using vodka. To capture the delicate, honeyed, floral quality of meyer lemons, you really need a flavorless vodka like Kettle One. Vodka does take longer to infuse than something like grain alcohol, which is so often recommended in online recipes, but the flavor vodka yields is really much better, and that’s the point after all. In Italy they use pure spirits, but the resulting flavor is different than that you get with the grain alcohol we can buy here. Plus the reason so many online recipes call for grain alcohol is that it supposedly infuses in a week or so. But rest assured that in Italy they tend to take a couple of months to steep their lemons in spirits, regardless of alcohol content.
And also be warned I’m planning on cutting the usual sugar by quite a bit, though we don’t need to worry about that step until the peels have steeped in the vodka for a good 8 weeks. Be sure to check back in mid-March for the tasting and to report your own results, and in the meantime I’ll be thinking of some uses for all this seriously good meyer lemon juice. Suggestions please!
So, to begin:
24 lemons, meyer if desired, preferably organic
1 ½ liters (just over 3 pints or 6 cups) good quality, favorless vodka (I’m using Kettle One for the meyer lemons and, in the name of economy, Skyy for the normal lemons, whose flavor is stronger and less complex).
Wash the lemons thoroughly and dry well, discarding any damaged fruit. Zest the lemons with a microplane to remove as much of the zest as possible without including any of the white pith, which will make your liqueur bitter. Put into clean jam or mason jars and let steep in a cool, dry, dark place for 8 weeks.
I'll meet you back here in a couple of months for the next step.