Eats: Holiday planning? Secure the liqueur!

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It’s not too early to start planning your holiday gift giving, and an assortment of homemade liqueurs is just the ticket for all the grown-ups on your list. Even if potential recipients don’t normally imbibe, these liqueurs can all be used to drench a pound cake, mix into mousse or drizzle over ice cream.

More than likely, you have everything you need in your pantry and fridge except 100-proof vodka, but perhaps you should have that on hand at all times, too. For emergencies and such . . .

Although I put together several flavors of liqueur in late summer when fruits and berries are at their peak, the favorites I’m sharing today can be made at any time of year. If you have sugar, inexpensive extracts, instant coffee, lemons and cranberries in the kitchen — and vodka — you can create all four of these delicious potions in a jiffy. Set them aside in a cool dark place to allow the flavors to blissfully fuse together in a covered crock or glass jar while you move on to other tasks.

Mark your calendar for the infusion time noted in each individual recipe. (You’ll want to peek at each one occasionally, give a gentle stir and taste.) When you deem them to be ready, pour into decorative bottles you’ve picked up at The Dollar Store, Reny’s or Marden’s. Pop the filled bottle(s) into a tissue paper-lined gift bag or basket, add serving suggestions and off you go to that holiday gathering, knowing you’re giving a unique gift you made yourself.

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One-hundred-proof vodka is recommended for these recipes, although 80-proof will do. For the coffee liqueur (Kahlua), any brandy that fits within your budget is fine. Another tip: Liqueurs should not be stored in plastic.

When I entertain company, I like to end a special meal with amaretto “straight up,” either with dessert or as dessert. Amaretto is a wonderful addition to cheesecake, frosting and chocolate mousse. It’s also delicious in a cup of hot tea or coffee. An amaretto sour, made with sour mix and a splash of club soda, is one of my favorite cocktails.

One of my preferred winter warm-ups is Mexican coffee made by stirring Kahlua into hot coffee and topping with whipped cream. Kahlua is also ultra-delicious served in a small glass with a layer of heavy cream on top. Don’t stir. This is a decadent dessert drink that you’ll want an excuse to have again and again. Kahlua is also another fabulous addition to mousse, cheesecake and other sweets where you want a rich coffee flavor.

Limoncello takes a bit of work, but it’s well worth the effort. A splash of this bright citrus liqueur in club soda with crushed ice will whisk you away to a sun-drenched patio in romantic Tuscany. It’s the perfect solution to the winter blues. You may also want to try grapefruit and different types of oranges. Feel free to mix and match. Soak a store-bought pound cake with limoncello or add a couple tablespoons to your Christmas sugar cookie recipe.

Another little burst of summer during the upcoming cold dark months can be had by adding cranberry liqueur to a glass of Prosecco, champagne or sparkling water. The berries can be spooned over braised pork chops, stirred into cake batter or added to softened cream cheese and spread on crackers. Both the berries and liqueur are lovely accompaniments to a holiday meal, whether you’re serving turkey, ham or prime rib.

Karen Schneider is the editor of Northern Journeys, a quarterly publication that supports the arts. She is also a book editor and a writer who has contributed to the Lewiston Sun Journal for 25 years. She can be contacted at iwrite33@comcast.net.

Homemade liqueurs can be created in your kitchen. From left are: limoncello, Kahlua, cranberry liqueur and amaretto.

Liqueur recipes

The four recipes below make about a quart each, give or take. More than likely you’ll want to double them so you have enough to give away and plenty for yourself! The amaretto and Kahlua can be stored in a cool dark place for several months. The limoncello and cranberry liqueurs should be kept in the refrigerator or freezer.

Amaretto

1/2 cup water

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup packed brown sugar

1 teaspoon almond extract

2 1/2 cups vodka

Place water and sugars in a heavy saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce to medium heat and stir and simmer until sugars are dissolved, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool for approximately 15 minutes. Stir in extract and vodka. Cool. Pour amaretto into a container and store in a cool, dry place. This liqueur can be enjoyed right away, but it’s better if allowed to mellow for at least four weeks.

Kahlua

1 cup granulated sugar

1 cup brown sugar

2 cups water

1/3 cup instant coffee or espresso granules

1 tablespoon vanilla extract or 1 vanilla bean slit in half lengthwise

2 cups vodka or brandy (or 1 cup vodka and 1 cup brandy)

Place water and sugars in a heavy saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce to medium heat and stir and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from heat, stir in coffee and allow to cool. Stir in extract or split vanilla bean and liquor. Cool. Pour into container and store in a cool dark place. I normally leave it alone at least 6 weeks, but this liqueur can be enjoyed before then if you just can’t wait!

Limoncello

10 organic lemons, washed and dried (Meyer lemons are best)

1 750-ml bottle vodka

For the simple syrup:

1 to 4 cups sugar

1 to 4 cups water

Peel lemons with a vegetable peeler to remove only the outer yellow rind. You want to retain as little of the white, inner pith as possible, so trim away as much of the bitter pith from the peel as you can with a sharp knife and discard. (As for the lemons themselves, the juice can be reserved for lemonade or added to other dishes. It freezes very well.)

Place lemon peels in a 1-quart jar, cover with the vodka and close. Allow this mixture to infuse in a cool dark place for at least four days or for as long as a month. The longer you let it infuse, the better. When you’ve decided your limoncello is ready, line a strainer with a large coffee filter and set it over a 4-cup measuring cup. Strain the lemon-infused vodka through the filter.

Prepare sugar syrup with at least 1 cup water and 1 cup sugar to start. Bring water to a simmer and stir in sugar to dissolve. Allow to cool and mix with all the lemon-infused vodka. Increase this sugar syrup gradually until you obtain the flavor you like; up to 4 cups of water with 4 cups of sugar. More water will dilute the alcohol taste, making a milder, smoother liqueur. More sugar will make it thicker and sweeter. Pour into container, cover and chill at least 4 hours.

Cranberry liqueur

1 cup water

2 cups granulated sugar

2 cups fresh organic cranberries

3 tablespoons fresh-squeezed orange juice

1 tablespoon grated orange rind

2 cups vodka

Cinnamon stick and/or a few whole cloves, optional

Place water and sugar in a heavy saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and stir and simmer for three minutes. Add cranberries, orange juice and rind. Remove from heat and cool for 15 minutes. Place mixture in food processor and chop slightly. Cool completely. Add vodka and stir. Pour into a container, cover and store in a dark cool place for at least 4 weeks, stirring every couple days. Once the mixture is ready, pour through a fine strainer lined with a large coffee filter. Be sure to save the berries. 

Toast fall with limoncello and cranberry liqueur.

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