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Originally published Friday, September 14, 2012 at 12:00 PM

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Limoncello: Lemony sunshine to make and sip at home

Key is whether to use grain alcohol, such as Everclear, or vodka. People argue hard on both sides.

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ONE OF my favorite discoveries in Italy was the limone di Sorrento, the giant oval lemon from the Amalfi Coast and Capri, famous as much for its sweetness as for its starring role in the popular liqueur limoncello. Following the lead of the Italians, my husband and I enjoyed chilled limoncello as a digestive on many warm evenings, marveling at how such a small bottle could contain infinite sunshine. The taste is pure lemon, blue sky, happiness.

If only we could bring the best of the Bay of Naples to the Northwest.

With homemade limoncello, you can.

Though we cannot grow the luscious lemons of Sorrento here, California is close, and any lemon will do for limoncello. I use organic lemons, because the peel soaks in alcohol for weeks, and I want to avoid pesticides and wax.

The traditional Italian method calls for grain alcohol or another neutral high-proof alcohol, lemon peel, sugar, water — and patience. Most traditional recipes recommend steeping for three months. However, with the rising popularity of the beverage, recipes abound for quicker versions. I've seen everything from four days to four months. Common sense tells us the longer something steeps the more intense the flavor will be. Also, time gives high-proof alcohol a chance to mellow.

Key is whether to use grain alcohol, such as Everclear, which is legal in Washington at 150-proof, or vodka. People argue hard on both sides. I've made it both ways. With vodka, nothing less than 100-proof is recommended. I overcame my reluctance to use Everclear (bad memories involving lit matches) in hopes of extracting more oils from the peel. And while it succeeded in slamming the palate with a burst of lemon, it is very, very strong.

Using 100-proof Smirnoff produced a mellower liqueur. All but one friend who tasted both batches favored the recipe with vodka, describing it as "smooth," "with a great finish," "like a melted lollipop." The lone voice for Everclear declared it "finger-licking good." Both were thick and sweet.

To peel the lemons, shave off the outer yellow layer without getting the bitter white pith. Once the peel and alcohol are combined in a large glass jar, store the jar in the dark at room temperature and forget about it. I put a two-week reminder on my calendar (halfway on the patience meter) before making simple syrup to add to the infused alcohol. Then the jar sat in the dark for a month more (nearly full patience).

When you decide it's done, strain the liquid into bottles. Online, I bought cool, wavy vessels ($2 each), which hold 3.5 ounces each and come with corks, to give to friends. If you start now, you might be able to give the bright bottles as holiday gifts. Who wouldn't appreciate a bottle of sunshine in winter?

Catherine M. Allchin is a Seattle freelance writer. Ken Lambert is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

Limoncello

Peels from 14 organic washed lemons, yellow part only

2 (750ml) bottles of grain alcohol or 100-proof vodka, or one bottle of each

5 cups water

4 cups sugar

1. Steep the lemon peel in alcohol in a large glass jar for two to four weeks, covered tightly, at room temperature, in the dark.

2. Stir the sugar and water in a large saucepan over high heat until the sugar dissolves. Cool. Add the syrup to vodka mixture and stir. Return to the dark location for two to four more weeks.

3. Strain the liquid into clean bottles, using cheesecloth or coffee filters. Cork or cap bottles and keep in freezer. Serve well-chilled.

Note: Limoncello will continue to mellow over time; store in the freezer for up to a year.

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