For food lovers, it's hard to imagine any downsides to traveling in Italy, with its great simple food and amazing local wines that cost only a few bucks a bottle.
But there is one Italian flavor that can be made here and is a perfect holiday gift -- limoncello.
Limoncello is an intensely flavored lemon liqueur that originated on the Amalfi Coast of Campania and is now consumed all over Italy after dinner as a refreshing digestif. There are several brands of imported Italian limoncello, but most tend to be fairly sweet. Homemade limoncello has the advantage of brighter, more intense flavors and adjustable sweetness.
There are as many recipes for limoncello as there are Italian grandmothers. What they all have in common, though, is the extraction of essential oils from lemon zest by soaking it in high-proof alcohol and then cutting and sweetening the extract with sugar and water. It's the details that make each limoncello unique.
First, choose the lemons, waiting for a sale or seasonal dips in citrus prices. Some lemons are sold with a coat of wax, and these should be avoided if possible. Thick-skinned lemons seem to have more essential oil than their thin-skinned brothers but you can compensate for this by using a couple of extra thin-skinned lemons in the recipe.
What you are going for is the intense lemon oil that can be squeezed from the outside of the lemon, and thus it is better to get the zest off in big pieces rather than small. Most recipes suggest using a vegetable peeler, and this works much better than a sharp knife or a zester, but the diabolically sharp tool used for slicing truffles can strip a proud lemon of its zest faster and cleaner than any other.
As for the alcohol, there are two types. Many recipes suggest 100 proof (50 percent alcohol) vodka, and the rest use grain alcohol, which is 190 proof (95 percent alcohol). Vodka is easy to handle, but it's not Italian (low authenticity quotient). And although it's easy to find, 100 proof is more expensive than regular vodka and makes roughly half as much limoncello as an equal volume of grain alcohol.
Grain alcohol is cheap and available in Italy (high authenticity quotient), but it must be handled with respect. It is very flammable and can burn with an invisible flame, so make sure to keep a container with uncut grain alcohol tightly covered and away from the stove. Also note that grain alcohol is not drinkable unless it is cut.
One benefit of grain alcohol is that it shortens the extraction time. It seems that the high-test stuff works its magic in short order, but this calculation is another detail that limoncello makers can argue over. Very good limoncello can be made by soaking the zest for four or five days, but many recipes call for extraction periods of one to two months, and at least one suggests 80 days.
After five days or 80, the result is a kind of lemon-flavored Sterno, which is bright yellow and cries out to be cut and made potable. And thus the last great point of contention: to boil or not to boil.
Since the finished product should be a bit tart, the syrups used to make limoncello have more water than sugar, and all use heat to combine the two elements. One school uses just enough heat to make the water absorb the sugar, while the other brings the mixture to a rolling boil in attempting to make a clearer liqueur. Tested head-to-head, both methods seem to yield the same results, so the recipe below takes the simple road.
The final volume will be about two liters, so mixing the lemon alcohol and syrup should be done in a large container. When the two elements meet, the mixture will cloud. That's normal.
It's a good idea to begin by adding two-thirds of the syrup and tasting. The flavor will be hot with alcohol and not too sweet. Then add small amounts of syrup and continue to taste until the sweetness is to your taste.
Aging the mixture will help mellow the bite, but if it is too harsh, add a little water to cut it instead of syrup. This will help keep the correct sweetness.
The finished limoncello will be about 35 percent alcohol (70 proof) and should be set aside to mellow for at least a month. Limoncello can be stored indefinitely at room temperature but should be served extremely cold (and viscous) directly from the freezer.
Pour the limoncello into small decorative bottles and set aside to mellow. A label, ribbons or a fancy box will add to the visual appeal of the gift, but the bright, intense flavor will be appreciated to the last drop.
Makes about 2 liters or 68 ounces
10 lemons (see note)
750 milliliters grain alcohol (Golden Grain or Everclear)
2 cups granulated sugar
5 cups water, more if needed
Zest lemons (being careful not to get the white pith). Put zest in large glass container with an airtight lid and cover the zest with the alcohol. Put the jar in a cool dark place for 5 days (until the liquid is bright yellow and the zest is pale). Combine sugar and 5 cups water over heat, but don't boil. When all the sugar is dissolved, cool.
Strain the alcohol into another large container using a fine-mesh strainer, and then pour most of the cooled syrup into the alcohol (it will cloud) and sample. Adjust to taste, remembering that the liqueur will mellow and lose some of its bite -- don't over-sweeten. Dilute with water if the limoncello is too sharp after all of the syrup is added.
Note: A batch of limoncello leaves a bowlful of naked lemons in its wake and using them is as easy as juicing them and storing the juice in the refrigerator for lemonade or cooking.