Limoncello Lessons…Please!

Okay, foodies and mixology mavens. I need your help. I made my first ever batch of limoncello and it looks like this:

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In case it isn’t obvious from the photograph above, my limoncello is not yellow. A sip sometimes yields hints of Pledge cleaner underscored by notes of blecchh. Although I did try it again today and it was, if I closed my eyes, drinkable. Of course, anything, can be swallowed if one is determined enough. I speak as someone who remembers the days of Boone’s Farm apple wine (99 cents!) enjoyed (although rarely sipped) in the fresh mountain air near the Vermont state line.

Back to the limoncello.

A failed batch would be just fine if I were whipping up a batch of cookies that went wrong, or dropped an omelet on the floor. This, however, was so much more.

This was supposed to be a love offering, a celebration of families across two continents and one ocean. I had BIG plans for this limoncello.

Let me explain.

The idea was born during our visit to Italy last fall to see my husband’s family in Pontecorvo, just south of Rome. The centerpiece of our day with them was a meal that started around noon or one and unfolded with love and laughter for the next three hours. At the end, Roberto asked if anyone wanted some limoncello?

Of course. Out came a bottle made by the father of his wife, Maria-Vittoria. Each sip was as perfect as the sunlight that filtered through the windows and blessed the faces of those around the dining table.

I knew I couldn’t recreate the food, or the laughter, or the sweetness of connections regained after many years, but I could, I thought, try to make the limoncello once I got home. I had all the ingredients: my stepdaughter’s lemon tree would provide the lemons. My son would provide the vodka. Maria Vittoria gave me her father’s recipe. This limoncello would be infused with love and family from the West Coast to Pontecorvo.

I waited for the lemons on my stepdaughter’s lemon tree to ripen.

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I put aside a bottle of vodka made by my son’s distillery.

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I peeled each lemon trying very hard (but maybe not hard enough) to get pure lemon strips, no white zest.

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I found an old jar that was big enough and poured the vodka in over the peels.

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Then I waited. Waited some more. I waited two months before opening the jar and draining out the vodka which, alarmingly, was not as yellow as the peels had once been.

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I made the simple syrup and added it.

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I let it steep. I chilled it. And … well, you saw. instead of this:

I got this:

photo 1I know that at least one mistake was using organic sugar, rather then the usual white refined stuff. That could add a caramel tint. But what about the vodka? Some argue only for 100-proof vodka or grain alcohol. Goat vodka is 80 proof. I filtered everything through coffee filters inside strainers but nothing got any clearer. One thing I can say is this: these lemons were untreated. They are so light and fresh, I can eat the peels (before they’ve been soaked in vodka). They are beautiful, always.

I try to tell myself there are lessons in this limoncello, tart reminders:

Nothing is easy as it looks or sounds.

Patience is the essential ingredient (Maybe I should have waited until we had some white sugar in the house).

Failure is part of everything, even labors of love. The only thing we can do is to understand where we went wrong. And begin again.

The lemons should be ripe again in a few more months. In the meantime, I am open to any and all suggestions.

 

 

 

 

 

Love, A La Mode

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When I moved from the East Coast to San Diego in the spring of 2002, I found myself a stranger in a place that felt like home. There is no explaining that kind of feeling, it just happens. It happens more easily when you land in a community of loving, welcoming people who begin as acquaintances and become friends.

Some of those very special people came over the other night and we did what seems to be becoming an annual event: a potluck and ice cream social. We make baked ziti (okay, my husband makes that), and ice cream (that’s me), and they bring wine, beer, salad, starters and sides. They also bring lots of laughs, warmth, and the bonds that have formed over ten years as we have met weekly to explore our faith, among other things.

But the other night was all about ice cream. When it comes to food preparation, I pick my spots and increasingly, my favorite spot (or as my mate has begun to call it, my obsession) is making ice cream. Maybe it is because when I make it, it is always for people I love. Even better, my favorite recipes involve ingredients made by people I love. As I prepare the custards and try new combinations, I think of their faces and what they mean to me and I swear all that adds a little something wonderful to the finished product.

Here’s how it works. They tell me what flavor they are craving, and I go hunting for the best guides. My first stop is, without fail, David Lebovitz’s “The Perfect Scoop” as well as his website. If I am making non-dairy, coconut-milk based ice creams (which are amazingly rich and delicious) I always use Rori Trovato’s recipe for chocolate coconut ice cream as a base and improvise from there.

And when it comes to adding a little spirit to the whole production, I can’t go anywhere but Peach Street Distillers because, well, I’m the distiller’s mother. But I’m not completely biased, their stuff wins awards from people with no blood ties at all so they must be doing something right.

The other night, we enjoyed some new twists on the old vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry standbys. Adding Peach Street’s Colorado Straight Bourbon to the vanilla and chocolate turned them into something extra decadent and addictive. Slipping a little extra of their Goat Artisan Vodka into the fresh strawberry frozen yogurt kept it soft and creamy and never interfered with the fresh strawberry taste. Of course, all the recipes I share below can be made without the alcohol and will be delicious.

Enjoy!

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Vanilla Bourbon Ice Cream

Adapted from David Lebovitz’s recipe for vanilla ice cream in “The Perfect Scoop.”

Ingredients: 1 cup of whole milk, 1/4 cup of sugar, 2 cups of heavy cream, pinch of salt, 1 vanilla bean split lengthwise, 6 large egg yolks, 3/4 teaspoons of vanilla extract, 4 tablespoons of bourbon (I use my favorite, Peach Street Distiller’s Colorado Straight Bourbon. If you don’t live near Grand Junction, here’s where you can find it or order it online.

1. Heat the milk, salt, and sugar in a saucepan. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into the milk with a paring knife, then add the bean pod to the milk. Cover, remove from heat, and infuse for one hour.

2. To make the ice cream, set up an ice bath by placing a 2-quart (2l) bowl in a larger bowl partially filled with ice and water. Set a strainer over the top of the smaller bowl and pour the cream into the bowl.

3. In a separate bowl, stir together the egg yolks. Rewarm the milk then gradually pour some of the milk into the yolks, whisking constantly as you pour. Scrape the warmed yolks and milk back into the saucepan. NOTE: leave the vanilla bean in the warmed milk the entire time.

4. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly and scraping the bottom with a heat-resistant spatula, until the custard thickens enough to coat the spatula.

5. Strain the custard into the heavy cream. Stir over the ice until cool. The vanilla bean will remain in the strainer. Rinse it and then add it back into the strained mixture with the vanilla extract, then refrigerate to chill thoroughly. Preferably (I say DEFINITELY) overnight.

6. Remove the vanilla bean, add the bourbon, and freeze the custard in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. NOTE: The high fat content of this ice cream, combined with the bourbon will make the resulting ice cream soft and luxurious – it won’t get rock hard. I always plan to let it have at least 24 hours in my refrigerator’s freezer after the ice cream freezer has done its work. But if you can’t wait, slurp some right out of the ice cream maker. It’s delicious.)

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Chocolate Bourbon Ice Cream

This tastes like a frozen version of those rich chocolate bourbon balls that often make an appearance at Christmas. In fact, this ice cream, along with a coconut milk based “frozen pudding” are going to make an appearance this winter at our holiday feast. I’ve adapted David Lebovitz’s recipe for Chocolate ice cream in page 26 of “The Perfect Scoop.” This is a rich, dark chocolate – no milky sweetness – and, with the bourbon, makes for a particularly decadent experience. Full disclosure: I’m a chocolate fanatic and often eat it unsweetened. One of the great things about David Lebovitz’s recipes is that they go easy on the sugar so the flavor of the Ice cream is pure and wonderful. This recipe is for those who like their chocolate nearly ”straight-up” but it can be sweetened up by using chocolate with lower percentages of cacao or adding a bit more sugar.

Ingredients: 2 cups heavy cream, t tablespoons unsweetened Dutch process cocoa powder (I use Trader Joe’s which is not Dutch process and it works and tastes delicious), 5 ounces of bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped (I use Trader Joe’s bittersweet bar with 73% cacao), 1 cup whole milk, 3/4 cup sugar, pinch of salt, 5 large egg yolks, 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract, 4 Tablespoons of bourbon.

1. Warm 1 cup of the cream with the cocoa powder in a medium saucepan, whisking to thoroughly blend the cocoa. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer at a very low boil for 30 seconds, whisking constantly. Remove from the heat and add the chopped chocolate, stirring until smooth. Then stir in the remaining one cup of cream. Pour the mixture into a large bowl, scraping the saucepan as thoroughly as possible, and set a mesh strainer on top of the bowl.

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2. Warm the milk, sugar, and salt in the same saucepan. In a separate medium bowl, whisk together the egg yolks. Slowly pour the warm milk into the egg yolks, whisking constantly, then scrape the warmed egg yolks back into the saucepan.

3. Stir the mixture constantly over medium heat with a heatproof spatula, scraping the bottom as you stir, until the mixture thickens and coats the spatula. Pour the custard through the strainer and stir it into the chocolate mixture until smooth, then stir in the vanilla. Stir until cool over an ice bath.

4. Chill the mixture thoroughly in the refrigerator (at least overnight – the longer the better), then add the bourbon and freeze in your ice cream maker according to  the manufacturer’s instructions. If the cold mixture has become too thick to pour into your machine, whisk it vigorously to thin it out.

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Fresh Strawberry Frozen Yogurt

So easy and so fresh. Using Greek style yogurt (I get it from Trader Joe’s), makes it even creamier and gives a smoother taste.

Ingredients: 1 pound +, of fresh strawberries, rinsed and hulled, 2/3 cup sugar, 3 tablespoons of vodka or kirsch, 1 cup plain whole-milk yogurt, 1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

1. Slice the strawberries into small pieces. Toss in a bowl with the sugar and vodka, stirring until the sugar begins to dissolve. Cover and let stand at room temperature for 1 hour, stirring every so often.

2. Puree the strawberries and their liquid with the yogurt and lemon juice in a blender, food processor or bowl using a hand processor. Blend until smooth. If you wish, press the mixture through a mesh strainer to remove seeds (I always do this).

3. Refrigerate for at least one hour and freeze in your ice cream maker. I often leave it in the fridge overnight to make sure it is really really cold before freezing.

Seduction by Artichoke

Source: By MatthiasKabel (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)

Source: By MatthiasKabel (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)

There are the hearts you draw on Valentine cards, the chocolate ones, and the very useful muscle that is sending oxygen to your cells as you read this.

Then there is the tender, sweet meat protected by the thorny leaves of the artichoke. The heart of the choke, or the “toots” as my husband’s family calls it, is the promise that lies at the center of the spiky green globes.

You don’t just pluck this fruit and eat it, you have to work your way in. You have to find a way to render the leaves pliable so they release their essence. You have to peel each one and suck it dry, prove your worthiness.

Eating an artichoke is not a casual decision. It is a commitment. You engage with fingers, tongue and taste buds. It is not for the naive or inexperienced. When my mother introduced her children to this exotic food, she refused to let us have more than a few leaves of steamed chokes until we proved we could scrape every scrap of flesh from them. Then we progressed to the heart which she would scrape clean and carve into five small morsels, one for each of us. The tips of our fingers were slippery with melted butter and I can still remember the sweetness of my first taste.

My husband, though, revealed the true nature of the artichoke to me. He is polite but dismissive about the steamed choke. His way to the heart requires patience, a sharp knife, and tough fingertips which turn black as he prepares the artichokes for one of two final steps, each involving olive oil, garlic, lemon, herbs, a dash of marsala. Then, depending on their size, or his mood, they simmer in all of that until the juice has found its way into each crevice and has turned what is left of the leaves to petals of flavor. Or, he sautees them until they are crispy blossoms that give way to lemon, garlic and then the sudden fleeting sweetness of the “toots” before heading down the hatch to make room for another.

Artichokes helped us to fall even more deeply in love during one Christmas week in Rome. A long walk brought us into the Trastevere neighborhood and to Al Fontanone, then a small place with solid tables, carafes of good wine, and a waiter who informed us that artichokes, “carciofi,” were in season. We could have ours “alla Romana”, “alla Giudia” or both. Both. We peeled the slippery leaves from the chokes prepared “alla Romana” and shared them. We crunched down on the leaves of the ones prepapred “all Giudia” and smiled into each other’s eyes. We went back for more. Twice.

Inspired by this and by the lessons learned in his grandmother’s kitchen, my love has  been cooking them ever since. Sometimes he manages to combine the smoothness of the “Roman style” with the crispyness of the “Jewish style” into one sensous eating experience which makes me realize how lucky I am that I found a man who knows the way to my heart and is willing to do whatever it takes to get there.

For a look at what it takes, watch this video of my love at work. You can listen to Andrea Bocelli sing Romanza while you watch.

Prepping The Chokes

Or, for another perspective, read Neruda’s “Ode to An Artichoke” via Edible Gardens Point Loma. 

Finally, here’s a look at just one version of the finished product. To the cook: un milione di baci! To all: Happy Valentine’s Day!

Hearts laid bare, ready to eat

Hearts laid bare, ready to eat