There’s a lot to love about Kachka: A Return to Russian Cooking by Bonnie Frumkin Morales—our most recent Piglet champion!—but one thing excited me most: vodka. Which, if you know me, doesn’t make any sense. Because I hate vodka. Or I thought I did.
Kachka’s first chapter is all about vodka—or, more specifically, infusing it. Tarragon, horseradish, chamomile, cacao nib, cranberry, strawberry. From Morales’s perspective, the possibilities are practically endless: “Alcohol is the perfect vehicle to both preserve and amplify flavors,” she writes.
Just, I thought, like Italian limoncello. This strong, sunny, lemon-infused Italian liqueur is usually enjoyed as a digestif, or post-dinner drink. I first stumbled upon it while in Italy with my mom, who insisted upon limoncello as often as possible, after we waddled our way home from all the pizza and pasta. When in Rome! But literally.
WHEN LIFE GIVES YOU LEMONS
In The Tuscan Sun Cookbook by Frances Mayes and Edward Mayes, they suggest adding a splash to a glass of lemonade. But pour this over ice and it could practically be lemonade—sweet and sour and refreshing. Just, you know, proceed with caution: “Some people are in love with this and drink three or four glasses because it seems innocent,” they write. “This is a mistake.”
Limoncello recipes often differ on two counts:
- What type of alcohol. This all depends on the proof—or percentage of alcohol by volume. Most vodkas are 80-proof, or 40 percent alcohol. This is what I prefer here. It infuses well and is plenty strong. Or you could go stronger, say with higher-proof vodka or highest-proof, neutral grain alcohol. Some argue that these yield stronger flavors, but they also yield stronger limoncellos.
- How much sugar. After you steep the alcohol and lemon peels, until opening the jar smells like crawling up into a lemon tree, and the liquid is gold, you have to sweeten it. I’m not one for sweet drinks, but it’s crucial here. The amount, though, is up to you. Starting with a 750ml bottle of vodka, I will add 1 cup sugar—dissolved in 1 cup hot water, to create a simple syrup. Some recipes add as much as four times that amount. Start small, taste, and build from there.
My recipe also differs on one more count: black pepper. Adding slightly crushed peppercorns along with the lemon peels adds some spice and warmth, a little tickle at the back of your throat, which I really love in a digestif. I call it limoncello e pepe. Or, after a glass, ’cello e pepe! Just perfect after a big bowl of cacio e pepe.
- 11 organic lemons, washed well
- 1 tablespoon black peppercorns, slightly crushed
- 1 (750ml) bottle vodka
- 1 cup just-boiled water
- 1 cup sugar
We originally published this article in April 2018. We're bringing it back because it's hot as heck and iced limoncello sure does sound good right about now. Have you ever infused vodka before? What with? Let us know in the comments!