Here's to life handing you lemons — lots of them.
With vodka and sugar, you've got the makings of limoncello — and an excuse for a get-together.
Julie Jean did just that recently, gathering with friends to make the aperitif. The drinking comes later — much later.
"We picked, washed and peeled multiple buckets of Meyer lemons," said Jean, of Hilmar, Calif. Then she and her friends added the peels to vodka.
"I don't really have an exact recipe," she hedged, but she offered plenty of ideas on how to use the vodka-based drink.
"We enjoy our homemade limoncello as a mixer with soda, champagne, fresh margaritas and on the rocks," she said in an e-mail. "We also chose to reserve some lemon-infused vodka into a separate container to use as a homemade citrus vodka for mixed drinks."
Limoncello really needs no adornment. Pulled chilled from the fridge or freezer, the after-dinner drink is like a cool breeze on a stifling day. Its bright, intensely citrus notes offer a nice counterpoint to any meal.
"It's very refreshing. I love it," said Laura Howard of Modesto, Calif., who uses a bottle of vodka, peels from a dozen lemons and a simple syrup that's one part water and one part sugar.
Readers who shared recipes followed a basic method:
You zest some lemons and put the rind in a jar with vodka.
"No white pith," said Lee Palleschi, president of Valley Spirits, Modesto, Calif.-based maker of locally produced ultra-premium Cold House Vodka. "The zest and only the zest. The pith makes it terrible."
Put the jar in a cool, dark place for six to eight weeks.
"Shake once a week," he said.
After about six weeks, add a simple syrup to the jar.
"Store for six more weeks," said Palleschi, "shaking it twice a week. After five or six weeks, the zest becomes dull-colored and it becomes brittle."
Filter out the zest, add more water to bring down the alcohol content and freeze. Pour yourself a little glass, and sip slowly at the end of a difficult day.
Jean uses 100-proof vodka. "The brand of vodka is not important," she said.
Palleschi recommends his 80-proof handcrafted Cold House
Vodka. He said the liquor content makes a difference. The higher the proof, he said, the less time is needed to extract the oils from the zest.
Use the freshest, most fully ripe, blemish-free fruit, and wash it gently and thoroughly, being careful not to bruise the skin and release the essential oils.
Variations on limoncello can be made with any type of citrus, or a combination of lemons, limes and oranges. Palleschi is fond of limecello.
Limoncello also can be made with Everclear, a pure-grain alcohol that's preferred by Jeff Denno of Merced, Calif., or a combination of three parts vodka to one part brandy.
"Making it with Everclear gives it a more intense flavor," said Denno. His recipe, brought back from an Italian holiday and later tweaked, calls for 12 to 15 lemons, 1 (750-milliliter) bottle of Everclear, 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 cups of sugar and 2 to 2 1/2 cups of water. It's strong.
"I like it pretty potent," he said. Denno, who uses a serrated-edged potato peeler to peel the lemons, has no strong views on shaking the jar. "You can shake it once in awhile if you feel like you should be doing something," he writes in the instructions to the recipe.
Terri Boersma of Ripon, who has been to Italy's Amalfi Coast, where limoncello originated, suggests using thick-skinned lemons like Eureka, Lisbon or Citron.
"Meyers lemons do not work," she wrote in an e-mail, "because the skins are too thin."
Boersma's recipe, "from an elderly lady from Sorrento, Italy," calls for 15 lemons, 2 (750-milliliter) bottles of 100-proof vodka and a simple syrup of 4 1/2 cups sugar to 5 cups water.
Most readers preferred the thinner-skinned Meyers, which have a smoother skin and a glorious floral scent that gives limoncello an added nuance.
"Light and dark is also important," Palleschi said. "Leaving your steeping jar in the sun while the zest is inside it will have an adverse effect on taste. While the zest is in the jar, keep it in the shade, or in the dark is better."
Palleschi also favors continuing to steep the peel once the simple syrup has been added, saying it produces a better taste.