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DIY Limoncello

Updated on August 14, 2010

Conserve Your Cordials

Lest we think that cordials or liqueurs are only for drinking, I would like to present a more creative use. Along with this, I will provide a bit of background and two recipes (with references for both). I hope this will be a springboard for each of you to experiment with your own ideas.

First, the cordial. I’ve chosen limoncello (lemoncella, limoncella, lemoncello) because it’s quite simple to make, even for a cordial. Its flavor is intense, making it suitable for use in recipes (sparingly!). While it cannot by any stretch be considered “period” for our purposes, nevertheless it’s worth exploring. (And it teaches the virtue of patience. You’ll see.)

After much digging on the internet, I managed to find *one* mention of limoncello that didn’t include either a recipe from someone’s family or an advertisement for commercial liqueur. In the 17th century the nuns at the convent of Santa Rosa de Conca (just up the coast from Amalfi) used a curative made from lemon peel and alcohol in the creation of the famous Neapolitan cake known as Sfogliatelle Santa Rosa. In the 19th century we begin to see recipes being recorded instead of orally passed down through the generations. I have seen various dates claim to be those of “the first limoncello,” including 1875 and 1898. This tradition–the “family recipe”–continued until 1995, when the first commercial production was undertaken.

Given that several online references claim that lemons were grown in the Calabria region of Italy in the middle ages, and cultivated by Jesuits in the 16th century, I remain hopeful that I will eventually be able to document a period recipe for some kind of lemon-based liqueur/digestif.

I have found a reference that is slightly late for period, from Sir Francis Bacon’s History of Life and Death , 1623: “Among that useless collection of cordials [amassed by doctors, given to their patients with few or no results] there are a few which should be used for diet... of the colder kinds, the roots of bugloss and borage, citrons, sweet lemons, and apples.”

A recipe for a lemon syrup comes from an Andalusian manuscript dated to the 13th century. Conceivably this could have been diluted with either water or a distilled alcohol of some kind, although the ms makes no mention per se of such a thing. Perhaps the dilution was a given to readers of the time.

In the collection of messages saved by Duke Stefan in his Florilegium regarding cordials, period references are made to distilled cordials rather than infused ones (such as we are used to making for our SCA purposes). I mention this only as a point of interest. In period, it seems that cordials began in Italy and made their way to France and England in the 15th century and later. For this reason they became known as liqueurs d’Italie.

Marc Shapiro authored a Compleat Anachronist, #60, entitled Alcoholic Drinks of the Middle Ages. In it, he discusses Hugh Plat’s 1602 work, Delights for Ladies, and prints a few recipes from that text. Included is one for “Spirit of wine tasting of what vegetable you will” that mentions lemon peel in spirits of wine (distilled wine, therefore brandy).

I perused several recipe variants before deciding to create yet one more–my own. The basics are just that, basic: alcohol, lemon rind (no pith!), water, and sugar. This is, at its simplest, alcoholic lemonade. I’ve chosen Everclear for its distinct lack of taste, as I want the flavor of the citrus to be as unsullied as possible. (Many people will disagree and say that Everclear lends a “bite” to the final product. As my strawberry cordial will attest, that isn’t always true.)

Grietje’s Limoncello

12 lemons (organic if possible)

1 750ml bottle Everclear (190-proof grain alcohol, used half at a time)

6 cups sugar

4 cups water

Peel the lemons with a vegetable peeler (or a very sharp paring knife). Scrape all the white pith from the back of the rind, as it will impart a very unpleasant bitterness to the drink that not even Everclear can erase. Thinly slice the peels into strips, and place these in a glass container (better than plastic, but the latter will work if need be) with half the alcohol. Cover, and set in a dark place at room temperature. Let it rest undisturbed for 40 days.

After the time has elapsed, open the container. Combine the water and sugar in a large pot, and slowly bring to a boil. Stir frequently to dissolve the sugar and keep it from burning. Reduce the heat slightly and simmer for 3 minutes. Let cool. Add the cooled syrup and the remainder of the alcohol to the liquid in the bottle, cover again, and return it to that dark place where it can rest undisturbed for another 40 days.

At the end of the second 40-day period, filter the limoncello either through cheesecloth or a fine mesh sieve, to remove the peels. Bottle, and seal well (a cork or a screwtop works just fine). This will keep indefinitely in the refrigerator. Enjoy after dinner as a digestif, or use it creatively in cocktails or...

Using Liqueur in Conserves

Conserves are similar to preserves. The difference is that the former combines different types of fruit, while the latter contains but one kind along with sugar (and usually pectin of some kind). Flavoring conserves with liqueurs is hardly a new concept. Many such delights are available at gourmet shops worldwide, not to mention at e-stores specializing in such.

If you intend to keep your conserves for any length of time, you will need to process the finished product in a hot-water bath. A water-bath canner (you can get them for less than $20 at discount stores) large enough to hold the jars of conserves and water sufficient to cover them to a depth of one to two inches is required equipment, along with glass “Mason” jars and two-piece lids (rings and covers).

I chose the following recipe because I love the flavors of apricot and ginger. The liquid called for in this case is a blend of orange and lemon juices in addition to water, and that leads me to the addition of a quantity of limoncello in place of some of the liquid. The acid in the juices, along with the alcohol in the limoncello, ensures trouble-free preservation.

Apricot-Ginger Conserve

3 cups dried apricots

3/4 cup sliced candied ginger

½ cup orange juice

1/4 cup lemon juice

4 cups water

1 cup limoncello

2 tsp grated orange rind

1 tsp grated lemon rind

2 1/4 cups sugar

½ cup chopped nuts (I prefer pecans)

Wash apricots. In a large pot, place washed fruit, water, ginger, juices, grated rinds, and sugar. Stir until well mixed. Simmer slowly, stirring frequently, until thick and clear. Add nuts and limoncello and cook 5 minutes. Fill jars to within ½" of top, seal, and process.

Adding the limoncello late in the cooking process ensures that most of the “punch” will be retained. If you prefer to let the alcohol cook out (some will remain, regardless), add it earlier according to your taste and judgment. Be aware, though, that it may affect the thickening of the conserves, if added too soon in the cooking.

Vrouwe Grietje Crynes, Clerk of the Roster, BAR

mka Karen Boomgaarden

April 28, 2005

updated May 17, 2005


The Compleat Anachronist #60, Alcoholic Drinks of the Middle Ages, Marc Shapiro


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    • profile image

      Rex Marvin 6 years ago

      Can you use bottled Lemon oil to make Limoncello? it is 100% pure, organic oil. I am thinking that is better than peeling lemons.

    • Starglade profile image

      Starglade 7 years ago from behind the Cheddar Curtain

      Thank you, Ivorwen. I wish I could say I've made it since then, but I haven't. I did, however, make that batch last a long, long time. :-) It's absolutely divine served alongside a simple pork roast.

    • Ivorwen profile image

      Ivorwen 7 years ago from Hither and Yonder

      I have never had limoncello, but something that simple to make should be fun to experiment with. Your Apricot-Ginger Conserve looks fabulous. I love dried apricots and candied ginger and my husband loves conserves.

    • Starglade profile image

      Starglade 7 years ago from behind the Cheddar Curtain

      Thank you, Donna! I confess, I haven't made any since '05--but I was a pretty popular woman when I had those bottles on hand. :-)

    • Donna W profile image

      Donna W 7 years ago

      Welcome to Hubpages! Loved your Hub! A friend of mine introduced me to limoncello after living in Florence and I will try to make your recipe.