Lemon Lift: Life is sweet with DIY limoncello

It is surely a sign of how far I have fallen from the passionate ideals of my youth to note that I have taken my most recent philosophy of life from a cocktail napkin.

It wasn’t something wise about accepting loss and moving on. It wasn’t even some pithy advice about re-entering the dating world after years of marriage, although if anyone has such advice, pithy or not, I’d be happy to take it.

No, the napkins read, “When life hands you lemons, just add vodka.”

I didn’t start to consume massive quantities of vodka, although admittedly, the thought has crossed my mind once or twice. It simply set me to thinking about limoncello.

An Italian liqueur, limoncello is frequently sipped during summer months after a meal as a disgestivo, or an aid to digestion. It seems to be a pleasant way to end a meal, to sit back and sip an icy-cold sweet, lemony drink that ends with a tiny burn of alcohol.

So I decided that I’d had it with the lemons. It was time to turn them into limoncello.

Liqueurs in general, and limoncello, in particular, are not hard to make and all follow the same general guidelines. The game plan calls for steeping the flavoring agent (lemon zest in the case of limoncello) in a neutral alcohol base, then filtering out the flavorings, adding some sort of sweetener and letting the whole mess age for a number of weeks. After that, you simply bottle it, serve it, and sit back and enjoy the many accolades which will be heaped on you by your delighted dinner guests. And frankly, any time I can sit back and enjoy heaping piles of accolades, I’m a happy woman.

The devil, of course, is in the details.

It seemed that everyone and their Italian grandmother had different and extremely vociferous opinions on what made good limoncello. I had to assimilate a variety of different recipes into one that pleased my palate. The guiding principle is to make a batch, taste it, then make another one, until you achieve a ratio that you like.

One of the first decisions to be made is what to use as the spirit base. It needs to be a high-proof alcohol, and the limoncello cognoscenti seem to fall into two camps: those who prefer to use 100-proof vodka and those who prefer grain alcohol.

I settled on using 100-proof vodka, mainly because my upscale, mid-county grocery store does not, apparently, carry grain alcohol. If you ever want to get curious looks in an upscale, mid-county grocery store, try asking about grain alcohol when you are pushing a 4-year-old around in a rocket-shaped cart. Our purchases that day totaled two bottles of 100-proof Smirnoff, a dozen lemons, a pack of pizza-flavored Goldfish crackers and a gallon of skim milk. “Yeah,” I wanted to tell the checker, “Mommy’s had a hard day.”

Kyle Harsha of South County, a fellow homemade limoncello enthusiast, however, swears by the use of grain alcohol. Harsha, a sales rep for a wine distributor, made an almost scientific study of homemade limoncello, making several batches using both vodka and Everclear grain alcohol as a base. He found that Everclear worked better than 100-proof vodka, which “tasted more bitter, and not bitter in a good way.”

After choosing the alcohol base, the next step is to add lemon zest, although any citrus fruit will do. I made several batches using Meyer lemons, Key limes and blood oranges. Harsha chose to add in the zest of one lime to his limoncello, having read that the small amount of lime zest more closely approximates the flavors of lemons from Italy.

It is no small task to zest that much citrus fruit, but the task is made infinitely easier if you have a Microplane zester. If you do not have one, then I suggest you find an able-bodied assistant, arm them with a sharp paring knife and instruct them to slice off the zest in long thin strips. If you are tremendously lucky, like I was, you will find yourself with both a Microplane zester and an able-bodied assistant. Then entice said assistant into juicing the piles of now-naked citrus fruits and then force them to come up with a use for all the juice. We ended up using the Key lime juice for a tangy lime curd.

After pouring the vodka into a large glass container (I’d suggest one with a screw top or otherwise secure lid), I added the zest and let it sit in a cool dark place for about two weeks, whereby the alcohol essentially strips all the citrus oils out of the zest. After the initial two-week period, I was left with a bright yellow liquid and a lot of lemon zest. Since I used a Microplane, I had to filter the nascent limoncello through several layers of cheesecloth and then discard the by-then quite dingy-looking zest.

I followed the initial infusion process by adding simple syrup to the vodka. Simple syrup is a mixture of one part water to one part granulated sugar, which is heated gently until the sugar melts and is then cooled. The vodka-simple syrup mixture was then returned to the glass container and sat in my basement for approximately 30 days. The final step is to cut the limoncello with more vodka, water or simple syrup, bottle it into decorative containers and serve it up. The exact measures and ratios are best left to personal preference. Italians store bottles of limoncello in the freezer since it is quite delightful served icy cold in tiny glasses.

Harsha described his early attempts as “pretty potent,” too potent for his wife’s tastes, but just fine for his father’s. His guests have preferred the sweeter versions. Not being a sweet person (in any sense of the word), I prefer my limoncello with a little more kick.

Serving limoncello seems to bring out a special feeling of bonhomie and companionship when I bring it out at the end of the meal. Harsha agreed, “It’s fun to pull out a bottle of homemade liqueur and have a lively discussion.” At a recent dinner party, the lively discussion included one of my more charming guests describing the limoncello as “something that makes you want to get naked in a hot tub.”

Whether or not you choose limoncello as a prelude to spontaneous acts of public nudity is, of course, entirely up to you, but don’t feel you must limit yourself to using it purely as an after-dinner drink. Harsha has mixed his limoncello into green tea liqueur, concocting what he calls “a high-potency Arnold Palmer,” a traditional Arnold Palmer being made by mixing iced tea with lemonade. He also has taken a spin on a Kir Royale by mixing limoncello with Prosecco, an Italian sparkling wine.

I wish I could report that making and serving limoncello has removed the figurative as well as the literal lemons from my life. Of course, that’s not the case. There are still bills looming, emotional minefields to tread and the refrigerator is making that ominous rumbling sound again. But somehow, knowing that behind the frozen peas and half-empty boxes of Girl Scout cookies sits a bottle of limoncello makes navigating life all the easier.