Leo’s Limoncello

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When one of my stepsons turned thirteen, his mom hosted a dinner at her house which also included her parents as guests – Vincent’s grandparents. Quickly after we arrived, Leo – Vincent’s Italian grandfather – pulled out a green Grolsch bottle from the freezer. “Would you like some?” he asked me. I had no idea what was in this bottle, but responded with, “Sure – thank you.” Turns out it was his homemade limoncello – a liqueur made of lemons, everclear, sugar, and water. The limoncello was creamy, colder than ice, and  that cordial glass full was love at first taste.

Leo is someone whom I adore and have been grateful to know, even if our interactions are often reliant on kids’ sporting events or family celebrations. I have never met someone who is so consistently gracious, kind, or giving. On occasion, Leo has gifted my husband and I with bottles of his amazing limoncello.

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A couple months ago, I asked both Leo and his wife, Gail, for their limoncello recipe. I’ve never once attempted a homemade liqueur and thought it would be fun to try a recipe from someone I admire (as well as someone whose limoncello is so amazingly good!). It didn’t take long for me to receive an e-mail from Gail, including a short history on their recipe and directions from Leo. Turns out Gail had stayed with Leo’s relatives in Italy, back in 1987. She brought the recipe back to California from Leo’s cousin. The original recipe was written in the metric system and Gail says the first batch came out much too sweet, so the recipe Leo uses now is his own refined version of what they started with.

I attempted to use Leo’s recipe, but when I got to the liquor store, I was informed that the only everclear they had was a half gallon, rather than the fifth Leo’s recipe called for. This altered the number of lemons, as well as the simple syrup ratio. I was terrified of putting the time into something that wouldn’t turn out very tasty. Leo started a new batch of limoncello at the same time I was attempting to, then said we could exchange a bottle to see how they come out. We exchanged limoncellos this past Thanksgiving. Mine did not taste the same, though both bottles were quite tasty. Leo said he liked mine better than his, but I’ve got a feeling I could’ve handed him a bottle of lemonade and out of kindness, he would’ve said something similar.

Leo sat down with me, trying to figure out where the differences in flavor came from. “You used Eureka lemons?” “Yes.” “Everclear?” “Yes.” I told him how I could only get a half gallon, though, so I had to do some math that may have gone awry. “A HALF GALLON!” he said, wide-eyed. “You’re not supposed to use a half gallon! Oh no, no.” He read  the ingredients I had labeled, trying to figure out what could possibly be different (other than my vastly larger proportions) and said, “Organic cane sugar! That must be the magic ingredient!” My husband asked, “What do you use, Leo?” and his response was delightfully, “Whatever I’ve got!” I received the greatest complement when leaving, however. Leo told me, “You have the Zaro touch.” Their family name.

Since the limoncellos came out noticeably different from one another (and every batch will differ slightly), I am actually going to include both the recipe Leo gave me to start with and then the quantities I ended up using for my own batch.

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Leo’s Limoncello

Original Recipe

Ingredients:
12 large, firm Eureka lemons
750 ml. bottle of 190-proof everclear (grain alcohol)
1.5 liters hot water
12 tbsp. sugar

Directions:

Scrub each of the lemons with a vegetable brush, to remove any protective wax from the skins, and simply to clean them.

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Use a sharp knife or vegetable peeler to peel only the outer most yellow skin from the lemons. The white parts have a bitter flavor, so you want to exclude as much of it as you can.  Place the skins in a one liter jar with a clamp down lid.

Pour the 750-ml bottle of everclear over the skins, close the lid, and shake the bottle. Repeat the shaking process several times a day for at least two weeks.

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The lemons can be squeezed, and the juice freezes well for recipes that later call for fresh lemon juice. (Gail’s idea!)

Once at least two weeks have passed, place a strainer over a large cooking pot. Line the strainer with cheese cloth or a coffee filter. Pour the everclear and lemon peels through the filter.

While the everclear is filtering, combine the 1.5 liters of hot water (not boiling) and twelve tablespoons of sugar. Add the sugar water to the filtered everclear, stirring well. (The color will instantly change from a clear yellow to clouded yellow.)

Pour into clean bottles (preferably swing-top style). Refrigerate and serve cold in small cordial glasses.

The limoncello can be frozen – just make sure to shake it before serving.

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My Altered Recipe

Ingredients:
18 large, firm organic Eureka lemons
one half-gallon bottle 190-proof everclear (grain alcohol)
10 cups of hot water
1½  cups organic cane sugar

Directions: 

Scrub each of the lemons with a vegetable brush, to remove any protective wax from the skins, and simply to clean them.

Use a sharp knife or vegetable peeler to peel only the outer most yellow skin from the lemons. The white parts have a bitter flavor, so you want to exclude as much of it as you can.  Place the skins in large jar that can be sealed airtight.

Pour half gallon bottle of everclear over the skins, close the lid, and shake the bottle. Repeat the shaking process several times a day for at least two weeks. (I let mine soak for three weeks before straining.)

Once at least two weeks have passed, place a strainer over a large cooking pot. Line the strainer with cheese cloth or a coffee filter. Pour the everclear and lemon peels through the filter.

While the everclear is filtering, combine the 8 cups of hot water and one cup of sugar in a saucepan. Stir over medium-high heat until the sugar has dissolved (the cane sugar I used is a little larger in grain size, compared with granulated sugar, so I heated the mixture to help it dissolve completely). Cool the sugar water completely before adding it to the everclear mixture.

Pour the cooled sugar water into the strained everclear and stir well.  Pour the limoncello into clean bottles (preferably swing-top style).

You can refrigerate the bottled limoncello. Personally, I prefer keeping it in the freezer and find the taste much for pleasant. Serve in small cordial glasses.

Note: This limoncello had a stronger alcohol-taste than Leo’s original recipe, though it remained smooth and nicely tart for drinking. If you find your limoncello to be too strong, simply add more sugar water to dilute the alcohol.

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14 responses to “Leo’s Limoncello

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  6. I found a similar recipe elsewhere. I thought I’d let you know what I did with my leftover lemons. I juiced them and made raspberry-mango lemonade concentrate which I canned.

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  11. I’m not sure how I ended up here, but I’m glad I did! What a wonderful, beautiful story and a yummy recipe too! I think I am going to be brave and attempt to make it!

    • Hi Darcey,

      I’m glad you ended up here somehow, too! :) The recipe really is good – I hope you do give it a try. I’d love to hear how it comes out for you. Every batch of limoncello seems to have its differences.

      Thanks for the comment and for stopping by!

  12. James H. Longstreet

    Everclear is available in both 151 proof and 190 proof strengths (i.e., 75.5% alcohol or 95% alcohol). Which do you/Leo use? Obviously, it makes a difference. Thanks for your help.

    James H. Longstreet

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