It’s citrus season right about now, and I am always envious of people who own homes with fruit-laden lemon trees. If you’re a fan of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, I swooned when Yolanda Foster (now Hadid) strolled through her backyard, casually picking lemons, as if she were vacationing at some random Italian villa. As a stark contrast to her bountiful lemon grove, I have one little lemon tree in a container on my balcony, and it will never bear as much fruit as one that is planted in the ground. This year it only gave us four lemons.
I had the urge to make a tarte au citron, so I had to either head to Whole Foods and pay exorbitant prices for organic lemons, or plead for citrus overflow from a fruit tree owner. Luckily, we live in the country now, and fruit trees are everywhere, so I used the app NextDoor to see if anyone had an excess of fruit. I was in luck – a neighbor less than a mile from us said, “I’ll have two bags of lemons for you outside shortly!”. When I arrived at their house, they had filled two big brown grocery bags: it was about 12 kilos (over 25 lbs) of Meyer lemons.
With this unexpected gift (let’s call it what it is – a shit ton of lemons), recipes started to swirl through my head. Lemon tart? Obviously. Lemon curd? Absolutely. Candied lemon peel? Yes. Preserved lemons? Sure, why not. Marmalade? Done and done. But I still had so many lemons, and I surely didn’t need so many sweets in the house.
It dawned on me: homemade limoncello. The idea of sipping on this refreshing Italian liqueur made me dream of summering on the Amalfi Coast, so I set out to make my first batch of the stuff – a process I have found to be somewhat meditative since you do have to put a lot of care into preparing your lemon peels.
I wonder how many nonnas are out there making big batches of boozy lemon liqueur right now?
You will want to find beautiful, organic, unsprayed, unwaxed lemons. Scrub the outsides with a brush and some water to remove any dust or debris, and dry them off completely. You will need a vegetable peeler and a paring knife – the knife is necessary to cut away as much of the bitter white pith as you can.
My first go round, I peeled short strips of rind from end to end, which settled at the bottom of the jar for the infusion. For the second batch, I decided it would be more beautiful to try and remove the rind in one single spiraled piece – this makes the rind stand up and fill the jar more evenly (versus just sitting on the bottom). Not sure if there is a taste difference, but if you want to leave the jars on the counter during the infusion process, they definitely look more impressive!
A Note On Alcohol
I had a few conversations with various folks about what alcohol to use. A lot of people go for Everclear grain alcohol (there are two versions, 190-proof and 151-proof, which are 95% and 75% alcohol, respectively). Everclear is super difficult to find in California, and the consensus is that this makes a harsher end result.
The second recommended alcohol is 100-proof vodka. A few companies (Svedka, Smirnoff, and Stolichnaya) all make high octane vodka, you will likely find it at your local BevMo – not so much at the grocery store. This results in a smoother, more elegant liqueur.
Lastly, if you can’t find the high ABV stuff, you can use the regular 80-proof vodka, which is easier to find and more cost-conscious than 100-proof. You likely won’t have to add as much sugar syrup at the end since you won’t have to dilute it as much as you would the other two variations.
(recipe adapted from “Extra Virgin” with Debi Mazar & Gabriele Corcos)
You will need:
2 x 1-liter mason jars with lid
Vegetable peeler (I use a Kyocera ceramic peeler)
7 medium-large Meyer lemons (you can substitute any citrus fruit you like)
1 x 750 ml bottle of 100-proof vodka
750 ml water
525 grams sugar
Peel the lemons with your vegetable peeler, trying to peel only the rind and as little of the white pith as possible. After peeling, go back to the rinds and use the paring knife to remove any remaining pith as best as you can.
Drop the all the rind into your mason jar, and pour the entire bottle of vodka over it. Seal the jar and put it in a cabinet or on your counter – away from direct sunlight – for at least two weeks.
In a medium-large saucepan, place the water and sugar and bring to a simmer, until the sugar dissolves. Cool syrup for at least one hour, giving it a stir every now and again to make sure there is no sugar settling at the bottom of the pan.
Bring out the jar of infused vodka and strain out the lemon peels (and discard – I haven’t found a use for these yet). Divide the alcohol into two jars, then divide the cooled syrup between the two jars. You can play with the proportions here – start with less syrup if you don’t want it to be overly sweet. Return the jars to a cabinet (again, away from sunlight), and let it rest for a month. You can give the jars a little shake if sugar crystals start to settle at the bottom.
After a month, you’re ready for bottling. You can simply store your jars in the freezer, or transfer to a more decorative bottle to give away as a gift for a very lucky person.