Making homemade liqueurs is a centuries-old tradition in the Mediterranean. It's part of a long-established ritual that includes good friends, conversation, food, and, of course, something refreshing to drink. As America's passion for Mediterranean foods continues to grow, these infused spirits are becoming increasingly fashionable in the States. My favorite of these drinks is the Italian "limoncello" (pronounced lee-mohn-CHEL-loh), which I first tasted on a visit to the town of Sorrento on the Amalfi coast. Our hostess brought to the table what looked like miniature martini glasses, all frosty and beaded with cold and filled with an icy cold, bright yellow liqueur. Sweet but not cloying, and pleasantly tart, limoncello captured my imagination. I'm grateful that my hostess was as generous with her recipe as she was with her limoncello, for it's really quite simple to make. Vodka, infused with lemon zest and sweetened with sugar syrup, is set to steep for eighty days. The infusion is then strained and bottled. Limoncello is remarkably versatile. I sometimes mix it with sparkling wine or mineral water and add a twist of lemon peel to serve as an apéritif. Or I use limoncello to flavor homemade granitas, sorbets, or ice cream. Try tossing limoncello with blueberries and peaches and serving it over sweet biscuits for a summer shortcake. Or simply drizzle limoncello over store-bought sherbet or ice cream and serve it with a plain butter cookie or biscotto for a simple dessert. But my favorite way to enjoy limoncello is straight up, ice-cold from the freezer. The ingredients for limoncello are simple and few, and making a batch doesn't require much work, but you'll need some time. Limoncello must steep for eighty days; start making it now so that it's ready to drink in the hot months to come.

15 thick-skinned lemons
Two 750ml bottles 100-proof vodka
4 cups sugar
5 cups water

To begin, you'll need a large glass jar—at least four quarts—with a lid. Or divide the recipe into smaller batches.

Choose thick skinned lemons because they're easier to zest. You'll need about 15 medium to large fruits. Wash the lemons with a vegetable brush and hot water to remove any residue of pesticides or wax. Pat the lemons dry and remove the zest. A vegetable peeler does the job best: it gives
you long, wide strips of zest with hardly any of the bitter white pith. If you do get some of the pith with the zest, carefully scrape it away with the tip of a knife. Fill the jar with one bottle of the vodka and, as you remove the zest, add it to the jar.

Limoncello should taste like fresh lemons, not poor-quality vodka. Use 100-proof vodka, which has less flavor than a lower proof one. Also, the higher alcohol level will ensure that the limoncello won't turn to ice in the freezer.

After combining the vodka and lemon zest, cover the jar and store it at room temperature in a dark cabinet or cupboard. There's no need to stir: all you have to do is wait. As the limoncello sits, the vodka slowly takes on the flavor and rich yellow hue of the lemon zest.

After about forty days, combine the sugar and water in a saucepan, bring it to a boil, and cook until thickened, about 5 minutes. Let the syrup cool before adding it to the limoncello mixture, along with the other bottle of vodka. Cover and return to the cupboard for another forty days. Then simply strain the limoncello into bottles and discard the lemon zest. You can store the bottles in a cupboard, but always keep one in the freezer so it's icy cold when you're ready to drink it.

Yields 3 quarts.

Source of recipe: Joanne Weir, Fine Cooking #19