I was first introduced to this quintessential Italian lemon liqueur on my first visit to Sorrento, Italy in the early 80’s, but it is only in recent years when we have been ‘brewing or should I say infusing’ our own, that I have started using it generously in the my cocktails and cooking. Wherever you go along the Amalfi Coast in Italy you see lemon trees and stalls selling lemon products.
When the lemons ripen in winter we cannot wait for enough to make our first batch of Limoncello. In previous years we have had to bum lemons from friends, but this year we are having a bumper lemon crop, despite our trees having had virtually no water all summer.
For a decent batch using about 3 litres (4 X 750ml bottles of Vodka) of alcohol you need about 20 -25 lemons. I never buy lemons for limoncello as I am not sure if they have been ‘waxed’. I rather pick them myself and just give them a good wash! As we always have a good source of lemons we make a big batch ensuring that we always have sufficient for own consumption and for gifts. If you buy lemons wash them very well to remove any wax. Lemons are sometimes waxed to prolong the shelf-life.
You only use the zest of the lemon, no pith, flesh or pips are used. Use a sharp vegetable peeler and be careful to only peel the zest away, about 1 mm thick, with very little visible pith. The pith causes bitterness.
When we peel the lemons I go into ‘production mode’. The zest goes straight into the alcohol, and that in left in a cool place for a few weeks to infuse. The 20 plus lemons can be used for marmalade, but I find that fewer people are eating jams and preserves in their quest to reduce their carbohydrate intake, so I rather just squeeze the lemons. I pour the fresh juice into ice trays and freeze them immediately. Once frozen, the lemon cubes are placed in a zip lock bag in the freezer. One cube is about 25ml so it is easy to defrost and use in recipes when lemons become very expensive, especially around Christmas time. While on this subject, we also planted 3 lime trees that bare the most delicious plump limes. I either juice these, or just put the whole fruit into the freezer…… ideal for summer lime-based drinks and recipes, especially when they reach over R70 per kilogram!
You can also make lemon curd. It is delicious, but again has limited appeal these days because of the high sugar content.
It is not really the time of the year to enjoy chilled, refreshing lemon drinks and desserts, but you need to make your batch of Limoncello now! I promise will be sharing recipes for using it in the summer.
For the alcohol, we find the best is to use pure grape or grain spirit alcohol, but unless you have a pal who works at a distillery this is difficult to come by. You can buy alcohol in very small quantities from pharmacies, but then make sure that it is potable. Pharmacies also sell non-potable alcohol that has been tainted with a vile flavourant. Years ago we went from one pharmacy to another buying 500ml of alcohol, made our infusion, only to discover when we tasted it after some weeks, that one bottle must have been non-potable and we had to dump the lot….. sacrilege!
If you cannot find the right alcohol, do not despair, a good quality plain Vodka also does the trick! As Vodka contains lower alcohol that spirit alcohol, you need to adjust the volume of sugar syrup that you add.
For a basic Lemoncello using Vodka
The zest of 5 large lemons
700g castor or white sugar
700ml water (we use bottled water to ensure that there is no chlorine or other taint)
Place the zest and Vodka in glass jars and leave in a cool place for at least 5-6 weeks. If we remember we give the jar an occasional shake. You will see that the alcohol becomes progressively yellower.
Strain the zest from the alcohol and discard the zest. (I have dried the zest and ground it to a powder to use as a flavourant in meringues and baking – it is sublimely delicious!)
Prepare a sugar syrup, by dissolving the sugar the water and bring it to the boil for 1 minute. Allow the syrup to cool to room temperature.
Mix the sugar syrup and the flavoured alcohol. As it mixes it may turn cloudy. Opaque Limoncello is caused by an emulsion that forms between the sugar syrup and the extracted lemon oils in the alcohol.
Pour the mixture into sterilised bottles. We use 500ml bottles, which we label and use as gifts. Larger bottles are stored in the deep freeze for our own use. To sterilize the bottles, using clean bottles, pour about 100ml water in each. Either stand them up or lay them flat in the microwave. Microwave the bottles on high for about 3 minutes. Pour out the excess water & fill the bottles with your liqueur.
Ensure that caps or corks have been sterilized by boiling them in water for 2-3 minutes.
Serve Limoncello ice cold (because of the high alcohol content it should not freeze, if stored in the freezer) or over ice in liqueur-size glasses. Traditionally Limoncello is served at the end of a meal as a ‘digestivo’.
It can also be served diluted with sparkling wine such as Italian Prosecco or a local sparkling wine, or simply just topped up with sparkling water, as a fizzy cocktail. A couple of years ago I ordered very expensive German Limoncello glasses on the internet, thinking that they will be liqueur size. They were champagne glass size, so rather extravagantly we have a very expensive set of lemon fizz glasses!
This year we tried Naartjie (South African Mandarin, with a unique flavour) Infusion. Around late July /early August we find thin skinned, seedless naartjies. We chose these as the peel is very thin and has hardly any pith. We semi-dried the peel in a fan oven at 100°C to extract some of the water and used the Limoncello recipe above. We are very happy with the result. The citrus flavour is good, but as there was some pith, it has a slight bitterness on the palate, which we find refreshing. And you will agree, the colour is spectacular!
I hope I have inspired you to make your own Limoncello! It is such fun and makes a lovely gift!
Limoncello is pronounced: Lemon-Chello, or you can emphasise the ‘i’, Limon-Chello