It seems that every customer I have that wants limoncello has spent time in Italy. They’ve usually done something exceedingly romantic, like a honeymoon or anniversary, and want to translate that experience to San Francisco. In November. Uh, yeah, not quite the same thing. But most restaurants in SF have a bottle stashed in a freezer somewhere, for the occasional dreamy dilettante who requests it.
I’m not a fan of limoncello in general. Traditionally made from Sorrento lemon zest, vodka and sugar, you get the oils from the zest but no acidity from juice. Every time I’ve tasted limoncello I find it too sweet, and think it would be better with some lemon juice. And maybe diluted a bit. But then it’s basically a lemon drop, which would be okay, except I’m not 23 years old and living in L.A. (anymore).
Our outstanding exec sous, Justine, saw a few Buddha’s Hands at the Ferry Building Farmers’ Market one morning. California spoils us for citrus; although imported Persian limes from Mexico killed domestic lime production, we still have many citrus farmers, a few of whom specialize in obscure varietals.
Buddha’s Hand is an Indian variety of citron used only for its zest. In fact, there is little or no flesh inside at all, just a knobbly ball of pith with many “fingers” protruding in one direction. Getting all the zest is tedious (a microplane works, although I prefer a serrated swivel-head peeler), but the aroma is fabulous. It’s sweeter and softer than regular lemon zest, with less spice and many more floral notes like bergamot and orange blossom. St. George Spirits makes Hangar One Buddha’s Hand vodka, their version of citrus vodka, and it is one of the lovelier flavored vodkas on the market (if you like that sort of thing).
I zested them all with only one incident involving my left index finger and a week’s worth of finger cots. Now what to make?
I set some aside to turn into a tincture, so I could add a pure essence of Buddha’s Hand to cocktails. We have a few of these around the bar (Sorrento lemon, Seville orange) and while I haven’t used them extensively, I like the idea. I fantasize about making hundreds of single tinctures of assorted zests, herbs and spices, and blending my own bitters with infinitely more control over the final outcome than by mixing them all and infusing them together. At the rate I’m going, I should have the best bitters ever in about 12 years. Watch out Bitter Truth; I’m gonna take you down!!
I still had a fair amount of zest, so, really, limoncello is the obvious choice. When I looked up some recipes, however, I found an apparently traditional creamy version made with reduced milk that is rarely seen outside Italy. Since I already know standard limoncello does not suit my palate, this sounded great. As previously stated, I love fat and protein in drinks. And since there is no actual juice used, the milk doesn’t curdle, so the preparation is relatively simple.
The result? Much more luscious and creamy than you might expect from low fat milk. (And I do recommend you use low fat; I used half nonfat and half whole, and it was on the rich side.) It is still quite strong, and thus benefits from being served ice-cold. Or stir over ice and strain, which reduces the richness a bit but is perhaps more suited for a balmy Northern California winter, if you don’t happen to be sitting on a piazza with the love of your life.
Buddha’s Hand Limoncello
2 Buddha’s Hands
2 cups decent vodka
1/2 gallon low fat milk
1 cup sugar
Separate the fingers of each Buddha’s Hand by cutting them apart. Zest each finger with a microplane or vegetable peeler, avoiding the pith. Place in jar with the vodka and macerate for a week or so, shaking several times. Strain and discard zest.
Put milk and sugar into a saucepan and simmer, stirring occasionally, until reduced to 4 cups. Strain and cool, then mix with vodka infusion. Store in refrigerator.