Monday, March 21, 2011

The first sign of spring: limoncello

Spring arrives and a girl's first thoughts turn to...limoncello.  If you've never tasted this delightful Italian liqueur, you have a couple of choices.  You can either go to your nearest Spec's and pick up a bottle (I recommend Luxardo brand), or you can make your own, which I think is much more gratifying and much more fun.  Don't worry, it's pretty easy.

Limoncello is sweet, intensely lemony and extremely versatile.  You can drink it chilled or over crushed ice, mix it with seltzer water, soda water, tonic water, or sparking wine.  Use it in a cocktail or make it part of a dessert (or a dessert-like breakfast pastry).  Drizzle it over vanilla ice cream or fresh berries.  It's entirely yummy and a perfect drink for warmer weather. 

Below you'll find a basic limoncello recipe and then some other recipes to use it in.  I always save the lemon peels and store them in a jar in the fridge for use in pastry, quick breads, cakes and muffins.  Finely slivered, the vodka-steeped peels also make a wonderful lemon dessert sauce for pound cake or cottage cake.

And by the way, limoncello makes a great host/hostess gift when decanted into a pretty bottle.  I've never known a soul to turn down a beautiful bottle of homemade limoncello--and then not ask for more.


       I’ve found that “kissing” your limoncello with some vanilla at the end of the process softens and mellows the final product.  Otherwise, it has a tendency to taste like Lemon Pledge.  Give yourself up to 80 days to complete your limoncello.

18 lemons
2 750 ml vodka (100 proof)
4 cups sugar
5 cups water
½ vanilla bean

1.     Scrub lemons well with a coarse cloth or brush in warm soapy water to remove wax and other residue. 
2.     Dry lemons.
3.     Peel lemon rind (yellow part only) with a sharp vegetable peeler.
4.     Pour one bottle of vodka into a large glass jar (1 gallon) and add lemon peels as they are zested.  You can juice the lemons for other uses and freeze or chill the juice.
5.     Cover jar and let sit in a cool, dark place for at least 10 days and up to 30 days.  No need to stir; the longer it sits the more intense the lemon flavor will be.
6.     When you have decided that the lemon peels have steeped in the vodka long enough, combine the sugar and water and bring to a boil.  Boil for 5 to 7 minutes.
7.     Cool syrup to room temperature and add to vodka and lemon peels. 
8.     Add the other bottle of vodka and let sit for another 10 to 30 days in a cool, dark place.
9.     Approximately 4 to 7 days before you will strain the peels from the sugared vodka, add the vanilla bean.
10.  Strain lemon peels and vanilla bean from limoncello.  Discard vanilla bean.  Save lemon peels for other use (optional—see recipe below).
11.  Decant limoncello into bottles.  Either store in the freezer or refrigerator until ready to serve.   Makes about 2 ½ liters.

Limoncello Martini

2 oz. limoncello
1 oz. vodka
lemon sugar (recipe follows)

Combine limoncello and vodka in a shaker; add crushed ice and stir well.  Strain into chilled martini glass that has been rimmed in lemon sugar.

To make lemon sugar:  Finely zest one lemon and combine zest with 1/2 cup sugar.  Spread on a saucer or small plate and moisten martini glass with a lemon wedge.  Dip rim of glass in lemon sugar and then serve martini.

Lemon Knock-Out Punch
     This is beautiful punch for a spring or summer party--and it packs a wallop.

4 cups limoncello, chilled
2 cups vodka (reduce this amount for a less strong punch)
4 cups lemonade, chilled
2 liters Italian lemon soda (or for a less sweet punch, lemon seltzer), chilled
Fresh mint leaves
Fresh blueberries or blackberries
Thin lemon slices

1.      Combine limoncello, vodka, lemonade, and lemon soda or lemon seltzer in a large decanter or punch bowl.
2.      Float mint leaves, berries and lemon slices on top.
3.      Serve ice on the side.   Makes 20 cups of punch, or about 40 servings (if served over ice).

Limoncello Babas

These pastries are incredibly delicious and worth the effort.  The recipe is adapted from pastry chef Nick Malgieri.

1/2 cup milk
1 envelope active dry yeast or 1 3/4 teaspoons instant yeast
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
3 eggs
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
8 tablespoons butter, melted and cooled
Limoncello Syrup (recipe follows)
Limoncello Glaze (recipe follows)

Sweetened whipped cream (optional)

1.)  Preheat oven to 400° F.
2.)  Butter or spray with nonstick cooking spray miniature muffin pans or regular muffin cups.
3.)  Heat 1/2 cup milk to lukewarm; sprinkle the yeast on the surface and allow to stand 5 minutes. Whisk until dissolved and stir in 3/4 cup flour.
4.)  Cover mixture and let stand for 20 minutes.  This is your sponge.  If you use instant yeast, you don't have to wait the 5 minutes and you can mix all the sponge ingredients at once.
5.)  In a large bowl, beat the eggs, salt, sugar, and 1 1/2 cups flour together; beat in the prepared sponge, and then the cooled melted butter.
Divide the dough into the muffin cups, filling them 1/2 full. 
7.)   Cover the pans loosely with buttered plastic wrap; allow to rise in a warm spot approximately 30 to 60 minutes or until the dough has risen to the top of the cups. At this point, you can put the pan(s) in the refrigerator for a few hours or overnight until you are ready to bake.
8.)  Remove pan(s) from refrigerator to bring dough to room temperature if you chilled them.  When the dough has risen, remove the plastic wrap and bake for approximately 10 to 20 minutes (depending on size of your muffin cups) or until golden brown. 
9.)  Remove from oven. Allow to cool slightly in the pan for about 1 minute on a rack.
10.)  Using your fingers, one at a time, remove individual babas from muffin cups and submerge each baba into the warm Limoncello Syrup for approximately 1 minute or until they swell slightly. 11)  
11.)   Place the dipped babas in a large baking dish or pan (tops up). Repeat with the remaining babas.
12.)  After dipping all the babas, pour any leftover Limoncello Syrup over the top of the cakes. 
13.)  Allow them to stand 1 hour (all of the syrup will be absorbed). Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for a few hours.
14.)  Before serving, brush tops of cakes with warm Limoncello Glaze. Serve with whipped sweetened cream, if desired.  Makes 12 babas.

Babas may be baked, soaked in syrup, and then cooled completely. They can be frozen if well-wrapped right in the pan.  To serve, let stand at room temperature 1 hour; then warm in 300 degree F. oven for 15 minutes. Top with warm Limoncello Glaze and serve.

Limoncello Syrup

2 cups granulated sugar
3 cups water
1/2 cup limoncello (or more to taste)

In a small saucepan over medium-high heat, mix water and sugar together; bring to a boil and boil 5 minutes. Remove from heat and pour syrup into a 2-cup liquid measure (because it is narrow and deep, it is easy to coat the babas). Cool syrup to lukewarm; stir in Limoncello.  Syrup will keep for 6 months.
Makes about 2 1/2 cups.

Limoncello Glaze

12-ounce jar apricot jam
1 to 2 tablespoons limoncello

In a small saucepan over medium heat, heat approximately 2/3 of a 12-ounce jar of apricot jam until melted.  Remove from heat and push hot jam through sieve with a spatula. Add limoncello to taste.  Glaze will keep for 6 months.

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