Simple and Sweet

There is no secret to making limoncello. Some people will tell you that their recipe is a guarded family secret, that only Nonna has it, and she hasn't yet agreed to share the recipe before she dies. I can understand that kind of guardianship for a liqueur like Alkermes, which contains upwards of 20 different ingredients, but for limoncello? Nope. Just can't see it. We aren't taking rocket science here.

I first had limoncello in a small and authentic Italian restaurant in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The restaurant is long gone, but the memory of that limoncello lingers. After our dinner, the owner - who was Italian - came to the table with a bottle and two small cordial glasses. "A gift of the house," he said.

It was sweet, and syrupy, and cold as ice, yet it warmed us inside instantly on that snowy December evening. "My Nonna, she makes it," he said. He said he didn't know exactly how, but only that she used grain alcohol.

Squeeze the juice and use it for lemonade or making Moroccan preserved lemons.
In later years we’d sip limoncello by candlelight under the Tuscan stars, after a leisurely meal with friends under jasmine-wreathed loggias. But how to make this liqueur still remained a mystery.

Being that this was pre-Internet, I started looking for a recipe in my countless Italian cookbooks, but found none. Eventually, there was something in the New York Times travel section that included a recipe, so I clipped it out and planned to make it.

The first ingredient was organic lemons. Well, at that time in the Northeast you had a better chance of winning the lottery than finding an organic lemon. I put the recipe aside and determined to ask the green grocer to provide me with some organic lemons.

Eventually, I got the lemons and made a batch - it was very good. I followed the recipe I had and used good-quality vodka, as it suggested. When I put it in the freezer, as is traditional, it turned into a giant yellow ice cube. This would never do.

Then I remembered that our restaurant host - all those those years earlier - mentioned his Nonna made it with grain alcohol. Perhaps increasing the strength of alcohol would allow it to be stored in the freezer without freezing? My next batch found me at the liquor store asking for Everclear®, a 190-proof grain alcohol.

The grain alcohol and a better recipe made all the difference, in flavor, consistency and freeze-ability. Just don't drink too much; it packs a real punch and more than a little cordial glass can leave you feeling quite worse for wear the next morning.

Limoncello. It's simple. It's sweet. It's no secret.

~ David


8 organic lemons
3¼ cups grain alcohol (Everclear®)
4 cups water
2 cups sugar

With a vegetable peeler, remove zest from all the lemons in wide flat strips and place in a glass jar large enough to hold 4 cups of liquid. (Juice lemons and reserve juice for another use, such as last week’s preserved lemons.) Add Everclear® alcohol. Cover tightly and let sit in a cool, dark place for 12 days.

After 12 days, make a simple syrup by boiling water and adding the sugar, stirring until it is dissolved. Boil an additional minute. Let cool. Strain the zest out of the alcohol and discard zest. Pour the alcohol into the simple syrup – it will cloud up a bit. Divide among bottles; cork, seal and label. Keep your limoncello in the freezer or refrigerator.

Makes 8-10 cups.

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