Saturday, January 10, 2009

Experiment: Homemade Liqueur

The term "home economy" has taken on new meaning for me over the last year or so. I've started to look much more carefully at the expenses and the resources of running our household and our mini-homestead. At all times much of my attention is taken up by food issues, and so my attitude towards all the food we purchase or grow has undergone the most significant change. I now reconsider things that I would have discarded or thrown away in the past, without even considering it to be wasteful. Things like chicken skin, broccoli stalks, soured milk, apple pomace, and tiny bits of leftover food. Formerly, I felt no pang of guilt about discarding these things, because I didn't see it as wasteful to do so. Now I see them as valuable resources that I can't in good conscience throw away. I know there are ways to use all of these things to reduce our household budget while improving our lives. And I'm always looking for new ways too.

A case in point. Despite my general insistence on buying local or at least organic, I purchased a crate of clementines for New Year's. I don't eat a lot of fresh fruit in general. I tend not to eat any during the winter or early spring because there's nothing in season in my area. (I do eat dried fruits and a few fruits that I froze over the summer.) But a crate of clementines has become a holiday season tradition. Yes, I know all about the atrocious food miles and the carbon footprint. I rationalize it as a once-per-year holiday indulgence.

So it is that I've been enjoying a sweet, juicy gift from Spain each day for the last week and a half. The peels have been niggling at my conscience. What to do with the clementine peels? I save the peels from the few citrus fruits we buy for cocktails in order to use them in scones and biscotti. But clementine peels are so much thinner than lemon, lime or orange peels. I wondered what I might do with them. I've had little luck at candying citrus peels. But I knew I had to at least try to use them in some way. Then one of my relatives mentioned limoncello, reminding me of this Italian lemon liqueur that is made at home all over Italy.

I'm going to give clementine liqueur a go. My husband suggests that we call it clementino, or clemencello. Fortunately, this type of liqueur is simple to make and I have all the ingredients on hand. I had about half a bottle of vodka leftover from making my own vanilla extract. The only other ingredients needed are the citrus peels, sugar, and time.

It's interesting to me that distilling alcohol in your own home will net you an unwelcome and very unfriendly visit from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, while making your own liqueur from legally purchased spirits is just fine and dandy. In any case, I don't drink much alcohol, and don't care for vodka at all. But if I can make my own liqueur from salvaged citrus peels, I may have a homemade gift for some relatives who enjoy alcoholic cordials. Or, I may come to enjoy it myself.

So here's what I'm doing. Since all the pith needs to be removed from the outermost skin of the peel, I've been cutting the peel off the clementines as I eat them. I do this because I like to eat the fruit segment by segment, but my husband just cuts the clementine into sixths and bites the flesh off the peel. Either way, this produces more uniform pieces of peel than I would get if I peeled them by hand. A very sharp knife with thin blade is essential for easy removal of the pith. I use a boning knife, cutting away the pith carefully, a layer at a time. The trick is to remove as much of the pith as possible without cutting through the oily layer called the zest. It takes a little practice.

If you want to try saving zest in this way, start with lemons or oranges, which have much sturdier and thicker peels. The thinner clementine peels are more difficult. I've found that it's easier to remove the pith in this way after the peels have sat around for about 20 minutes. They dry out just a little in that time, and the trimming goes more easily. Don't leave it much longer than that though, a peel that dries out too much is harder to trim. Expect to take several passes in each direction to gradually remove thin layers of pith. Once you have removed as much as you can, the zest strips can be saved for a few months in the freezer. Very handy to have around when you feel like baking scones.

As the clementine peels are prepared day by day, I'm just slicing them up and adding them to a small quantity of vodka (about 12 oz.). After the last peel is added, I'll give the mixture about 4 weeks to do its thing, and then add a sugar syrup. As it happens, I have some hardened sugar leftover from an attempt at making candied lemon and orange peels. I couldn't stand to throw the stuff away. So now I have a use for it. That sugar will be used in making the sugar syrup, which will then be added to the alcohol. After letting that sit for a few more weeks, the liqueur will be ready.

All I need to do now is find a pretty bottle to store the finished liqueur in. If I can find one pretty enough, perhaps I'll give away the clementine liqueur as a gift. Look for an update on my homemade hooch in six weeks or so.

Update: Here's the clemencello report.


Lost Creek Soaps said...

I have made this sort of thing before. I was very interested to see what you did with it. I have made mine from lemon zest and sugar syrup....and then used it as an extract. I have put it in lemon cookies and such.

Loved your apple cider vinager post as well. I will be doing that very soon.

Love to figure out ways to use things I formarly concidered trash.


suzannah | the smitten word said...

what a great idea! i've made cranberry orange liqueur before, but i love that yours is making something from "trash."

Anonymous said...

The peels are also good boiled in some water on top of the stove to scent the kitchen. Throw in some cloves and a bay leaf or two.

I'm thinking of trying to dry them to add into potpourri gifts that I made this year. I used dry apple bits that were a bit too sharp or small to really be eaten (I dry my own apples). I used 1/8 c mulling spices with the apples, a cinnamon stick and 2-3 bay leaves.

Kate said...

Suzanne, it sounds like you made lemon extract exactly. I did the same with vanilla bean and the first half of this bottle of vodka. Limoncello liqueur (at least in Italy) is always sweetened though, and served very cold in tiny glasses. And yeah, I love finding uses for "trash." When I consider the amount of flavor packed into citrus zest, it seems criminal to waste it.

Your cranberry-orange liqueur sounds divine, Suzannah.

Dogear, the pot pourri sounds like a good use. I just prefer eating to decorating...


Anonymous said...

I can't figure out how to contact you, and I can't seem to figure this out on my own. When you're growing heirloom varieties, how far apart do you need to plant different types? I have no intention of collecting seed, since I have a small, suburban garden, I'm sure they'll cross polinate. Will that effect the fruit or just the seed? If you could reply to me at, I'd greatly appreciate it. Or write a how to post on it, that would be great!

Kate said...

Hi Penny,

I think it's great that you're gardening on a small plot! If you don't intend to collect seed, it doesn't matter how close or far apart you plant different varieties of the same crop. Just space the plants far enough apart so that they get enough sun and have space to grow. Some crops cross easily (tomatoes, peppers) and others do not (lettuce, beans). Even if they do cross pollinate, it won't matter so far as the fruit is concerned. Only future generations grown from those seeds will differ from what you're growing this year.

This much I know about seed collecting and saving, but not too much beyond that. I'm very far from being an expert on this topic, so I'll leave it to other bloggers to write about it. I will be posting more on gardening topics I'm more familiar with, but as you've probably seen, I also post my experiments in real time and report on results as they come in.

Happy gardening!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this idea (and the hardened sugar idea). I am just starting out on the frugality path and love getting these kinds of tips.

Chile said...

I'm sure it will be delicious. I really got into making liqueurs in the past year after stumbling across a book in a used bookstore. Here is my post about it, which also contains links to a couple of sites with tons of recipes!

Kate said...

Ellen, you're quite welcome. Glad to have a visit from a fellow sojourner on the frugality path.

Chile, thanks for linking to your article. Very interesting. I'm especially interested in the cherry liqueur you write about. That must be delicious!

Chile said...

Katem the "Cherry Wishniak" is awesome. We don't drink much around here, despite all the liqueurs I've made, but a shot of this in a cup of hot cocoa is divine! I've also added it to ice cream and I'm sure it would be good drizzled over a yellow cake straight out of the oven.

I never thought playing with booze could be so much fun.