Twice in my life I’ve attempted to make my own limoncello. The sweet, citrusy liqueur is an infusion of lemon peels in vodka sweetened with sugar syrup. While the prep work can be done in an afternoon, it takes weeks for the flavor to develop.
My first try was inspired by the bright, sunny citrus at the San Francisco farmer’s market, where I lived at the time. I had a recipe. I’d done my research. Part of my lucrative temp job answering phones for people who tried to get other people to buy cheese involved cataloging the monthly issues of every culinary magazine published. I interpreted that to mean read each one as well.
Before I could begin, I needed the right equipment. A suitable steeping vessel could not be found anywhere in the Bay area. This was in the days before every item imaginable was available on Amazon. My roommate, a post-doctoral chemical researcher, assured me he could find a giant jar in his lab. And he did. He also couldn’t understand why I was upset by the big “CYANIDE” label affixed to the front. “It’s water-soluble,” he insisted. “If you wash it properly, there’ll be no residue.”
My first try was inspired by the bright, sunny citrus at the San Francisco farmer’s market, where I lived at the time.
I washed the jar — multiple times a day for a week. I peeled the lemons. I concocted my infusion. Every few days, I lightly shook the jar. Before the 60-day steeping period concluded, I was offered a yacht chef job back in the Caribbean. I only hesitated for a few hours before accepting, leaving my West Coast life, a futon, and my fledgling limoncello behind. I never returned for any of them.
My next limoncello experiment came years later, aboard a large sailboat in the Adriatic, inspired by the summer citrus of Italy. Why buy limoncello from its source when, during a busy charter season, I could spend hours with my hands in lemon juice then wait two months for the final product?
Contractually, I can’t say anything else about the job except that before I had a chance to taste the elixir of my labors, I’d been rendered unemployed.
Third time’s a charm you say? Not so much.
My roommate assured me he could find a giant jar in his lab. He also couldn’t understand why I was upset by the big “CYANIDE” label affixed to the front.
When given enough evidence, I can be inclined towards superstition. I abandoned any further attempts.
The world is not missing out. There is no shortage of limoncello — especially after a bumper citrus crop during a pandemic winter. It’s a favorite of home chefs eager to make and share edible holiday gifts (booze) but who have no desire to roll out batches of cookies or temper chocolate for candies.
I’m not sneering at limoncello or its producers. It’s just that I found something better.
I call it Gunklefruit Juice.
Dr. Gunkle lives next door to my friend. Dr. Gunkle has a great big grapefruit tree. Part of Dr. Gunkle’s grapefruit tree stretches over my friend’s backyard. There are only so many free grapefruits a person can eat, but we struggle through. Years ago, as soon as we finished off the last of the reachable fruit, I stumbled upon an old Alice Waters recipe for Vin D’Pamplemousse. A simple translation: grapefruit wine.
Don’t make that eeeew face. That’s why it has a French name. Whereas limoncello is a straight liqueur meant to be slurped after dinner, Vin D’Pamplemousse is grapefruit, vodka, and wine meant to be sipped on ice, over the course of a lovely spring or summer afternoon and evening.
I photocopied the recipe and secured it in a special plastic sleeve waiting for the next time Dr. Gunkle’s tree was laden with fruit. Years passed; I wasn’t always around at the right time and then I simply forgot about it.
During the spring, summer, and fall of 2020, while the human population of the world faced the reality of keeping itself safe and protected from a deadly and highly contagious virus, the citrus trees of the American Southeast were working hard. The fall harvest of citrus in Savannah was the most fruitful in recent history. Every backyard, front yard, and container garden was gifted with heaping citrus crops. Which means that anyone who knows anyone who grows anything was bestowed with everything from grapefruit to Meyer lemons to blood oranges. My Makrut (kaffir) lime tree, which I grow solely for its flavorful leaves for Thai cuisine, even busted out with two limes.
Next came the jars of preserved lemons and orange marmalade. I whipped up multiple batches of orange sherbet, which I froze in plastic molds for that authentic Flintstones push pops experience. Still, all of my kitchen counter real estate housed overflowing bowls and baskets of citrus. Scrolling through Instagram one night, I saw that chef, podcaster, Netflix star, and wonderful human Samin Nosrat posted a picture of her homemade Vin D’Orange concoction. Like Vin D’Pamplemousse, but with orange. Of course! I thought, Gunklefruit Juice. It’s time!
I scrambled up a ladder to grab my recipe from its perch at the top of a bookshelf. Comparing it with Samin’s, I found them eerily similar. Further research showed that Samin learned the technique from Alice Waters. I was happy to take up their yoke. Or rind, as it were.
Gunklefruit Juice is way easier to make than limoncello. The latter requires thin strips of peel for its flavor (hours of lemon peeling), while the vin d’citrus gets its flavor from the spirits being exposed to the actual fruit and its juice. All I had to do was wash the fruit, cut it up, and throw it in the bucket.
I didn’t even bother with the search for an Instagram-worthy jar. A food-safe five-gallon bucket worked perfectly. I tried not to think about the precedent of my two prior abandoned attempts at limoncello and the myriad ways my life could be upended in the next 45 days. And I definitely didn’t think of it as an omen two weeks later when I flew up to look after my elderly parents upon their COVID diagnosis (they both recovered). Instead, everything went smoothly.
After six weeks of hanging out in my cool garage, my first batch was ready to be strained and bottled. I refer to it as my first batch, because my second will be ready for bottling by the time you read this. No matter what the fancy chefs call it, I will always call it Gunklefruit Juice, even though the citrus came from Libby, Michelle, Jill, Julie, Sue, and Dr. Gunkle, who know nothing about this beverage. You’re free to name it what you wish.
> At least 15 citrus fruits (orange, lemon, grapefruit), washed; cut in half, then again in ½-inch slices or chunks (think: surface area)
> 1.5 pounds of sugar
> 1 liter of vodka
> 5 liters of crisp white wine or rosé
> 2 vanilla beans, split lengthwise
> 4-8 chamomile tea bags
Combine sugar and vodka in a sterilized five-gallon food-safe bucket with a lid. Stir vigorously. When sugar has dissolved, add the remaining ingredients. Stir gently to avoid bruising fruit. Secure lid and store in a cool, dark place. Agitate every few days.
After about two weeks, taste a spoonful to ensure it’s not too bitter and doesn’t require more sugar or the removal of some fruit. Top with more wine if necessary. Taste for complete doneness after 30 days, but it may steep as long as 45 days.
Ladle carefully through cheesecloth to remove all solids. Discard solids or use fruit to make marmalade. The mixture will be cloudy. Pour into bottles and seal. If using mason jars, refrigerate. If you have access to a corker or beer capper, your Gunklefruit Juice will last indefinitely once sealed.
Serve chilled over ice with a twist and a splash of fizzy water (optional).
This article originally ran in the June 2021 issue of Dockwalk.