I fell in love with Tuscany in 2003.
That’s the year that “Under the Tuscan Sun” hit the theaters. Being a Diane Lane fan since I first saw her play Lauren in “A little Romance,” I’ve seen most, if not all, of her films. This one, well, this one has become one of those films that I go back to and watch again every couple of months.
Do you have films like that? I have several. All romance. Why is that?
Anyway, “Tuscan” reminds me that even when you think your life is unraveling, it’s actually just revealing who you really are and where you’re supposed to be; it’s in the unexpected that we have the potential to find ourselves and the happiness that we might be too afraid to wish for.
There are, of course, several cooking scenes that I love. Watching as she nourishes herself by preparing huge family-style meals for her newly made family of strangers is the way I feel cooking for friends. It’s a trait I inherited from my parents.
One day, Diane’s character, Frances, heads into town to look for something she needs for her new Tuscan villa's renovation when she becomes the center of unwanted cat-calls from a group of unsavory looking men. In a panic, she grabs the first normal (handsome) Italian man who walks by, plants a kiss on his check and pretends she was waiting for him all along. The cat-calling men walk away disappointed. This young man, Marcello, then proceeds to pick her up. They wind up at his family’s bar on the beach in Positano, enjoying a family meal when he asks someone to pass a bottle of limoncello:
“Did you ever taste this?” Marcello asks. (Now, you need to read his lines with an Italian accent!)
“What is it?” asks Frances.
“It’s limoncello. We made this.”
“You made it?”
“Yeah,” says Marcello. “We take the lemon, and, um, we take off the skin of the lemon, and uh, then we put in the bottle with ¾ of alcohol and ¼ of sugar. And, uh, you put the skin of the lemon in the bottle and, uh, you leave it until it’s the right color. And, uh,” Marcello let’s out a nervous laugh, “I forget the rest. Just try it.”
Frances takes a sip.
“Do you like it?” asks Marcello.
Smiling, Frances answers, “I like it.”
Limoncello. I was intrigued. I had not heard of it before but I knew I had to try it. I went out to the market that following weekend and bought a small bottle of it, brought it home, poured a glass and immediately gasped. That was not what I was expecting! It was strong! I later learned you’re supposed to serve it ice cold, keeping it, like vodka, in the freezer. You’re also supposed to sip it, not drink it like you’re quenching your thirst. My second try was a much better experience and by the third taste, I was hooked! It also became a favorite addition to recipes while cooking.
More on that another time.
For now, well …
Just try it.
A DIY ChristmasI’ve been wanting to make limoncello for Christmas gifts for years. With the success of last year’s DIY Christmas of Homemade Never-ending Vanilla Extract behind me, I decided this was the year for limoncello. Now, limoncello takes a little time and patience to make but once you get the first, more labor-intensive steps out of the way, it’s basically a do it and forget about it project. Well, at least for a few weeks until it’s time for part two and then again when it’s time for part three. You see, Marcello’s abbreviated description of his family’s recipe for this smooth (albeit, a little strong!) sweet and lemony elixir is not far off the mark. You basically steep lemon peels in a grain alcohol for 2 to 4 weeks, remove the peels, add simple syrup and let that rest for 3 to 6 weeks before bottling. So if you’d like to make this for Christmas gifts, you’ll need to get started in the next week or two.
I used organic lemons to ensure that there was no pesticide on the lemon skins and gave them a good wash before peeling. Some recipes call for vodka, others opt for Everclear to get the purest flavor. I used three 750ml bottles of 151 proof Everclear that happened to be on sale at BevMo. I found a good lemon to bottle ratio is 10 lemons to every 750ml of alcohol. Be prepared for the most awesome, lingering, lemony scent to fill your kitchen as you peel lemons!
Last year for the vanilla extract, I bought my bottles from Specialty Bottle. They worked out great so I went back there to look for bottles for my limoncello. Typically, it’s served as an apéritif, ice cold straight from the freezer in a chilled shot glass and sipped. Since I am planning on giving this as gifts, I wanted it to feel like a substantial gift and decided that I needed to give at least 16 ounces away. Specialty Bottle has a 17 ounce swing-top bottle for $2.56 but it’s square and aesthetically – because I’m all about packaging – a square bottle wasn’t what I wanted. A quick Google search later, I wound up at Northern Brewer and found exactly what I wanted: 16 ounce round bottles with a swing-top cap sold in cases of 12 which brings the price per bottle down to $2.25. Compare that to a 17 ounce swing-top bottle at Container store that sells for $4.99 each and it’s a total steal!
For tags, I opted to design my own on plain card stock, hand cutting them to size and tying them to the bottles using baker’s twine. This way, the bottles can be re-used by the recipient for whatever they like without having to bother with scrapping off adhesive.
After adding up my expenses, I think I’ve made out pretty well. I have 12 bottles to gift and my price per gift is just at the $10 mark. I am pretty excited to gift these and hoping that the friends that receive these bottles of lemony yum enjoy them as much as I enjoyed the process of making it for them.
So, are you ready to make some limoncello? Let’s do this!
I am giving directions for one batch which will yield approximately 2 liters of finished limoncello. I tripled this recipe. Just a side note, I found it fascinating when I took the container out of the closet, how incredibly deep orangey-yellow it was. Then, upon removing the lemon peel, I was surprised to see how much the alcohol had robbed the peels of their yellow coloring. The Everclear did an excellent job of extracting all that lemony goodness from the peels. Once the simple syrup was added to the jug, it turned this gorgeous, creamy, buttery yellow you see in the bottle photos. And the taste. Oh, yes please!
Yield: approximately 1.5 liters
10 organic lemons, washed
750ml bottle Everclear, 151 proof (or substitute 100 proof vodka)
4 cups water
3 cups sugar
Part 1: Getting it started …
1. Using a vegetable peeler, carefully peel the yellow skin from the lemons. Instead of peeling them like potatoes, pushing the peeler away from you in an uncontrolled manner, gently pull the peeler toward you, rotating the lemon away from as you do so. This will help you control the peel, allowing for a longer, more paper thin peel, avoiding the white pith. If the peel has white pith on it, use a parring knife to gently scrape the white away. Drop peels into a one gallon container with a tight fitting lid. Repeat with remaining lemons.
2. Add the alcohol to the container with the lemon peels making sure to cover all the peels. Attach lid and store in a cool, dark cabinet to steep for a minimum of 2 weeks and up to 30 days.
Part 2: Adding the simple syrup …
3. At the end of the steeping period, place a colander or large sieve in an extra large bowl and pour the lemon steeped alcohol in to strain out the lemon peels. Use a wooden spoon to squeeze any alcohol from the peels; discard peels and set bowl aside.
4. Pour the water into a large saucepan, add the sugar and simmer on medium until sugar dissolves, stirring occasionally to keep from burning. Once the sugar is dissolved, remove from heat and allow to cool for 15 minutes.
5. Rinse out the container you used to steep the lemons. Place a coffee filter lined sieve over the container and working in batches, carefully pour in the strained alcohol. Replace coffee filter with a clean one and repeat process for the simple syrup, adding it to the alcohol.
6. Gently stir the limoncello with a wooden spoon, seal the lid and return to a dark cabinet to rest for at least 3 weeks and up to 40 days.
Part 3: Bottling for use or gift-giving …
7. Place a coffee filter lined bottling funnel into a clean bottle of your selected size for use or gift-giving. Slowly pour in the limoncello. Seal bottle and decorate with a tag instructing recipient to store the limoncello in the freezer and to serve in chilled shot glasses. Repeat until your limoncello is all bottled up and ready to give away. Store bottles in a cool, dark cabinet until it’s time to gift.
Until next time … Bottoms up!
UPDATE: SEPTEMBER 2015I've had several people email me asking for a copy of my bottle tags. So I thought I'd supply a downloadable copy for your use. Click on the photo then right-click on the image in the new window and save to your desktop. You can either print it out on 8.5 in. x 11 in. cardstock or onto a full sheet of Avery adhesive label and apply the tag directly onto your bottle (which is what I ultimately wind up doing). Enjoy!
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