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How to make Limoncello

This recipe comes from Napoli, not so far from where Limoncello classically has its origin in Sorrento and Amalfi. The lemons I used are from my own garden from my house in Liguria – always in Italy but far far away, only a stone’s throw from France and Monaco. But it works – hand made and personally tested (and happily re-tested several times).

Limoncello is made with only four ingredients: fresh lemons, alcohol, water and sugar. The lemons have to be fresh and not sprayed or treated with anything. The water has to be pure (tap water is fine, if you know its good). Sugar has to be refined white, otherwise the Limoncello will look muddy. The best alcohol to use is clean and clear 90% or 95% (180-190 proof); this is possible in Italy but in many other countries either impossible or ridiculously expensive, so Vodka can be used instead.

The two recipes below are for both alternatives. The ‘pure’ alcohol version will give you a Limoncello at a very pleasant 31-32% liqueur; the Vodka version will get you to 28-29%, which is still very good.

With 95% alcohol

Wash 6 large or 10 small lemons thoroughly in cold water and dry. This is to get rid of any crap on them, of course.

Pare, scrape or grate the lemon zest (that’s the yellow skin) only – no white stuff or juice - and put the zest into a completely clean 1.5 liter (3 pint) jar or bottle that can be sealed: the type with a rubber seal and clip down cap are the best.

Pour in 1 liter (2 pints) of 90% or 95% clean and clear alcohol – i.e. not colored or ‘flavored’. Close the cap and store away in a cool dark place.

Leave alone for 4 weeks, giving the bottle an occasional shake. During that time, the alcohol pulls the color and the essential oils from the lemon zest. Some people say the zest/skin turns white – mine turned light brown and brittle.

When the four weeks are up, boil 1.5 liters (3 pints) of pure water in a clean pan. When it’s boiling, turn the flame down low and toss in 650g (1.25 lb) of refined white granulated sugar. Keep stirring the sugar until it dissolves and you have a light syrup. Turn off the flame and let the syrup cool until its just about tepid.

Prepare the bottles you are going to use for storing the Limoncello (I use 750cl ginger beer bottles with the rubber ring, stopper and metal latch, but anything with a cork or screwtop will do). At this stage you will have 3 liters (6 pints) of liquid, so don’t be short of bottles!

Use a funnel and pour the alcohol mixture into a decanting bottle first. This is to separate out the liquid from what remains of the lemon zest. You might want to put the zest into a muslin bag to squeeze out the last remaining alcohol, but don’t worry too much if some alcohol is left behind.

Put the yellow colored alcohol into the pan with the syrup and stir around, gently, so the two liquids mix. Then use the funnel to pour into your bottles and cap them.

Put one of the freshly filled bottles into the freezer and wait three hours. Take out as many tot glasses as there are alcohol friendly adults in your home, take the Limoncello out of the freezer, uncap, pour into the glasses – and you know the rest!

With 40% Vodka

Wash 8 large or 12 small lemons thoroughly in cold water and dry. This is to get rid of any crap on them, of course. You need more lemons because the weaker alcohol level won’t be so effective.

Pare, scrape or grate the lemon zest (that’s the yellow skin) only – no white stuff or juice - and put the zest into a completely clean 2 liter (4 pint) jar or bottle that can be sealed: the type with a rubber seal and clip down cap are the best. Pour in two bottles (3 pints) of 40% clean and clear Vodka – i.e. not colored or ‘flavored’. Close the cap and store away in a cool dark place.

Leave alone for 4 weeks, giving the bottle an occasional shake. During that time, the alcohol pulls the color and the essential oils from the lemon zest.

When the four weeks are up, boil 500 ml (1 pint) of pure water in a clean pan. When it’s boiling, turn the flame down low and toss in 450g (1 lb) of refined white granulated sugar. Keep stirring the sugar until it dissolves and you have a light syrup. Turn off the flame and let the syrup cool until its just about tepid.

Prepare the bottles you are going to use for storing the Limoncello (I use 750cl ginger beer bottles with the rubber ring, stopper and metal latch, but anything with a cork or screwtop will do). At this stage you will have 2 liters (4 pints) of liquid, so don’t be short of bottles!

Use a funnel and pour the alcohol mixture into a decanting bottle first. This is to separate out the liquid from what remains of the lemon zest. You might want to put the zest into a muslin bag to squeeze out the last remaining alcohol, but don’t worry too much if some alcohol is left behind.

Put the yellow colored alcohol into the pan with the syrup and stir around, gently, so the two liquids mix. Then use the funnel to pour into your bottles and cap them.

Put one of the freshly filled bottles into the freezer and wait three hours. Take out as many tot glasses as there are alcohol friendly adults in your home, take the Limoncello out of the freezer, uncap, pour into the glasses – and you know the rest!

First published in Reveal Italy

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