Adventures in Limoncello

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2013-11-22 18.16.01It 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.

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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.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAWhen 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:

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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).

2013-11-22 22.56.25When 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.

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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.

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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!

Thanksgiving Memories Across the Pond

Amalfi on a rainy day!

Amalfi on a rainy day! That’s me on the right and my BFF, Lola on the left.

Thanksgiving has always been a time to create new traditions for me. I grew up in a very large extended family–and while I love my family, as an adult I took the first chance to excuse myself from the chaos and follow a more contemplative, relaxed, and, as long as I am being honest, quieter road.

For a while, before boyfriends, husbands, and babies, my best friend and I hopped across the pond and explored Europe. Thanksgiving is a great time to go to Europe–rates are low and its off season for London and Rome. If you are on a budget, this is a way to make the dream of going to Europe come true for a lot less money. The memories we made were worth every cent we spent. On Thanksgiving we always celebrated with a great dinner and good wine. I don’t think we were too obnoxious, but we were always happy to tell the people around us it was American Thanksgiving.

Look at the excitement of those faces! And we are on a bus to Pompeii here.

Look at the excitement of those faces! And we are on a bus to Pompeii here.

This is an excerpt from my journal at the time. It still makes me smile…and want to plan another trip:

Time in Sorrento: Hours

Gelato eaten: Who cares. Did I mention I was in Sorrento?

When we drove out of Naples and into the rocky cliffs to Sorrento. We checked into the Hotel Michaelangelo (not Buonarotti, they were all very quick to point out, another one). I took a bath in the most fantastic coral marble bathtub. After all that talk about Roman Baths in Pompei, I was thrilled to have a chance to splash around.

I thought about leaving this story out, but I have to share it.

We had dinner in the hotel. It was Thanksgiving! We decided two things–1. We were getting dressed up and 2. We were drinking three bottles of wine. When we walked in to the well appointed dining room and were seated I noticed a commotion in the corner. When I looked over, several members of the wait staff and the men from the kitchen had dashed to the door and were more or less drooling on the travertine tile. I couldn‘ t help but grin at them but them I immediately looked away. I distinctly heard a Mamma Mia (they actually say that?). Even when they are lusting after the

new girls in town, they are still calling for their mothers 😉 Anything Lola tells you about the rest of this evening is likely to be untrue. She was making things up about me kissing a hot Italian waiter. All lies. He kissed me.

Early the next morning, we were up and ready to catch a hydrofoil to Capri. Through an act of divine intervention, our day in Capri turned into a private, escorted tour to Amalfi in a Mercedes instead.

We headed up and down and around the cliffs, through the three towns of Sorrento and around the coast. From the single lane road we could see Capri and the other islands in the Bay of Naples being beaten with waves. We pressed on, stopping to take some pictures, buy some pottery and nearly give in to car sickness (seems to me our driver would speed up, hit a curve, slam on the breaks and repeat). We went through Positano and Salerno and ended up in heaven.

Amalfi is the most beautiful place on earth. The drive is not for the faint hearted, the destination is remote and to say it is paradise would be to insult it. I couldn’t get out of the car fast enough.

Three steps from the small port, there is a rail, stone steps and a pebble and black lava sand beach. I stood at that rail unable to form words. There in front of me swelling and crashing and emphatically waving hello was the Mediterranean Sea. The Mediterranean Sea.

When I could pull myself away, Lola and I went back to the square and took it all in. They were putting up Christmas lights around the town’s patron saint, Andrew. His feast was the next day. We wandered into a chocolate shop (mmmm. Ginger), and wandered into the winding back alley streets. We stopped to buy a present for our favorite new baby and started talking to the shop owner, Maria. Maria has two unmarried sons in their thirties. She is 62 and would like to be a Nonna. Wink. Nudge. By the end of our chat, I think I found an apartment to rent in Amalfi. So, I am going to use it. More on that when I get home.

Before we headed out, I went back to the seaside view and it had improved. There beside me, out of nowhere was an olive skinned man the Hollywood could not have cast any better. He started talking (va bene) about two men on the beach by the waves and so on 😉 When I started to leave he made the pleading gesture and asked: Where are you going bella? And you wonder why American woman leave and never come back. Lola got a beautiful picture of an enormous wave smashing into the coast. I asked our guide about a stone structure on the very, very top of the mountain and she told me it belonged to the town hermit. The town hermit! That is awesome. She also told me the townspeople used to bring food up to him every week. This made me think; perhaps he didn’t intend to be a hermit. Maybe he just did not want to have to walk down the mountain every week and lug back groceries 🙂

The ride back to the hotel, which we nicknamed the Georges V, was harrowing. We made it one piece. I spent the rest of the evening savoring Amalfi…and when Lola took a nap, I mapped out my return strategy. If (and by if, I mean when) I am ever missing, don’t worry. You will find me somewhere between Sorrento and Amalfi.

Ciao for Now…

Sigh. Those were some good days of being unhurried.

Friends we met on the road!

Friends we met on the road!

Looking over Positano.

Looking over Positano.