Kitchen Window -- Have Your Limoncello And Eat It, Too Although traditionally served as an after-dinner sipper, this Italian liqueur is perfectly suited for any time of day -- particularly in a cocktail. But don't just drink it. Make your own, then use it for cooking and baking to impart creamy, lemony flavor without a lot of acidity.

Have Your Limoncello And Eat It, Too

I don't preserve. I don't do canning. I have never made a jelly or a jam. I make limoncello. Actually, I assist my dad, who makes limoncello. Then, much to my benefit, I distribute it to friends and potential business partners.

Limoncello (pronounced lee-mon-CHAY-low) is an Italian lemon liqueur known for its refreshing sweet and tangy flavor. It is made from lemon rinds, alcohol, sugar and patience.

Although traditionally served as a digestive, or after-dinner drink that aids in digestion, limoncello can be enjoyed at other times of the day, particularly in a cocktail. But don't just drink it. Eat it. Limoncello can be a wonderful ingredient in cooking and baking.

Limoncello's origins are disputed. Some say it was created by monks, while others say nuns. Some credit wealthy Amalfi Coast families, while others credit local townswomen.

The most convincing story is that of Vincenza Canale, an innkeeper on the isle of Capri who, in the late 19th century, began serving the heady lemon liqueur to weary travelers. Apparently, these satisfied travelers spread the word about Canale's distinctive drink, and its popularity grew.

It wasn't until 1988 that Canale's family registered the first trademark for limoncello. Today they produce "Limoncello di Capri," which is considered to be among the finest limoncellos available.

About The Author

Susan Russo is a food writer in San Diego. She publishes stories, recipes and photos on her cooking blog, Food Blogga. She is working on two cookbooks (Quirk Books) that will be released in the fall. When she isn't writing about her Italian family back in Rhode Island or life with her husband in Southern California, she can be found milling around a local farmers market buying a lot more food than two people could possibly eat.

Limoncello has its roots in Southern Italy, primarily along Italy's Amalfi Coast and Sorrentine Peninsula, known for their meticulous lemon cultivation. These lemons, prized for their brilliant yellow rinds, intense fragrance, juicy flesh and balanced acid, are considered the finest lemons for limoncello.

Of course, not everyone has the luxury of using Italian lemons. But with good store-bought lemons and alcohol, you can make a delicious limoncello wherever you live.

For limoncello, select brightly colored, unblemished and preferably aromatic lemons, which indicate freshness and a high degree of essential oils in the rind. Use grain alcohol (a potent, pure alcohol, made from fermenting and distilling grain) such as Everclear, 75.5 percent alcohol, 151 proof. If you prefer vodka, use 100 proof, which will ensure that it won't turn into ice in the freezer.

Peel the lemons carefully. You want the rinds only, no sour pith or pulp. There are many opinions on how long to soak the rinds. Most traditional recipes call for an 80-day soak. My family's recipe indicates a range from as short as 48 hours to as long as one week. Because limoncello's color comes from the rinds, the longer they soak, the deeper the color will be. That's why limoncello can range from pale to canary yellow.

When the soak is complete, the rinds are discarded, and the lemon-infused alcohol is combined with water and sugar. Creamy limoncello, which is featured here, is made with milk. The final product is bottled and placed in the freezer.

When serving limoncello, always pour it straight from the freezer, and preferably in chilled cordial or shot glasses. The colder the limoncello, the better the flavor. Like a romantic evening, limoncello should be savored slowly. Yet, because it tastes like a spiked, chilled creamy lemonade, limoncello can go down easily. Be careful. Despite its seeming innocence, it packs a punch.

While limoncello is an old, beloved drink in Italy, it's a relative newcomer to the States. Though we Americans often mispronounce the drink as "lemon-chello," our affection for it continues to grow. Chefs and bartenders across the U.S increasingly use it to create innovative desserts and cocktails, while more and more folks at home are making their own, often from a cherished family recipe.

A frosty glass of sweet and tangy creamy limoncello is delicious on its own, but don't stop there. Combine it with champagne or sparkling water for a refreshing summertime cooler, or experiment with cocktails when you're looking to add citrus flavor to a drink without a lot of acidity.

Limoncello is a natural companion to many classic Italian desserts, such as panna cotta, tiramisu and ricotta pie. It can also be added to these recipes for a nice twist. For simple yet sublime dishes, pour chilled limoncello over fresh fruit, gelato or pound cake. Whisk it into ricotta or mascarpone cheese and serve it alongside grilled fruit or rustic cakes. Limoncello also makes a zippy icing for treats such as ricotta cookies or polenta cake. As for savory dishes, it can be drizzled on salads and seafood, such as grilled shrimp, or added to marinades and sauces.

So if you're a friend of mine -- that is, a real-life friend, not Facebook friend -- then don't bother to make this limoncello recipe. I'm sure I already have a bottle with your name on it in my freezer. If you're not a friend, I'm afraid you'll have to make it yourself, which actually might be a great benefit to you if you're looking to build your own relationships.

Creamy Limoncello

This recipe is from my dad's longtime Italian friend Tony. Unlike traditional limoncello, this recipe for creamy limoncello is made with milk. Though most people gasp at the sight of a 5-pound bag of sugar, they never complain when they taste the finished product: an icy cold, tangy, velvety drink that is ideal for cooling off on steamy summer evenings. Keep in mind you need to start a week ahead.

You can check this blog post, which includes step-by-step photos of making limoncello.

Creamy Limoncello
Susan Russo for NPR

Makes just under 4 quarts

8 lemons

2 oranges

1 liter (33.8 ounces) pure alcohol, or 4 1/4 cups*

8 3/4 cups whole milk

5 pounds sugar (10 cups)

1 shot glass whiskey

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

*We use Everclear, which comes in 750 ml bottles. You will need to buy two bottles of Everclear for this recipe, but you'll use only about 1 to 1 1/2 cups of the second bottle. (Some people use 100-proof vodka.)

Peel lemons and oranges, being careful not to include any white pith or pulp. Place peels in a bowl and cover with alcohol. Soak for 1 week on the countertop. Note: It's helpful to place a plate on top of the peels so they don't float to the top.

After a week, strain lemon and orange alcohol and discard peels. Pour into a heavy-bottomed, large saucepan. Add milk, sugar, whiskey and vanilla. Bring to a boil, then reduce until just bubbling and cook for 5 minutes. Stir continuously, and keep a close eye on it so it does not boil over. Remove from heat and let cool completely. A thin film will form on top of the limoncello. Skim it off and discard, then pour thorough a fine mesh sieve.

Pour into bottles and freeze. Note: We use plastic containers, which are safer to handle than glass, but either can be used. Keep in freezer at all times. Shake before using.

Limoncello-Basil Fruit Cups

Fruit salad comes alive when dressed with zesty limoncello and fresh basil. Serve as a brunch item, a first course or even for dessert. For variations, substitute mint for the basil, or dust the fruit with a little cayenne pepper. The heat of the pepper acts as a foil to the sugary limoncello.

Limoncello-Basil Fruit Cups
Susan Russo for NPR

Makes 4 servings

4 cups fresh summer fruit, such as watermelon and cantaloupe balls, blueberries, strawberries, raspberries and grapes

1/2 cup creamy limoncello

1/4 cup thinly sliced fresh basil

Place fruit in a bowl. Add limoncello and basil. Toss gently until coated. Divide evenly among 4 serving dishes.

Limoncello Custards With Limoncello-Berry Sauce

When you need a pretty, flavorful, low-maintenance dessert for company, try these individual limoncello custards. They're simple to assemble and can be made early in the day and refrigerated. Or, if you prefer them warm, you can bake them while your guests are enjoying their main course.

Limoncello Custards With Limoncello-Berry Sauce
Susan Russo for NPR

Makes 6 servings


4 large eggs

3/4 cups sugar

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1/8 teaspoon salt

Zest of 1 small lemon (about 2 teaspoons)

1 1/2 cups whole milk

1/4 cup creamy limoncello


1 cup frozen raspberries (unthawed)**

2 tablespoons water

3 tablespoons creamy limoncello

2 tablespoons sugar

Optional Garnishes

Fresh raspberries

Lemon zest

1 to 2 tablespoons chopped pistachios

**I actually prefer using frozen berries to fresh for this sauce because it becomes much thicker and clings deliciously to the custard. If you would rather use fresh berries, then just use less liquid.

Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Coat 6 (3-inch-wide) ramekins with cooking spray and place on a baking sheet.

To make the sauce, puree all sauce ingredients in a food processor until smooth. Sauce can be made ahead and refrigerated in an airtight container for up to several days. Serve chilled or at room temperature.

In a large bowl, whisk all custard ingredients until smooth. Divide evenly among ramekins.

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until golden brown and puffy. Give the pan a light shake. It's OK if they jiggle just slightly in the centers. If they seem soupy, then cook a few minutes longer. Cool on a rack.

Custards can be served either at room temperature or slightly chilled. Add a couple of spoonfuls of berry sauce to each ramekin, and if desired, garnish with fresh berries, lemon zest and chopped nuts such as pistachios.

Citrus-Polenta Cake With Limoncello Icing

This rustic Italian polenta cake is laced with aromatic lemon, lime and orange zest and topped with a crunchy limoncello icing. Enjoy it as an afternoon snack with a glass of wine, as a dessert with a cordial, or as breakfast the following morning with a mug of hot coffee.

Citrus-Polenta Cake With Limoncello Icing
Susan Russo for NPR

Makes 8 to 10 servings

2 sticks butter (1 cup)

1 cup sugar

4 large eggs

1/4 cup creamy limoncello

Zest of 1 small lemon (about 2 teaspoons)

Zest of 1 small lime (about 2 teaspoons)

Zest of 1 small orange (about 1 tablespoon)

1 cup fine cornmeal

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

Lemon zest curls, for garnish

Limoncello Icing

1/2 cup confectioners' sugar

2 teaspoons plus several droplets of limoncello

Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-inch round cake pan and line bottom and sides with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, beat butter until creamy. Add the sugar and beat until smooth. Beat in eggs one at a time. Beat in limoncello and fruit zest.

In a separate bowl, whisk cornmeal, flour, baking powder and salt. Add to the creamed mixture and beat on low until just combined.

Pour into prepared pan and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and a cake tester inserted into the middle comes out clean. Transfer to a rack to cool for 5 minutes before removing from pan. Invert cake onto a rack, then turn right side up. Cool completely before icing.

Make the icing by placing confectioners' sugar in a small bowl. Start by adding 2 teaspoons of limoncello, then add more droplets as needed. Whisk until icing is smooth and thin yet clings to the back of a spoon. Using a spoon, drizzle the icing over the top of the cake. Garnish with lemon zest curls. Let cool completely before slicing.

Vanilla Bean Ice Cream With Berries, Limoncello And Almond Brittle

Creamy vanilla bean ice cream, sweet berries and tangy limoncello balance each other deliciously in this dessert, while the crackly almond brittle adds a playful, retro touch.

Vanilla Bean Ice Cream With Berries, Limoncello And Almond Brittle
Susan Russo for NPR

Makes 8 servings

1 half-gallon premium vanilla bean ice cream

2 cups fresh berries, such as blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries

1/2 cup creamy limoncello

A pinch of cinnamon per serving

Almond Brittle

1/2 cup slivered almonds

1/2 cup sugar

1/3 cup water

Make the brittle by spreading the almonds into an 8-10-inch square on a sheet of parchment paper.

Combine sugar and water in a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat. Cook until the sugar completely dissolves, stirring a few times. Once sugar is dissolved, allow to cook at same temperature, untouched for 5 to 7 minutes until golden. Pour over almonds and cool completely. Break brittle into large pieces with your hands.

To assemble, place 2 scoops of ice cream in a small sundae dish or glass. Top with 1/4 cup berries, 2 tablespoons limoncello and a pinch of cinnamon. Garnish with a piece of brittle. Repeat with remaining dishes.

Blueberry-Limoncello Zabaglione

Zabaglione (pronounced zah-bahl-YOH-nay) is a simple yet seductive Italian dessert that is a cross between a custard and a pudding. This recipe is made with limoncello and fresh blueberries for a sweet summertime indulgence. Feel free to use other summer berries in place of blueberries. This recipe calls for raw egg yolks.

Blueberry-Limoncello Zabaglione
Susan Russo for NPR

Makes 4 servings

1 1/4 cup fresh blueberries

4 large egg yolks

1/4 cup sugar

1/4 cup creamy limoncello

A few sprigs of fresh mint

Divide the blueberries evenly among 4 small dessert cups or pretty glasses, such as martini glasses. Set aside.

In a metal or glass bowl, whisk egg yolks, sugar and limoncello until combined. Place the bowl over a saucepan filled with 1-2 inches of simmering water, making sure the bottom of the bowl doesn't touch the water. Continue to whisk until doubled in volume and thick, about 10 minutes. Or you can use a hand mixer (which I actually prefer) and beat it until doubled in volume and thick, about 5 minutes. Spoon over berries. Garnish with fresh mint and serve.