Spring 2010 Limoncello Extravaganza

Yes, my lemon tree is at it again — producing fruit, but only one at a time, dammit. Certainly not enough for even the smallest batch of limoncello. In all honesty, I’m surprised that it’s producing even one with how cold it’s been here lately.

For weeks I’ve been spying on that lemon as I walk from house to office and office to house. A frigid twenty-some degrees outdoors, fifty in the greenhouse, and one brilliant golden orb proving that seasons do pass and winter will soon turn to spring. When I finally picked it, I wanted to make something special.

I dug out my Cook’s Illustrated and thumbed through the lemon recipes. My husband thought lemon bars sounded too sweet, so I settled on lemon butter cookies. One — it would satisfy my sweet tooth; two – it called for only two teaspoons of zest, so I could still do something else with the rest.

Now, I have rarely met a cookie I cannot eat, but those butter cookies were bad. It wasn’t the lemon, which was so flavorful, just holding it firmly perfumed the immediate area, and so sweet, we ate raw slices of it, peel and all.  But the cookies tasted like insipid flour, which means I wasted half a pound of butter and half my lemon zest! Perhaps they needed more zest. Or a pinch of salt (the recipe didn’t call for any at all). It may be the first time Cook’s Illustrated’s Best Recipe has let me down.

They more than made up for it with their recipe for Lemon Linguine and Roasted Pine Nuts. It’s a new twist (at least to me) on an old Italian staple — Aglio, olio and pepperoncino. Garlic, oil, and hot pepper, also known as pasta di mezzanotte (midnight pasta) — aptly named as it’s so quick to make, partiers often whip it up as a midnight snack after a night out on the town. First, the old favorite:

Aglio, Olio & Pepperoncino

  • 1/4 – 1/2 cup of good olive oil
  • 2 – 4 garlic cloves, sliced thin
  • 2 – 4 hot red peppers, crumbled
  • 1 pound pasta
  • freshly grated Parmigiano

Start your pasta water boiling and add a handful of rock salt.

If you like your pasta on the dry side, stick with 1/4 cup. If, instead, you don’t mind a dribble of olive oil on your chin and look forward to clearing your plate of pasta so you can sop up leftover sauce with a chunk of crusty bread, go for the 1/2 cup.

Heat the olive oil over a low flame and add the crumbled peppers. Slice the garlic about 1/16 inch thick. Don’t go too thin or it will burn easily.  Add the garlic, keeping a close, close eye on it as it cooks. For me, the best aglio, olio, pepperoncino has garlic that is cooked so slowly, it turns deep blond and has an almost caramel consistency. If caramelly garlic doesn’t appeal to you, you might try the Cook’s Illustrated suggested method of cooking the garlic, detailed below.

Strain the cooked pasta, toss with the oil, and grate a tablespoon or so of Parmigiano right into each dish. Be sure to have a nice chunk of good bread on hand.

A nice variation is adding a few anchovies and capers into the saute — use the larger quantity of olive oil.

Lemon Linguine with Roasted Pine Nuts

Inspired by Cook’s Illustrated — with double the lemon and pine nuts, without the suggested pepperoncino and parsley, and the addition of a bit of butter.

  • 1/4 c olive oil
  • 2 – 4 cloves garlic
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tsp lemon zest, plus some for garnish
  • 1/2 cup pine nuts, pan roasted
  • freshly-grated Parmigiano
  • 1 pound linguine

As with the first recipe, this is a very quick sauce, so start your pasta water boiliRoasted Pine Nutsng right away.

Cook’s Illustrated suggests crushing the garlic in a press and mixing it with a teaspoon of water to better disperse the flavor into the oil. I’ve never heard of or seen this done in Italy, but it sounded interesting, so I gave it a try. Couldn’t detect any difference in the garlicky flavor, and I did miss those caramelly bits of sauteed garlic, but I’m sure either method will work fine.

In a small saute pan, roast the pine nuts over medium heat for 5 or so minutes. Don’t be afraid to let them get a little brown — it only adds to their flavor and appearance. Warning: Do NOT read the fat content on the package! (And if you do, please tell me — how squirrels stay so thin?)

Here’s where I wish I would have paid more attention to the original recipe: As seen in the next picture, I added the grated lemon zest to the garlic and sauteed them together. Only after rereading the recipe did I realize that the zest was supposed to be added fresh at the end and tossed with the cooked garlic and pasta. Although I thought this dish turned out great, I think it could have been even more lemony, which the fresh zest would likely have accomplished. Fortunately, I was able to grate just a bit more zest off my poor, naked lemon and add it to each plate. Note:  when zesting a lemon, only use the outer yellow layer and try to get any oils left on the grater into your dish as they’ll add a lot of flavor.

Lemon Zest and Crushed Garlic

Saute the garlic, either sliced or crushed. Pay close attention that it doesn’t burn. Once it’s cooked, turn off the flame and wait for the pasta to reach al dente. I used fresh spinach linguine which cooks in a couple of minutes, making this dish even quicker to go from pot to plate.

Once the pasta is cooked and strained, mix in the garlic oil, the lemon zest, half the roasted pine nuts. and all the butter. Toss until the butter is melted and the ingredients mixed.

Once served, garnish with freshly-grated Parmigiano and additional roasted pine nuts.

Lemon Linguine wtih Roasted Pine Nuts

I can see variations of this dish working out lovely as a chilled salad — using a little more oil and no butter, and perhaps with the addition of fresh picked and shelled baby peas. Add a warm spring day and a glass of viognier, and it sounds like treat to me.

Buon appetito ~

Hello Lithuania and Italy and everyone between here and there. Welcome back, and thank you for visiting.

Today’s subject: Limoncello — Everclear made palatable by the addition of lemons, sugar and water.

Liquid Sunshine

I’ve had the recipe for years. It’s scribbled on a napkin, as the best recipes often are. True Neapolitan limoncello, shared by a southern Italian mamma on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius—a place where you’re apt to find a lemon tree bursting with fruit in every courtyard. Doesn’t get much more genuine than that. And when life provides lemons, Neapolitans drink limoncello. No reason why you shouldn’t do the same.

The recipe remained tucked in a notebook until I harvested my first crop of Meyer lemons. Mind you, citrus doesn’t grow year round in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and I’d schlepped that “tree” in and out of my greenhouse for years, faithfully watering it in summer and heating it in winter. I probably could have driven to California and harvested a grove of lemons for the same effort. The plant is 2½ feet tall, including the pot, and it has only a handful of branches and twice that many leaves. One year, my spindly tree turned half a dozen of its sweet-smelling buds into fruit that swelled through winter and spring. The weight of the ripening fruit bowed those few branches nearly to the ground, and the poor thing looked like it belonged in a Dr. Seuss book. When the fruit finally ripened, it filled the surrounding area with sweet perfume. I resisted picking the fruit. Even locally-caught, fresh Spring Chinook didn’t seem worthy of this lemon juice. Then it dawned on me: I had to make limoncello.

You should too. It’s easy. It’s fun. And it’s really, really good.

Here’s my recipe for Neapolitan limoncello. Keep in mind that it’s just one way of making it. I believe that recipes are like friendships: they’re made to evolve. This time, try this recipe. Next time, experiment. Play with the ratios. Variation suggestions at the bottom of the post.

  • 3 cups water
  • 1.5 pounds sugar*
  • 750 ml 95% alcohol** (190 proof)
  • 6 really good lemons

Note on lemons: Your flavor comes from the fruit. Mediocre citrus will make drinkable limoncello. To make delectable limoncello, however, you want juicy lemons that smell fresh and sweet enough to make you want to eat them like an orange.

You’ll also need:

  • A large pot
  • A zester. My favorite is a Microplane Fine/Spice grater, but any sharp grater that will allow you to remove the exterior yellow peel and leave the pithy inner-peel will do. If you’re not accident prone like me, you can also make do with a very sharp knife.
  • Wooden spoon
  • A glass container to store the infusion in. A gallon jar or a large glass pitcher works fine, but I’ve also used large plastic club soda bottles in a pinch.
  • Depending on what you’re storing the infusion in, you might wish you had a funnel handy.
  • After 10 to 12 days: a medium- to fine-grade strainer. Personally, I find that a bit of fine pulp enhances the flavor. It also forms a pretty nebula in the bottle. If you want your limoncello translucent, use a very fine strainer.

To make your limoncello:

  1. Boil the water, turn the flame down to low, and stir in the sugar until dissolved. Set it aside to cool.
  2. Meanwhile, gently wash, dry, and zest your lemons – just the outermost peel, and as fine as possible without turning it into goo.
  3. Freeze the juice of three lemons*** in a Ziplock baggie.
  4. When the sugar and water has cooled, pour it into your infusion container. Add the alcohol of your choice and lemon zest. Seal with cap, cork, or plastic wrap. Place in a cool dark place and let it do its thing for 10 to 12 days.
  5. After 10 to 12 days, strain your infusion into another container.
  6. Thaw the lemon juice and add it to the strained infusion.
  7. Distribute into clean wine, beer, or decorative bottles. The gallon jar will work fine too, but it gets harder to aim at your mouth or glass after the first couple of shots.

Congratulations—you’ve just bottled sunshine. Chill, swirl, swill, and be merry!

Store the bottle you’ll serve from in the freezer. I have stored limoncello reserves in a cool dark place for months with no noticeable flavor deterioration. It would probably store fine for much longer, but mine never lasts that long.

Try mixing a shot with club soda and prettying it up lemonade/fresh blueberry ice cubes. For dessert, drizzle over vanilla ice cream.

Variations:

  • * After your first batch, adjust the sugar quantity to taste. I prefer mine less sweet and cut the sugar down by one-third.
  • ** I’m not always up for a shot that will literally take my breath away, as everclear limoncello can. I make most of my batches with vodka, and I cut the sugar down by half. It’s lighter. Friendlier. Lovely on a warm summer eve out on the porch. Depending on your ratios, this version may freeze solid. Store the bottle you’re pouring from in the refrigerator.
  • ***I love my Limoncello extra lemony, so I freeze the juice from all 6 lemons and add it to the infusion when it’s time.
  • A friend of mine waits on the sugar and water mix, and he infuses the lemon zest only in the alcohol for 2 to 4 weeks. When it’s time to bottle, he strains the zest and mixes sugar-water in to taste. Might try doing this myself next time.

Most of all, have fun.  Make more than one batch and invite your friends over for taste tests. The last time I wished aloud for a lot of lemons, I ended up hauling a crate of over 100 home from California. I zested for days. Got zesters’ elbow—followed by my garbage collector’s sideways looks when I recycled half a dozen empty magnums of grain alcohol. (Shots of the previous batch eased the pain and embarrassment.) Special thanks to those friends — I say we make it an annual collaboration.

George Bernard Shaw says: “If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange these apples, then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have and idea and I have and idea, and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.”

I say: If you have a box of lemons and I have alcohol, sugar, and water, then we’re both going to have at least two drinks!

Let me know how it turns out.

Cheers!

Coming soon: Tiramisu!