This delightful and decadent lemon liqueur isn't difficult to make, but because of the time it takes it requires dedication. This just might be the ultimate in slow food recipes, taking several months to make.
You are also going to need a supply of bottles and stoppers. This one varies, and is completely up to you. If it's just for your own personal supply, go for fewer larger bottles (3 750ml ought to do). If you want to share and gift with as many people as possible, get 22 100ml bottles. Or somewhere in between - I use 6 375ml bottles per batch.
A couple things to note about your ingredients. First, the lemons. You can use whatever type of lemons you want and have available. Different types of lemons will have their own distinct flavors, if you have enough glassware to support making multiple batches you could try batches of different kinds of lemons, and then taste the differences between them at the end.
Next, the grain alcohol. Ideally you would want to use the 190 proof stuff. You're using it to extract the essential lemon oils out of the lemon zest, and so a higher proof will do the job more quickly. If you're unable to find the higher proof grain alcohol in your area you can use the 150 proof, it will just take more time to get to phase two.As for the vodka, that is entirely up to you. I generally recommend using a decent mid-priced vodka (such as Skyy, Stoli, Absolut, or equivalent), it's been filtered 2-3 times for a cleaner and smoother taste and generally is less likely to lead to hangovers. Depending on your budget and tastes, you may care to use something even better.
Start by pouring the bottle of grain alcohol into your big glass jar.
Follow that up by doing the same with the bottle of vodka
Next, wash your lemons. Don't scrub too hard - you want to clean them and remove any residue from pesticides, dirt, and fertilizer chemicals... but you don't want to scrub into the peels. Dry them off once they're washed.
Use a potato peeler to peel off just the yellow part of the skin from the lemons (this is known as the zest).
You don't want any of the white stuff from the lemon rind - it's bitter and will give the finished limoncello a bitter taste. If your peeler is just getting part of the rind no matter what you do, don't worry.
Lay the bit you've peeled onto a cutting board, and carefully use a filet knife to cut the rind away - you just want the yellow part.You might think it would be easier to use a lemon zester, but don't - it's a trap! In phase two you've got to get rid of the bits of peel, and if everything has been finely grated it will take forever.
Put the lemon peels into your big glass jar 'o booze. When you've done all those lemons (and it will feel like it took you forever), give the contents a gentle stir with a slotted spoon and close the jar up tight. Store it in a cool, dark, dry place and let it sit so the alcohol can extract the oils from the peels.
Use your lemons immediately. Without the protective rind, they won't last very long. I recommend juicing them and freezing any lemon juice that you don't think you'll go through in the next few days (stay tuned, Pani may have a recipe or two that calls for lemon juice).
One Week Later
Open up your big glass jar and gently stir the contents. Close it back up and put the jar in its cool, dark place.
Every Two Weeks
Open up your big glass jar and gently stir the contents again. After a month or two of this, you'll notice the lemon peels becoming less flexible. Scoop out a peel and test, if it still has plenty of flex, put it back and close the jar up and check again in two more weeks. If it's rigid and breaks like a potato chip, congratulations - you're ready for phase two.
Dissolve the sugar into the water in your saucepan and bring it to a boil over high heat. Boil for a full five minutes.
Let your sugar mixture cool. It must be cooled back down to room temperature before adding to the infusion. Don't try to cheat by putting it into the fridge, it's important that it cool slowly. You're probably going to be busy for a lot of that time straining and filtering your infusion, so just let it sit to cool.
Use a slotted spoon to gently scoop the lemon peels from the glass jar and discard. The peels will be brittle, be careful not to break them into smaller pieces as you remove them or it will make the next step more difficult. Feel free to taste it at this point, but use caution. It will be bitter, and it will be strong. It still needs that sugar mixture, plus plenty of time to infuse.
Take a #4 coffee filter and put it into your large funnel. Now put the funnel over your large glass pitcher and use your ladle to slowly strain the infusion. This process is a huge pain - it goes slowly, they clog up, you'll go through a bunch of filters, and will generally be messy. Be thankful you used a peeler and not a zester.
Here's the part that sucks.... you have to do it again! No, I am not kidding. Rinse and dry that big glass jar that the infusion has been sitting in for weeks, and then put the funnel into that, and repeat the process to get your infusion from the pitcher into an empty jar. Remember, the more it's filtered, the better the final liqueur will be - your future self (and the friends you share a drink with) will thank you for the time you take to do this step.
Add the cooled sugar syrup mixture to the infusion in the glass jar. Put it back into that cool, dark, dry place for six weeks.
Six Weeks Later
Moisten a #4 filter (this will help prevent wasting liqueur by soaking it into the filter) and put it into your large funnel. Put the funnel over a measuring cup and use the ladle to start straining your infusion through the funnel and into the cup.
Moisten a #2 filter and put it into the smaller funnel. Filter your infusion for a fourth time into your individual bottles.
Seal your bottles very tightly. You may also want to consider dipping the necks of your finished bottles into melted wax after corking.
Put a label on your bottles. Or if you have access to a laser cutter and know how to use it, get fancy!
Now pack up all your bottles and put them in your cool, dark, dry place for storage. On paper, the job's all done - but the longer it sits and ages, the smoother and more amazing it will taste.
Share and enjoy as you see fit. If you tasted your infusion at other steps along the way, you will be shocked and amazed at how much better the limoncello tastes six months after the final step!