This Vibrant Limoncello Recipe Is Straight Out of a Painting
This new book depicts the art of making and enjoying cocktails.
Drinks have long been subjects of art, from the chalices of wine in Dutch still life, to the silkscreens of Coca-Cola bottles designed by Andy Warhol. And this history comes to mind as soon as you lay eyes on the cover of Cocktails a Still Life: 60 Spirited Paintings & Recipes, released this week.
But instead of focusing on the realism of a tablescape, or critiquing a consumerist society, this collection of paintings serves to simply capture the art of drinking—that is, the allure of a glitzy cocktail bar in Manhattan or an aperitivo hour in Italy; the idea of drinking as an activity, which goes back to prehistoric times; the collecting of barware, both modern and vintage; the friendships that grow deeper over drinks; and the art of mixology itself.
The book, which hones in on that classic bartender manifesto that you drink with your eyes first, pairs cocktail recipes with still life oil paintings. It’s a product of collaboration between artist Todd M. Casey, historian Christine Sismondo, and author James Waller.
“It taught me so much about how people see things,” says Sismondo. The Toronto-based historian would text back and forth with Casey, who is based in New Jersey, about how each cocktail should look when staged, covering everything from the proper drinkware to the level at which glasses were filled.
The 60 paintings and their corresponding recipes are organized by drinking occasions. For example, “Daytime Drinking” features a classic Bloody Mary, while “Celebration” calls for a Pisco Punch. Behind every drink is a description of its history, as well as a few props that reflect its personality.
A painting of limoncello marks the final section of the book with a pop of bright yellow color. Hailing from Italy’s Amalfi Coast (though some might dispute this origin, claiming it was made in Sicily), the liqueur relies on the aroma of lemon peels, particularly that of the Sfusato di Amalfi lemon—a gargantuan fruit that has inspired the entire region’s cuisine.
“I think a really good limoncello is bright and almost oily, because you’re really working with the zests of the lemons,” Sismondo says. “I don’t like a particularly sweet limoncello, and I think that’s part of the trick. You have to be able to tamp it down with enough sugar to make it palatable, but not so much that it winds up becoming syrup.”
First thing’s first: Source the biggest lemons you can find with a relatively thick skin, “because you don’t want to get the white pith at all,” Sismondo says. The issue is, those bigger lemons tend to arrive during winter in North America (unlike Italy, where peak citrus season is from May to October), so you might want to plan ahead for next summer’s cocktail. Otherwise, you can work with what’s available, or opt for a different citrus, like grapefruit.
Most limoncello recipes call for larger lemon peels, and while you can certainly go for this simpler method, Sismondo suggests finely grating zest, as it will be much easier to squeeze it through the top of your bottle. (A one-liter glass bottle that can be stoppered tightly works best for this recipe.) Work tablespoon by tablespoon, pouring just enough vodka to wash down each increment. Stopper the bottle, then place it in a cool, dark place to rest for three weeks.
After three weeks have passed, pour the liquid into a measuring cup using a cheesecloth-lined sieve, add some simple syrup, place the mixture back into your freshly cleaned glass bottle, and store in the freezer.
Sismondo likes to sip the drink on its own after dinner as a palette cleanser, but says there’s a lot of potential for incorporating it into cocktails. “You can use it in a margarita the same way you would use a little bit of Cointreau,” she explains. “Or you could use it to brighten up a Sidecar, French 75, or anything else that plays well with citrus, but be sure to use small quantities. You don’t want it to overpower the drink, because it is really sweet.”
The Italians treat limoncello as a digestif, a tiny drink taken at the end of a meal to stimulate digestion. “I’m skeptical as an Italian myself,” Sismondo jokes. “I think a lot of it is a holdover from 130 years ago when people used to use alcohol more as medicine.” But as the Italians like to say—or maybe it was the Greeks—everything in moderation.
Yield: Approximately 16 servings
- 12 very fresh lemons, ideally wax-free and organic
- 750 ml bottle vodka
- ⅓ cup or more simple syrup
Make the Limoncello in two steps:
Grate the zest of the lemons very finely. As you grate, try to avoid grating the albedo—the white, pithy part of the rind. If your grated zest contains too much albedo, the Limoncello will be bitter.
Place a funnel in the mouth of a 1-liter bottle. Transfer about a tablespoon of the grated zest to the funnel and pour just enough vodka into the funnel to wash the grated zest into the bottle. Repeat this—washing a little bit of grated zest into the bottle with as little vodka as possible—until all the zest and vodka are in the bottle. This procedure probably won’t work perfectly, so you may need to force some of the zest through the funnel using the handle of a bar spoon (or some other implement with a long narrow handle). Stopper the bottle tightly and put it in a cool, dark place, where it will rest for three weeks.
After three weeks have passed, take the bottle from its hiding place. Line a sieve with several layers of cheesecloth and set it atop a large, spouted measuring cup. Carefully pour the contents of the bottle through the cheesecloth-lined sieve into the measuring cup. Add ⅓ cup simple syrup to the liquid in the measuring cup and stir. Taste the mixture. If it does not seem sweet enough to you, add more simple syrup—a teaspoonful at a time, tasting after each addition—until the desired sweetness is achieved.
Rinse the bottle thoroughly (no bits of lemon zest should remain inside). Pour the Limoncello into the clean bottle and stopper it tightly. Limoncello is best served ice-cold, so store the bottle in the freezer, where the Limoncello will remain fresh indefinitely.