By Karen Solomon
HOW MUCH OF your time this summer will be spent standing round the barbecue, ribs or tofu pup in one hand, and the same tired beer or sticky-sweet, overoaked white wine in the other? Usually we think of cocktails as the stuff of fancy evenings out – something other people make for us. Or if we're mixing drinks at home, it's the same cheap-ass whiskey with Safeway Select cola we were weened on as teenagers. Fresh, fruit-infused cocktails are the way to deflect the heat and melt into it at the same time. This summer I challenge you to be bold, to be vibrant and memorable, and make the scene with liqueurs you make at home. I don't mean setting up your own distillery or sterilizing the entire kitchen for your own beer or wine (though this too has its merits). But with a few bottles of cheap booze, an inexpensive trip to the grocery, and time, you can be sipping divinely and fueling the flames of the lazy, succulent season.
If you like the taste of lemon drops, you'll salivate for this traditional Italian liqueur, either made creamy with milk or without. Most recipes use just the lemon zest, but the juice adds a freshness and frugality I couldn't resist. After it's finished, keep it in the freezer: the high alcohol content will keep it from freezing, and it'll remain perfectly icy cold.
7 fresh whole lemons. Avoid Meyer lemons if you can – they're not really tart enough. Scrub the skins well to remove wax and residue.
750 ml vodka
3 cups sugar
2 1/2 cups water
Peel the lemons with a zester or vegetable peeler, trying to avoid as much of the white pith as you can. Place the peels with the vodka in a glass bottle; anything large with a lid will do. Save the lemons in a plastic bag to express their juice later.
Let this sit for as long as you possibly can, giving it a shake or stir once a day or so. A month is great, but at least three days to a week will suffice. At this point you'll have a wonderful, sunny yellow infused vodka that's cocktail-ready. If you can resist drinking it all, you'll be rewarded with something even more delicious.
Bring the lemons (or, if you've waited a month or more, seven new lemons) to room temperature. Add the sugar to the water and boil over high heat until you make a clear simple syrup; after the boil breaks, keep it going for three to six minutes. It's imperative to let this cool completely. You can expedite the cooling process by moving the syrup to a plastic bowl and stirring constantly, or refrigerating it, for at least 30 minutes.
Squeeze the lemons, remove the seeds, and add their juice to the syrup.
Combine with the infused vodka (a large bowl works best) and bottle. Again, let this sit for as long as possible. Three days to a month later, you'll have a robust lemony liqueur. Drink this in frigid shots, cut with sparkling water or ginger ale, or drizzle over good vanilla ice cream.
To make limoncello di crema (lemon liqueur with cream), follow the directions through step three, but don't use the lemon juice. Using the same quantities of water and sugar, add four cups of milk (whole milk is best). Start boiling on high, uncovered, but don't leave the stove unattended – the milk can scorch or boil over very quickly. After it hits the boiling point, reduce the heat to a medium simmer and stir frequently for about 17 minutes. The mixture should reduce by half.
Again, cool completely. Combine with infused vodka and bottle.
My German friend Dannie brought me a jar of this stuff as a gift, and I love it so much that I've refilled the jar without pause for months. The traditional German method of imbibing is to dose a cup of hot tea with a shot of Rumkirschen and honey on a cold Bavarian night. This isn't bad, but it's not my personal favorite. I much prefer this sweet cherry juice with a kick straight up, mixed into sangria, or cut with 7-Up or soda water. And the cherries alone, sautéed with fresh pineapple in a little butter and brown sugar, make an outstanding dessert, especially when paired with ice cream and/or pound cake. The best part about this cordial is that it's easy to make.
1 jar of cherries in light syrup. They're sometimes called Morello cherries or sour cherries (though they're anything but). Essentially, they're just preserved, pitted cherries in sugar and water. The size of the jar tends to vary with the brand, and they tend to be Eastern European in origin.
Several cups of amber or dark rum (anything but white)
Divide the contents of one jar of cherries and juice between two jars. Into your half-full jars (hey, I'm an optimist) pour enough rum to fill the jar 3/4 of the way to the top.
Move the jars to the refrigerator and let them sit for at least an hour. The flavors develop more fully the longer you let it sit. Enjoy.
Jamaican ginger beer
I first started making this from the recipe of Michele Anne Jordan in one of my favorite bargain-table cookbook finds, California Home Cooking. I like my ginger beer to be so potent as to make reggae sound like speed metal, so I've upped the lime juice and let it ferment longer for more of a nostril-clearing alcohol kick. Irie, man.
2 1/2 lbs fresh ginger root
1 1/2 lbs of sugar
Juice from 1 1/2 lbs limes
1 package active dry yeast
10 cups boiling water
Wash the ginger and liquefy it in a blender or food processor. Depending on the size of your appliance, you may have to do this in more than one batch. Add a little water if necessary to pulp it evenly. Note that there's no need to peel the ginger. Pour into a large plastic bowl or pitcher.
Add the de-seeded lime juice to the ginger and mix in the sugar. Then add the boiling water and stir until the sugar dissolves. Cover it loosely. Let it sit at room temperature for about three hours until the mixture is just a bit warm – not hot but not cold.
Add the yeast, stir well, and loosely cover again. Let the ginger beer sit at room temperature for one to three days, two being about the right amount of time for fermentation (this depends on the temperature of the air).
Strain the mash well, squeezing out as much of the beer as possible, either through a strainer or by twisting it through a clean dish towel over a clean bowl. Bottle the beer and chill.
Drink straight over ice, or cut with soda water, limeade, or ginger ale, or stir into cocktails with vodka or rum.