It all started with the black plastic bag that screams: “Hey world, I just came from the liquor store.”
Actually, it starts a mile before I got that bag. When I was in Italy a few years ago, a serendipitous turn of events landed me and Lola in the beautiful coastal town of Sorrento. Sorrento is far and away one of the most magical places I have ever been. The whole coast captured my heart, from Amalfi with the pebbly beach and strings of lemons hanging from the door frames and painted on every flat surface in homage. It is the stuff books are written about.
Sorrento, on the other hand, is the kind of place where you could see yourself living. The winding streets and hidden alcoves of frescos and streets lined with vespas—the passages leading to hidden courtyards and the open town square complete with a bright yellow church and a glimpse of the rocky cliffs above the Mediterranean which is just a small swath of blue between Sorrento and the island of Capri. When we were there one rainy late morning the weather broke one and we took a walk. We wandered around and tried on backpacks and purses in deep greens, indigo, and jet black. We sorted through silk scarfs and fine linens, and we bought lace hankies tatted by nuns. When we were though shopping we followed my patented method for avoiding tourist trap restaurants and getting an authentic meal—pick a street, then make the first right and the first left. Your restaurant will be right there (this method has never failed me—and you can never get lost). We walked down three stone stairs and sat at one of four tables in an empty restaurant. There were cruets of olive oil on each table. We stacked our packages to the side and we waited for whoever was rumbling behind a curtain like the Great and Powerful Oz to come out and take our order.
When a man with salt and pepper hair emerged, he had a carafe of red wine and a basket of warm bread in his hands. I am sure we squealed. We ordered in Italian and the bashful man disappeared behind the curtain again. When he came back he was all apologies…”signora, no Bolognese.” Bummer. He was out of what I wanted. I touched his hand to stop the flow of “Mi, dispiace!” and I told him to bring me whatever he wanted. The bashfulness cleared and his face erupted in a smile. When our food came, it came with a vengeance. There were so many bites to try. I don’t remember all of it but I remember the lasagna. Mmm Mmmm. Lola and I talked and ate and revived.
We started to make a move for the check when our waiter, the owner it turns out, came out with a stout carafe filled with a vibrant yellow liquid. He poured us each a sip and one for himself. We all clinked glasses, said “cin cin!” and tapped our glasses on the table before taking a drink. It was an icy burst of lemon followed by the warmth of the alcohol sliding down your throat. When we out on our coats our host walked close to me and I held out my hand (such an American). Lola said, “Aw! He was going to ciao you!” And with that we did traditional kiss on each cheek and it felt like we were leaving lunch with an old friend. Lola and I still refer to giving a good bye kiss as ciao-ing someone 🙂
When I was first dating T I told him this story. This led to a Godfather movie marathon where he would wow me with caponata and I showed off with my ancient cannoli recipe, and of course we had to have limoncello, which I promised to get. The only problem was I couldn’t find it anywhere. I searched high and low and couldn’t find it. That is when I placed a forlorn call to Lola to tell her this tragic tale of woe. How? How could we possibly watch The Godfather without the limoncello? We wouldn’t! I got bottle in the mail a few days later (three cheers for Lola!). It contained a tall frosted glass bottle of Limoncello and two tiny glasses with cherubic babies riding lemons with wings on them. It still makes me smile to think of sipping out of those glasses. Now we never have to have it delivered because we can make it at home!
On to the bowl of lemons…
I started with a recipe but I made some changes as I went:
Start with ten washed lemons and a vegetable peeler. Peel the lemon skin (just the yellow, not the white). This part took a while. I actually ended up doing it in front of the TV (see my remote?). The long skinny, vertical peeler did the best job (I tried three).
When you have a bowl full of peels, cover them with 750 ml of vodka. I have read that a higher proof vodka (100+) does a better job of extracting the lemony color and flavor than a standard bottle of vodka. I don’t know if this is true, but what I chose (a triple filtered 80 proof, unflavored potato vodka) worked just fine.
Then you cover the bowl with plastic wrap and leave it out at room temperature for four days.
On day four, strain the peel from the vodka. It will now smell like a lemon grove and have a pale yellow color. In a heavy-bottomed sauce pan combine a cup and a half of sugar with two cups of water and melt over medium heat. The goal is to create a simple syrup here, so if you want it more or less sweet, follow your bliss.
Pour the COOLED simple syrup over the vodka and lemon mixture. Cover and let stand overnight.
The last step is to strain out the lemon peels and pour your limoncello into a pretty bottle. It tastes best and is traditionally served ice cold.
You will notice you now have ten peeled lemons and it would be a shame to waste them. Stay tuned for my next lemony adventure in the kitchen. Until then, ciao!