hen spring rains finally stopped and we all began to believe in summer again, I took one look at my upper arms in a sundress and made my annual detox vow. Winter had brought far too much wine. It was time for the infamous master cleanse (also known as the Beyoncé cleanse), a liquid diet consisting of lemon juice, maple syrup, cayenne pepper, and gallons of water.
I purchased the 10 organic lemons necessary for the first round, and loaded up my fruit bowl. The smell filled my kitchen and revived my spirit. I stood in the front of the full-length mirror and tried on heeled sandals. I sank into bed with visions of tanned cabana boys serving frosted glassed of limoncello dancing in my head.
The next morning the phone rang.
“Oh, honey! Did I wake you? Sorry for the hour…” It was my dear friend Eleonora.
“Oh, no. Not at all!” I tried to erase the sleep from my voice. I hadn’t seen her in a year.
“Sorry for the short notice, but I’ve been in Sorrento for a few days, and now I have a week of holiday… I thought I could stay in Rome with you…”
“Yes, come!” I shot out of bed and went to the kitchen to check my wall calendar.
Her English cordiality — “Are you sure, it isn’t too much trouble, darling?” — couldn’t mask her joy. As I scribbled her arrival time in red letters, we prattled about our favorite restaurants, whether they’d remember her, all of the pizza she had already eaten, and whether I’d started my cleanse (and if so, had I seen any results?) I glanced at the lemons.
“Well, it will have to wait. See you tomorrow love!”
And wait it did. After a week spent trampling around the sunny city in open-toed shoes, laughing, drinking wine late into the night, the lemons in my fruit bowl remained untouched. The day she left, I watched her load her bags into a taxi and waved, my eyes squinting in the sun. She had brought me a small bottle of limoncello, which we’d nearly drained one afternoon on my balcony. She’d told me about her latest affair, in Sorrento with a dark and rugged baron who loved the land and couldn’t walk three feet without stopping to pick a shrub or flower, rub it between his fingers hold it to her nose to smell. He’d ravished her amid the lemon groves, or so she liked to remember it. I polished off the last of the lemony liquid and watched her disappear.
Like so many things we eat and drink, limoncello has the power to transport you, if momentarily, to a lighter place (if not directly to Naples, Ischia or Amalfi). The color itself is striking. A good limoncello is nearly opaque and citron yellow. When served ice-cold it often sets the glass to sweating, beckoning summer. The flavor fulfills its promise of tight citrus, along with just enough sugar to temper the alcohol content (rarely less than 35 proof), and deliver a velvety rush on the palate, with the roundness of a lemon drop and the sudden cold thrill of a lemon sorbet.
After a few sips, limoncello becomes a feverish pleasure. While the ice cold jolt pentrates your teeth, an alcohol-induced warmth seeps into your limbs and seems to caress every muscle and joint. Another sip brings relief, the scent of lemon catching in your nose like a cool blast. Again comes the heat, this time oozing like honey from your hips to the tips of your toes.
I’ve often gotten up from the table after a few glasses of limoncello and felt as if my legs might collapse under me, all of my bones held together in the loose sack of my skin, much like the scarecrow in “The Wizard of Oz.”
For me it’s the same lazy sensation of sleeping too long in the sun, or of spending hours around the table at a long lunch in the countryside. When all the food and wine is gone, bodies lie languid and draped on lawn chairs.
For some, limoncello means Italy. It is in Italy that most of us drink it for the first time. Its mention can send you back in time to the shabby trattoria where the restaurant owner deposited the yellow bottle on the table, leaving you to drink at will, and on the house. You may not even remember how much you paid for that meal, but you know it wasn’t much.
Or maybe it takes you back to a gut-splitting seafood extravaganza at a cousin’s Italian wedding, when you’d nearly called it quits after the second pasta course and were starting to feel faint at dessert. Limoncello was both poison and antidote. It gave you the courage to wink one last time at the cool and smirking bartender, whose five words of English sounded the same when you were in his arms.
Limoncello is all this to me.
There would be no detox this spring, at least not yet. I called some friends and consulted a few recipes (they’re mostly the same) and set to grating my 10 organic lemons with care. Slim thighs could wait. This summer we would be drinking my own limoncello.
The drink requires a delicate grating of the outermost lemon peel. Any trace of white pulp will produce a bitter liqueur. The zest is then chopped into fine strips and left to infuse in alcohol for 15 days to a month.
Some recipes use Vodka, but I prefer a neutral alcohol without any character of its own. In this recipe I used a 95 proof rocket fuel that I found in the supermarket, something akin to Everclear.
The zest is than strained out, filtered again for good measure, and the alcohol is diluted with simple syrup. Appropriately named, the syrup is obtained by boiling and reducing sugar water. The proportions are really up to you, and the math is simple. Standard recipes call for equal parts sugar water and alcohol.
MAKING LIMONCELLO (Yields two liters)
- 10 medium-sized organic, un-waxed lemons. They should smell heavenly.
- 1 liter of 95 proof, or otherwise strong neutral alcohol.
- 1 liter of water.
- 500 grams (2.2 cups) of white sugar.
- Peel or grate the lemons paying particular attention to not remove any of the white pulp. You want wafer-thin strips of pure yellow skin.
- Finely chop them and combine with the liquor in a bottle. Leave to infuse for 15-30 days.
- To prepare the simple syrup, combine the sugar and water and stir over a low heat until it simmers and the sugar is dissolved.
- Remove from heat and let it come to room temperature.
- Strain the lemon-infused liquor, pressing lightly on the peels to extract as much flavor as possible.
- Strain again to remove any traces of lemon zest and combine with the syrup. Mix well and let sit for a few days.
*The proportions for the sugar water really depend on taste. This recipe leaves you with enough liquor and water to experiment until you’ve reached the desired sweetness and alcohol content.