I'm not Italian, nor do I play one on TV. This is not an old family recipe. This is something that I've made up after a bit of experimentation and browsing some recipes online.
I'm blessed with an incredibly productive lemon tree that grows lemons that reach the size of grapefruit. These lemons are nice, sour and tangy lemons with a thick rind with heaps of lemon oil in the zest. Perfect for making Limoncello!
Most traditional recipes for Limoncello call for soaking either lemon rind, whole lemon slices or dried lemon slices in a neutral spirit, and then adding a sugar syrup. They also call for patience, which I don't possess in large amounts, while you leave it to do it's thing in a dark cupboard for ages.
In looking into what's required to make Limoncello, the part that takes a long time is the extraction of the lemon oils from the zest of the skin. This is a simple process of the alcohol dissolving the oils in the skin.
To improve the speed of a chemical process, we can either increase the temperature or increase the surface area that it can act on. So, read on for my take on this delicious Italian aperitif.
Step 1: Ingredients
The ingredients are pretty simple.
- Neutral Spirits (e.g. Vodka)
It's difficult to provide exact quantities as it all depends on the quality of your lemons and the amount of zest you get out of them. Read on and look at the quantities I used and adjust from there. It's a pretty forgiving recipe, you've got a lot of latitude in quantities - I'm yet to stuff it up and I pretty much put it together at random each time.
You want to use fresh and, if possible, organic lemons. If they're not home-grown, make sure you wash them thoroughly to remove any pesticides and waxes off their skins. My lemons are wonderful for this - the skins have so much oil in them that if you're squeezing the juice out of them, you end up with oily lemony-smelling hands!
I recommend white sugar - you want to add sweetness without adding flavour. Raw sugar and brown sugar will impart a caramel colour and more flavour. Feel free to experiment if you want, but I wanted my lemon flavour to be pure and simple, so white sugar it was.
You don't need to use a super-premium vodka. Put the Grey Goose away in the freezer and save it for drinking. You also don't want to use the cheapest vodka you can find - you need something with no flavour (again, unless you feel like experimenting)
Water - clean tap water is fine for this. Filter it if you feel you need to.
Step 2: Lemon Zest
Zest all of your lemons.
Carefully grate the rind of the lemon, either on the smallest grater on your cheese grater (the one with the little holes that you use for hard cheeses, not the big holes used for cheddar) or with a zester or a microplane.
Whichever method you chose, just remember less is more. You want all the zesty, lemony yellow outer part of the peel, but none of the white inner layer as it's bitter and doesn't have a nice taste.
Step 3: Simple Syrup
Next make a simple syrup.
This is nice and easy - mix equal amounts, by volume, of sugar and water. Heat it in a saucepan, stirring it until all of the sugar has all dissolved.
For the amount of lemons I had, I used 2/3 cup of sugar and 2/3 cup of water. I use an Australian 250ml cup, but the measurements aren't critical at all.
Put the sugar in a saucepan and add an equal amount of water. Gently stir it over a low heat until it comes to the boil and it's perfectly clear. Leave it on the stove.
Step 4: Chose Your Own Adventure
This is where I leave it up to you to pick a path for your Limoncello.
A traditional recipe would put the lemon zest in a bottle with some clear spirits and leave it to sit for some period of time. You then strain the lemon zest out of the spirit when it's taken up all of the flavour and add syrup to taste to sweeten it up.
I offer two alternatives here...
1. Make a lemon syrup and use heat to draw out the lemon oils
2. Put the zest in a bottle with alcohol, and due to the greatly increased surface, the oils and flavours will dissolve quite quickly.
Step 5: What Did I Do? Both of Them.
I had a heap of lemon zest. I put the bulk of it in with my syrup and gently simmered it for 30-45 minutes.
As well as making the whole house smell lemony and fresh, this draws out the flavours of the zest into the syrup, leaving me with a lovely yellow lemon syrup that's super sweet.
You can use this syrup as a base for lemon cordial (add lemon juice and citric acid) or Limoncello (add vodka!)
I mix the syrup 50/50 with vodka to give me a rich and very sweet Limoncello that's 20% alcohol by volume (as I started with 40% ABV vodka)
I also took about 1/4 to 1/3 of the zest and put it in a bottle with vodka and left it overnight. 24 hours later, the lemon zest was nearly white and the liquid was yellow and had a great lemon flavour. This was pretty much lemon vodka, it benefited greatly by the addition of some sweetness (it's a good thing you have some lemon syrup handy, isn't it?).
Step 6: The End Result
I ended up with a bottle of lemon syrup, a bottle of quick Limoncello made with lemon syrup and vodka, and a bottle of Limoncello made with vodka and lemon zest. With the more traditional version, I don't know that it will benefit much more from storing it for an extended period of time as the lemon flavours were extracted very rapidly into the vodka.
The Limoncello made 50/50 with vodka and lemon syrup has a lovely flavour but is too sweet for me as it is. It goes really nicely with some lemon juice in it.
I have tried making Limoncello and adding lemon juice to it and while it tastes even better, when it's in storage there is something in the lemon juice that settles out at the bottom of the bottle. It doesn't affect the taste, and it can still be stored for a long time, but it just doesn't look very good - so it doesn't make a good gift.
The vodka and lemon zest Limoncello is really nice with some of the syrup in it - maybe mix it 75% with 25% syrup for a stronger 30% ABV Limoncello. It also goes really well with some lemon juice in it as well.
What I've taken to doing is freezing the lemon juice in an ice cube tray. Then, pour a small glass of Limoncello and add a lemon juice ice cube.