My mother-in-law knows how to party.
She keeps the wine glasses full and the cheese plate brimming. She is generous with her warmth, her conversation, her home-grown tomatoes in summer and rosemary in winter.
Cheryl’s birthday is in late January, and by some miracle of grace I managed to consider this fact back in early December when we were also trying to concoct a Christmas present for her. Now, everyone but Cheryl will tell you that she’s hard to buy for. “I’m easy!” she says. “I like everything!”
We had just been over to the in-laws’ for dinner. Cheryl followed the meal with a moderate offering of her favorite liqueur (and possibly her favorite liquid), limoncello. Cheryl tells the story of her first encounter with the stuff: following a sumptuous meal in Italy, the server brought over little tiny glasses of an icy cold, screaming yellow drink. “We didn’t order this,” she and my pa-in-law humbly protested. “It’s included with the meal,” explained the server. And she took a sip and her socks blasted off her feet through the front of her shoes. She was in love–silly girly “Call Me Maybe” love.
So I decided to see if I could make some for her. I’m glad I started looking into this back in December because while it’s easy as pie to make at home, it does take about 5-6 weeks.
First, go buy 18 organic lemons. Or a lot of them. If they’re huge, buy 14. If they’re tiny, buy more. If I were really helpful, I’d be able to tell you how many pounds of lemons to buy but I just can’t. And I’m starting to think it’s not that important, because it doesn’t really seem like you can have too many lemons, only too few. What about Meyer lemons, you may ask? You can go that route, but be ready for some extra headache when peeling them because their skins are much thinner than their conventional counterparts. I went with your average organic lemon and have no regrets.
Now go to the liquor store and ask for 2 750 ml bottles of Everclear. You have to ask for it: envision innocent little me walking into a liquor store and looking around for a while, walking up to the counter with a perplexed look on my face when I couldn’t seem to find this iconic alcohol. See me ask the bleach-blonde clerk where they kept their Everclear. Imagine her wrist-flick-hair-toss and her “Ohmygod. We keep that stuff back here, sweetheart.”
Some people do this with vodka (Giada de Laurentiis, I’m looking at you), but we don’t screw around.
Wash your lemons. Now, with a sharp paring knife and a lot of patience, you need to peel them all. Carefully. You want to avoid the white part of the peel (the pith) entirely; you ONLY want the bright yellow stuff that in other applications is zested. The pith is bitter. We don’t want a pithy limoncello.
I did all my lemons in one go, but I imagine you could take your time and stick the lot in the fridge for a while if your hand cramps up. (Your fridge would smell great.) I brought out my mandoline slicer, put the blade at a very thin setting, and managed to speed up my process. By the 18th lemon I was getting so good at it that I was pulling off the zest in one long zest-slinky.
Stuff your peels into one half-gallon Mason jar (you’ll ultimately need two of these for this recipe)–you can find these at your local hardware or grocery store with a canning section. You could use pretty much any glass container with a well-sealing lid. Pour in both bottles of Everclear, cap tightly, and shake. Stick this gorgeous jar out of sight in a cool dark place. Back of the pantry worked for me. Back of a cupboard away from the stove would work, too.
Now you have 18 naked lemons. Give your poor lemony hands a break and then juice your fruit. Put the juice in freezer bags or ice cube trays and stick them in the freezer. Feel smug about the immense quantity of high-quality lemon juice you now have at the ready for numerous sweet and savory flavor-boosting applications.
Every day or two for the next 2-3 weeks, say hello to your jar of limoncello-to-be. Pick it up lovingly and then shake the hell out of it.
After the appropriate time has elapsed, bring out the jar. Measure out 6 cups of white granulated sugar (no fancy turbinado or coconut palm shit for this application). Pour 5.5 cups water into a large saucepan and bring it up a to a boil. Slowly pour in the sugar, stirring with a whisk as you go to encourage the sugar to dissolve. Once it’s dissolved, remove the saucepan from the heat, cover, and allow it to cool to room temperature.
If your saucepan is big enough to accommodate your simple syrup and all the liquid from your Mason jar, great: set a strainer over your saucepan and dump the contents of the Mason jar into it. Let the peels drip drip drip and then set them aside–well, really, you’re going to be discarding them, but first you should have the opportunity to marvel at their neon yellow color and dessicated near-crystalline crispiness.
Also, how cool is it that you started out with two thin clear liquids and you ended up with a thick opaque one?!
Okay. Stir your limoncello and pour it into your two big Mason jars. Pop these back into their safe dark cool place for another 3 weeks and agitate the jars every day or so.
When your time is up, bring out the limoncello and pour it into pretty glass bottles with a rubber seal.
Store the limoncello in the freezer (the alcohol content is far too high for this stuff to even consider freezing) and serve it icy cold and often–straight, or in your margarita, or a dash in your champagne, or on your vanilla ice cream.
This recipe made enough for me to give Cheryl about two thirds (maybe even three quarters) of a gallon of limoncello. This may be my favorite gift-giving experience to date. I gave Cheryl her limoncello at her birthday dinner, out at an incredibly accommodating restaurant in NW. Can I tell you? I don’t want the manager to get in trouble, because when I asked him if I could whip it out so she could taste it–an unorthodox request to begin with–he dragged me over to the bar to let me choose which of their 6 different kinds of glasses would be best.
(The restaurant was Southland Whiskey Kitchen, and it’s exactly what Portland has needed since we got here. Amazing.) He gave us glasses for everyone, with one of their giant fancy ice cubes in each since the limoncello had been sitting out at room temp for a while.
So what did Cheryl think? Her face says it all.