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.

 

 

 

 

 

About A Boy

Today, April 20, is about Easter. It is also about a boy.

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The boy and his frog.

The boy in this picture came into my life on April 20, 1975. He doesn’t look this way any more. He’s taller, his shoulders sometimes hunch when the world gets a little much for him, there are a few lines at the corners of his eyes when he smiles.

He’s probably wondering where all the time went. I can’t help him with that.

I can however, remind him of the day when he, just turned seven, brought his froggy friend home for supper. He wanted to create a habitat for him even though the obvious habitat was the creek bank just down the hill where they’d both been spending some quality time together all afternoon.

Arrangements were made. The boy took a bath (I insisted), and the tub was cleaned and prepared for the frog. We placed a rock inside the bath for that homey touch. The water was shallow and what my son determined was the right temperature. We closed the bathroom door.

Did I mention there was only one bathroom in the entire house?

Flash forward to the middle of the night. I have to pee. I forget about the visitor. The minute I open the door, and nearly lose it right then and there when something launches itself right at me. Frog is on the loose. He’s taking the steps three at a time, heading for the downstairs, the living room, the creek.

The boy sleeps like the dead or like seven-year-old boys who have spent the entire day outside. When I yell “The Frog Is Loose” into his ear, his eyes fly open and he’s off. For the next hour we pursue the amphibian through the house, under steam heaters, under couches, with paper bags, much frantic worry on my son’s part and some exasperation but mostly held-back giggles on mine.

The good news is that we saved Mr. Frog from himself. My son snared him in a paper bag. We marched out into the summer night in our pajamas. I started the car and the boy climbed in clutching the top of the bag. We drove to the bottom of the hill where the creek burbled.

I watched the boy get out, carefully lift the frog out of the bag and look him in the eye.

“Good bye,” said the boy. The rest of what he said was along the lines of “I’ll come back in the morning but I know you might not be here. I really wished I could have kept you but I know that wouldn’t have made you happy.” And then he let him go.

A moment of silence followed and then the boy climbed back into the car. A little while later, after a little talk and a glass of milk, he was once again asleep.

To the boy, on his birthday, I say “Happy Birthday. There were times when I wished I could keep you just like this, all muddy, smiles, and full of plans for a frog who had very different ideas.”

I have kept this picture though. I keep the memory of that night along with so many others. I persist in the idea that this boy still lives inside the man my son has become. There is some evidence for this. He still loves digging in the dirt.  He still loves animals although the donkeys would not fit in the bathtub. He still has the most amazing smile.

Happy Birthday to the boy and the man. Happy Birthday to Stan, the most recent addition to the menagerie, who turns one year old today.

Happy Easter to those who celebrate it and may all find joy and renewal in this day.

 

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Happy Birthday to Stan, one year old today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Twenty Nine

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When I saw the prompt for an essay contest a while back, I couldn’t get it out of my mind.

The prompt was this: write about a moment you would like to have back, to do differently if you could. Although there are many such moments in my life, it wasn’t hard to come up with the one I needed to write about. It lives beneath the surface of my daily life like a splinter under my skin, teaching a lesson I seem to  need to learn over and over again.

I wrote the essay and am honored to say that it was selected by Literary Mama to run in the Creative Nonfiction section of the December issue.  I share it here. If you are new to Literary Mama, I encourage you check it out. It is rich with beautiful, thought-provoking writing captured in reflections on literature, interviews, fiction, poetry, reviews, essays, and columns.

Without further ado, here is a link to my essay, “Twenty Nine.”

Why can’t I forget this? My son has long since forgiven me. We’ve had many happy days and have successfully navigated others marked by greater trauma or guilt. In fact, he does not remember the incident until I show him the picture. For this, I am grateful. Still, I believe there is a reason I need to remember. – See more at Literary Mana, “Twenty Nine.”

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.

Drinking Lessons

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The distiller and I are sitting across from each other in the swelter of a Denver June afternoon, three tiny unlabeled bottles of bourbon lined up before us. He pours from one into a scratched goblet that will serve as a snifter, lifts it to his nose, and then offers it to me like a teacher holding out a piece of chalk.

My turn.

Our classroom is the backyard of the rented house that he shares with his girlfriend, his Bassett hound, a cat, and a roommate to help pay the rent while he gets his business off the ground. He is showing me how to taste the spirit in which he has invested thousands of hours and dollars that he has scraped to earn, borrow, or finance at vertiginous rates on credit cards. As with wine, there is the “nosing,” the swirling, the chewing, the spitting, but the step that follows the first taste is the one that gets my full attention.

“Warm it,” he instructs. “Cup the glass in your hands, like this. Bring it in close, hold it next to your heart.”

The moment feels as fragile as the glass in my palm. I know from experience that one false move can shatter it.

I swirl and swish. While my nose strains to pick up notes of oak, the judge who lives inside me inhales a whiff of old anxieties. The distiller is my son. There is the matter of the credit cards, the nagging concern about the business he’s chosen given his past, complicated relationship with alcohol, the kinds of things mothers are supposed to worry about. I have a list of those things. It seems to write itself during the long stretches between our visits, it unfurls in my brain after our phone calls which often leave me with more questions than they answer. The details of his days are lost to me and so I fill in the blanks with pictures patched together from casual references, the sudden silences when I ask a question that goes too far, or assumptions based on the boy I knew who lived with me for sixteen years. It’s my job to worry, I used to tell him with a smile meant to smooth things over between us.

But I’m no longer sure what my job is when it comes to him. I weigh the fear in my heart as the glass warms in my palm. I’m tired of this worry. It seems to have outlived its usefulness which, I am beginning to understand, was only useful to me. I believed it tethered us but in fact it has been driving us apart for years. It has never stopped anything bad from happening. It has never helped anything good happen. And right now I am sitting in the sun occupying a moment with a person I have loved his whole life and I want to savor it. All of it.

I take a sip. The bourbon settles on my tongue and begins to release its history layer by layer. He talks about the charring of oak barrels, the differences between this and whiskey aged in peat but I’m letting the warmth sink into me. I’m thinking about how competent he seems, how intensely serious he is about what he is doing, how undeterred he has been since he started down this road, and of how little he wants or needs the things I used to provide.

It occurs to me that this moment is the distillation of every one that had has led up to it beginning with the moment he slithered out of my body and began to breathe on his own. It holds the echoes of the social worker who tried to convince me at eighteen to give him up to older parents who were ready in ways I could not be. It grew from the doubt and fear of being responsible for a person’s life along with the determination to hold on to him and prove her wrong. It contains the ache I felt when, sixteen years later, I realized I needed to find him a safe place to finish growing up even if it was over two thousand miles away. In this moment are the lessons I’ve learned and relearned in the nearly sixteen years since then about what I can control and what I can’t and that being his mother means, ultimately, letting him go.

The fact is, he’s done fine. He’s done better than fine even with some false starts and some painful setbacks that I sometimes knew of but other times discovered after his wounds had healed and the lessons they taught, absorbed.

The glass in my hand flashes in the sun and seems to expose my worry for what it is: a reflex and something I need to fill spaces left empty by my job, by the writing I haven’t started yet, by the need to define myself to others according to his successes and failures. I have been afraid that if I stop worrying, I will be letting him go. If I let him go, I will lose him.

This realization opens inside me like a window and before I can do much about it, the fear slips out. I am left with my son, his eyes shining with enthusiasm and some surprise — I haven’t interrupted him once since we sat down. I am left in this moment full of sun and promise and a kind of stillness we have never shared before.

In the five years since that visit, he’s moved from that backyard to Grand Junction. The distillery thrives and so does he. We’ve had more moments since then. Some perfect, some not. Keepers, all. But here is the one that I summon up when I come home and begin to wonder again how to be a mother of a grown and still-growing human being:

We are driving to the tiny Grand Junction airport after one more visit that in the old days I would have complained was too short. The hot breath of the high desert blows through his truck windows and surrounds us. There is so much I want to say but I don’t trust myself to speak when we are about to leave each other for another long absence. My son reaches over and closes his hand around mine. His palm is rough against my skin, his grip gentle and unhurried. I say nothing. I don’t think about when he’ll have to let go. I taste the moment fully, breathe it in. I hold it close to my heart.

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If you find yourself thirsty for more information about this bourbon and other fine spirits, here’s a video and a link to the site for Peach Street Distillers.