Monthly Archives: February 2014

The Lemon Kiss

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“The Lemon Kiss”

By Brian Brecht

Making limoncello has been a fun little Clubchair adventure. The impetus to make it came from my trip to Italy in November of 2003 (More on this adventure coming in future posts.).

For approximately 100 years, this popular Italian lemon liqueur has been lovingly produced in southern Italy around the Amalfi Coast, Sorrento lemons having always been one of the primary ingredients. As its popularity has grown to other exotic locales such as Sicily, Sardinia, Menton in France, and the Maltese island of Gozo, other lemon varieties are being used. The US has seen a rise in commercial producers using California lemons. The recipe I share below uses fresh organic lemons handpicked by me  from my wife’s cousin’s vineyard in Healdsburg, California.

            Making limoncello is surprisingly easy. It requires only four ingredients and time. There is no shortage of recipes on-line for making the delicious liqueur, so by all means, look around. Mine is not much different than most, but you will find there are minor variations between recipes. Below is what has worked for me for the last few years.

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The main ingredients are as follows:

  • Lemons – 15-20
  • Grain Alcohol – (2) 750ml bottles (Everclear)
  • Water – 5 cups
  • Sugar – 3-4 cups

So this is where the variations begin. You will find some recipes say to use Vodka. By all means, go for it, if this sounds better to you. As with any recipe, booze or otherwise, do what works to your taste. For me, when I contemplated a beverage that has been around for approximately 100 years, vodka was not what they were serving in Southern Italy.  Also, from what I’ve read, traditional limoncello is made with grain alcohol that’s at least 151 proof. IMG_1274That’s more than any vodka you’ll find at the local grocery store. To be fair, I have made a version using vodka and found it lacked a certain “punch”. A close friend has called my limoncello the “Lemon Hammer” so clearly we both liked the added kick of the 151.

On to the process.

By far, the most labor-intensive part of limoncello is the zesting of the lemons. This is one step where all the recipes agree. What you’re doing here is ONLY gathering the yellow lemon peel, specifically the oils that reside inside. What you don’t want is any part of the white, or pith. The more white that comes along with the peel, the more bitterness will be added into your Limoncello. This is not a drink in which you want any bitterness.IMG_1988

That said, again, there are variations in methods. Zesting is easy enough if you have a zester. Truthfully, I did not even know what a zester was until I started making limoncello. I’ve used an apple peeler, a cheese grater and a micro-plane. All will work just fine. Using the standard apple peeler or potato peeler will get you large flat peels of the lemon. This, again, will work as long as again you are not getting any of the white pith. For my version I’ve found the micro-plane to be the best method. The shavings of the peel are very fine and expose a great deal of the oil, which is the primary objective.

As a side note, one benefit to making limoncello is that, after the zesting, you have a pile of fresh lemons that will go bad very quickly if you don’t do something with them. IMG_1994Although it is a bit more work, I took the time to juice all 40 of the lemons and froze the juice. I separated it into 2-cup zip-lock bags, and in the coming weeks, I will be able to take advantage of the fresh lemon juice by making one of my wife’s best recipes for lemon chicken. Also my daughter is asking for fresh lemonade. (When life gives you lemons…) It is definitely worth taking advantage of the by-product and not letting any of the lemon go to waste. Finally, if you are able, add the spent peels to the compost pile. It always feels good to go green if you can.

Back to the beverage. As I mentioned, there is not a lot of effort needed at each step. So for me, as long as I was making one batch, I might as well make a double. It also happens that the lemons we picked were so abundant, I couldn’t let them go to waste. So for many of my photos, just be aware that I’m making a double batch.

So we have zested, peeled or micro-planed our lemons and placed them in a good-sized glass jar. IMG_1992At this point you are adding the first bottle of Everclear (remember, I am adding two). Let this mixture sit so that the lemon oils (flavor and color) will infuse into the alcohol. Now we come to our next point of contention. I have seen versions that call for wait time as little as 4-5 days, others say wait as long as a month. I have always erred on the longer side, assuming the longer I can have the lemons sitting in the alcohol, the more lemon flavor I will infuse into the Everclear. The batch we’re doing here has been sitting for a solid 30 days.

Now that you have waited patiently for a month, this is your first chance to open your container and get a full whiff of the lemon infusion. It is wonderful! But let us not stop here. Next, we need to add a simple syrup and our second bottle of Everclear. But first we need to filter the lemon zest out of our initial bottle of alcohol.

Another side note: I have, in the past, left the lemons in the alcohol, and then added the next steps on top of that, assuming, that if 30 days of infusion was good, 60 days would be even better. In the research I have done, it seems most, if not all, the lemon oil has soaked out of the peels by now, so leaving it on the peels longer just adds cloudiness to the end product. I have to say I agree. We will filter the mixture at various points during the process but the amount of filtering I needed when leaving the peels past 30 days was much greater. I don’t feel that it added anything to the overall flavor.

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So, first, we need to get a large enough jar that we can filter our stage-one alcohol through a strainer, getting rid of 98% of the spent lemon peel.

Next, simple syrup is just that, simple. It is water and sugar slowly stirred over heat until the sugar dissolves; there is no need to bring the water to a boil.

IMG_0628       You’ll know when it is ready as the water will be cloudy at the beginning while the sugar sits in the water. At a certain point, you will start to see the mixture clarify, continuing to heat the water and sugar until the entire pot is a clear and somewhat thick. At this point, pull the water from the heat, and let it cool. I don’t know why, but every recipe I have found specifically says, “Don’t add the syrup until it has cooled”. So here is my warning: “Don’t add the syrup until it has cooled”.

Once the syrup has cooled to room temperature, add it to the stage-one mixture that you filtered earlier. IMG_0634Do not be alarmed if, when you add the syrup, the mixture turns a cloudy yellow. There are a number of variables that can affect the overall color of the batch. Some of the research I have done suggests opaque limoncellos can be the result of something called “spontaneous emulsification,” also known as the Ouzo effect, which is a rapid interaction of the syrup and extracted lemon oils.

Moving on,  to the syrup, you will now add the remaining bottle of Everclear. When added, it helps to thin out that opaque color and bring back some of the clarity I had before, but not completely.

From here you want the mixture to sit for another length of time. Again, there is some debate. I have, in the past, let this stage sit for another 30 days. Some recipes suggest bottling as soon as a week later. I am not 100% sure if there’s a difference other than letting the mixture truly blend together for as long as possible. For this batch, I decided to let it sit for two weeks, then moved the mixture into separate bottles. And before the bottling, I would suggest another round of filtering (or two) just to make sure you’ve pulled all the remaining lemon particulate out of the liquid. There are a variety of methods, cheesecloth, coffee filters, etc. I have, at times, used them all.

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      I think there is value in letting it sit for AT LEAST a couple of weeks, and then putting it into the bottle. But once it’s in the bottles, you can really begin to enjoy the accomplishment and the excitement that soon you’ll not only be enjoying this delicious liquor, but doing so with your friends.

      For me, I had almost as much fun coming up with my own label as I did in making the batch itself. Have some fun with it. You’ve crafted the limoncello to your own style and taste, so lets see if you can get your label to reflect the same flare. For me, it was something whimsical that highlighted the Italian adventure that inspired me. And with that, came my own creation, “The Lemon Kiss”

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      From here, my friends, the adventure really begins. Envision having that fancy dinner party, or perhaps it’s just a few friends over for pizza. You break out your own homegrown version of limoncello. It is a great way to end a perfect meal, and if you have done it right, it helps you remember that Italy adventure you took, or, even better, plan for the one you will be taking.

Just say “Kiss me!”

Salute!

Steinbeck – Part 2

“Steinbeck”

By Brian Brecht & Tom Dietz

(*If you missed Part-1, you can find it here.)

***Our Story continues***

After paying the ubiquitous entry fee, we were stopped by what appeared to be a kindly grandmotherly docent who asked if we’d been to the Museum before. We politely said no, we were first-timers; did she have any tips for approaching the exhibits? After a brief overview, she took a breath, we thanked her, and then, well, then she told us to hold our horses, as she was not done with us. It’s always fun to feel like you’re a kid again, being told to sit still and stop interrupting.  Based on her frown, I suspect our in-unison outburst chuckle did not help matters. She finally released us after several more minutes of lecturing. I’ll note that the folks waiting behind us were allowed to pass unmolested. Must have been our good looks.

Once over the threshold, we were immersed in everything Steinbeck, his early years and family, to key displays capturing the essence of many of his masterpieces. Each display attempted to bring a story to life with key objects recreated or scenes played from movies based upon his stories. We both felt more connected to the writer, the museum doing fine justice to this talented man. Around every corner though we kept expecting Rocinante but had to continually temper our excitement and get back to the exhibit in front of us.

B. – The museum was, I’m happy to say, not what I expected. The exhibits, instead of following “the man” in some chronological order, actually followed his books, and did so in the timeline that he wrote them. So though it wasn’t specifically following Steinbeck’s journey, as each book unfolded, the exhibit pointed out and accentuated what Steinbeck was doing, where he lived, the towns he was immersed in, and how those people and places influenced his words. It was eye-opening for me to better understand how he took people and events in his life and brought them to life with the fictional characters.

There was a somewhat comical and perhaps even embarrassing moment right at first when we entered into one of the first exhibits devoted to “East of Eden”. There, along with quotes from the book and images of life in that era, was a poster from the TV adaptation of the book. There, Jane Seymour stared out from under her stunning dark hair, wearing a white corset, beckoning any man to “join her in Eden”.

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I confessed to Tom, I remembered that image as a young teen and that she helped me through puberty. We both just shook our heads, laughed and moved on, but not without both looking back over our shoulders.

A great quote we came across as the displays highlighted his youth, was from Steinbeck himself which read “I guess there are never enough books,” and in a letter to a friend he described books as “one of the few authentic magics our species has created”.

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For me, having never been a reader when I was young, this seemed to hit home as I realized what I love about books is the escape, the transformation of inhabiting a character in a book when I read it. If that isn’t magic, I don’t know what is.

We continued, now in possession of that small piece of magic. Having read “Travels with Charley,” we had become Steinbeck in those words. But, still, for us, we needed to see that truck to make it real. And, at each corner, it eluded us.

T. – Finally, and the last stop in the museum, we came to the object that immediately brought substance to Travels With Charley, Rocinante. It was exactly as we imagined it, and Brian said as much. Beautifully restored, and with a not-so-realistic-looking Charley impersonator peering from the front cab, “Rocinante” looked so inviting, ready to hit the road again and conjure up new adventures and stories from America. It was actually hard to pull ourselves away from the damned truck, like looking forlornly at a place that captures your imagination but you know in your heart you’ll likely never see again.  Peering from all angles we discussed all of Rocinante’s attributes and even today, could see how inviting an adventure would be in such a vehicle.

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B. – It was somewhat strange to finally come across the object of our quest. As Tom and I passed all the various exhibits, we were genuinely interested in all of the displays we found. But it was tangible, our desire to keep moving, to look at Of Mice and Men and say, “Oh, yes, I see, very interesting…” all while knowing inside we were saying “Keep going!” Now here it was, and we were transfixed.

Why should a pick-up truck hold so much fascination? Why did we stand and stare for almost as long as we had been in the entire museum? It was the magic, that transportation. It wasn’t the truck itself, but it was the realization that those experiences had centered around it. From the front seat, getting lost in an early winter on the east coast, to the back of the camper where Steinbeck entertained friends, guests, himself, and, not to be forgotten, Charley. Where, in Steinbeck’s own words, he would find “…a reknowledge of my own country, of its speeches, its views, its attitudes and its changes…” It was through this truck that those words had somehow helped me through that troubling time. It was now all very real.

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Sadly, at some point, we realized there was nothing more to see. We would each take away with us what Rocinante had brought to us, and now we each had something more.

T. – Once outside, we persuaded a cute British tourist to snap our photo in front of the Museum, and then headed down the main thoroughfare to admire the Art Deco period buildings and find chow.

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But first a distracting antiques shop lured us in to peruse old straight razors, typewriters, and all forms of old Americana.  It was another way, like the museum, to take a look back in time. Nothing chose us to bring it home, even though we could have fit up to a small piano in the plane.

An inviting local brewery beckoned, but only for the food, as a good beer was out of the question (8 hours bottle to throttle).  When we asked the friendly laid-back waitress what was good, she smiled and said her job was to make sure everything was good.  Everything was. I’m sure it didn’t hurt her attitude that there was barely a soul to serve on a Sunday afternoon.

A brief walk to town center brought us to the only taxi in sight. Like in a Norman Rockwell painting, the driver and two buddies were leaning on the taxi, presumably solving the world’s problems, or at least complaining about them. As soon as we got within 10 feet the buddies evaporated without a word, and the driver said, “Where to?”  Well at least this time we all understood where we were headed. As soon as we’d said “Salinas airport please”, our driver, wielding choice explicatives, launched into what his town had become – how it would never recapture its glory days and why does everything have to change. We vehemently agreed, and that seemed to calm him.

B. – The cab back to the airport was less eventful than our trip from it. That said, our passionate driver left us without any doubt how he felt about the state of the town and various other economic issues running through his mind. We rolled up to the airport with ease, paid the fare and proceeded through the once-again deserted lobby.  Not even Dan was there to greet us.

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We opened the security gate and easily found ourselves on the tarmac walking to the plane. In my mind’s eye I saw us walking out, bags in hand or over the shoulder, as if we were other people, world explorers, men of importance and means, because after all, we had our own plane, right? It was a fleeting sensation, but it was one that made me think, yes, this is what we were trying to achieve.

The long shadows signaled it was time to get home as we uncovered 61Foxtrot. Tom ran through the pre-flight checks, and soon it was back to the taxi way and up off the runway.

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T. – Back at the airport we gave 61Foxtrot the once-over and launched back north to Gnoss Field. Another perfect sky for our flight home. It was almost a let-down as we motored over San Pablo Bay approaching Gnoss.  Usually the Gnoss winds look to gain your attention, but they settled down as we drove to the ground.  With 61Foxtrot securely back in her hangar, Brian and I shook hands, not saying much, as there was nothing in that moment that could be said to adequately capture a terrific day. We smiled and went our separate ways, both of us plotting in our heads the next adventure.

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B. – This was obviously not the first adventure either of us had taken – quite the opposite, we are both incredibly well traveled. However, for some reason, it felt like the first adventure Tom and I had together (though that isn’t true either). As friends, as brothers, as fellow Gentleman Adventurers, given the current point in our lives, we felt it was time to step out again as we might have done when we were younger – but now with matured insight.

Steinbeck said, “I am trying to say clearly that if I don’t stoke my fires soon, they will go out from leaving the damper closed and the air cut off…”. He goes on to call it “…a frantic last attempt to save my …creative pulse…”  For Tom and I, we don’t find ourselves in a “last attempt,” to regain what’s been lost, but rather the first attempt at starting our next chapter. Certainly it’s a chance to stoke our own personal fires and find new expression on how we choose to live our lives.

For us the adventures, are always just beginning……..

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John Muir

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Sometimes adventures take on a plan, different than what you set out. Today was no exception. With blocked access to the site of Captain Joseph Walker, we managed to find an abundance of access to information about the amazing naturalist and explorer John Muir. Even finding, at the end of the day, the (somewhat) inaccessable site of Muir’s final resting place. Can’t wait to write up this adventure.

 

Capt. Joseph Walker

A very wet and rainy morning but the GAC is on the move. Today it’s a trip by land to hunt for the gravesite of Captain Joseph Walker. Believed to be the first Caucasian to set eyes on the Yosemite Valley. We’re hoping to expand on his story and adventures in the coming months.