This is the first post in a series on homemade Italian liqueurs. We begin with a recipe for Rosolio di limone, a lemon liqueur featured in Maria Pignatelli Ferrante’s Puglia - A Culinary Memoir . This aromatic rosolio has a sunny, round flavor that is slightly sweet and refreshingly bright. You can follow the steps used to make this rosolio to create a broad range of homemade liqueurs.
Rosolio di limone is the first of sixteen liqueur (or cordial) recipes in Ferrante’s book. Unlike many infused liqueurs that are made with a myriad of ingredients, such as fruits, flowers, leaves, seeds, roots, barks and (historically) cochineal insects, Rosolio di limone contains only four ingredients: lemon zest, alcohol, sugar and water. Making Rosolio di limone is as simple as its ingredients: soak zest in alcohol, add syrup, filter and cure. From these simple ingredients and steps, countless variations exist: the number, variety and ripeness of lemons; the type and strength of alcohol; the duration of infusion; and the kind of syrup.
Which variation will appeal to you is a matter of personal preference—this is an art (of sorts) and not an exact science. However, Ferrante’s recipe for Rosolio di limone offers insights that can help improve the quality of any homemade liqueur. Here is her recipe:
- Zest of 6 large freshly picked lemons
- 1 quart alcohol [pure, distilled]
- 5 cups sugar
- 4 ½ cups water
Ferrante’s recipe calls for “freshly picked” lemons. Many of the lemon varieties in Southern Italy are not readily available in the United States where Eureka and Lisbon lemons are the prevalent commercial crop. My experience is that a freshly tree-picked lemon of any variety produces a superior tasting liqueur than a supermarket lemon. Yes, different lemon varieties have different flavors and aromas, but the sooner you can get citrus zest from tree into alcohol, the better. A lemon’s essential oil is volatile and will quickly vaporize. Some Italian recipes suggest that slightly green (i.e., almost ripe) lemons have more oil and produce the best results.
Another way to improve your rosolio is to carefully prepare the lemon’s zest before infusing it in alcohol. When peeling the lemons remove only the zest without any pith. If your zest has any pith, carefully carve it away. A lemon’s white pith is unpleasantly bitter.
The type and proof of alcohol can also improve your rosolio. Ferrante’s recipe calls for “pure” alcohol. I read this to mean a high alcohol, neutral grain spirit. Because neutral grain spirits (e.g., Everclear) are often extremely high in alcohol, these flammable liquids are not readily available in the United States in their 190- or 151-proof versions. So then why use such a neutral grain spirit? Its danger is also its virtue: a high concentration of alcohol acts as an efficient solvent that extracts and carries certain flavors and aromas. If you do not have access to (or simply feel uncomfortable using) a neutral grain spirit, consider using 120-, 100- or 80-proof vodka.
In Ferrante’s recipe the lemons soak in alcohol for 48 hours. This is a fairly brief time (perhaps because the recipe calls for “pure” alcohol) compared to many other rosolio recipes. If you like, you can soak the zest for an extra day or two. Four to five days is a common infusion period when using a neutral grain spirit.
Once you make and cure your rosolio, store it in your freezer. (Its alcohol content prevents it from freezing.) Bright, aromatic and cold, Rosolio di limone is most often enjoyed after dinner as a digestif.
You can use Ferrante’s recipe, with minor adjustments, as a master recipe to make other citrus-based liqueurs such as Rosolio di arance (using the zest of seven freshly picked oranges), Rosolio di mandarini (using the zest of eight freshly picked “but not extremely ripe” tangerines) and Rosolio di lima di Spagna (using the minced zest of eight Spanish limes).