what the fig?

The first time I tried figs I thought that they were the worst. I was at university and my mum included a packet of dried figs in a package she sent me because she knew they were disgusting and thought it would be funny. Thanks Mum, happy Mother’s Day.

Years later, when I had put this trauma behind me and built up the courage to try figs again (fresh this time), I was shocked to discover that I had been giving them a bad rap for far too long. They are really unlike anything I had ever tasted before; a perfect balance of nectary sweetness while still seeming wholesomely savoury.

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In this part of the world they can be a bit pricey so I have always been a little reluctant to experiment with them but went out for dinner s few weeks ago and had the most incredible baked figs that I could resist giving them a go in my own kitchen.

This is a great dish and so versatile! You can serve it as a snack, a starter or even a dessert, and it looks beautiful!

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Slice as many fresh figs as you like in half, I would say about two per person as a constraint against over-indulging. I’m still not a fan of measuring anything properly so this recipe is really measured in pinches and dashes. Top with a tiny dollop of butter, an equal amount of honey and a sprinkle of sugar and cinnamon. Admire their beauty and take in the scent of the flavours melding together.

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Bake at 180°C for 15 to 20 minutes – it really depends on the ripeness of the fruit you’re using but in my opinion, this is a prime example of when the saying ‘low and slow’ applies.

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A couple of minutes before I took my oozing little beauties out of the oven, I topped each with a tiny ball of goats cheese – it adds a savoury element to make it not-just-a-dessert food and the chèvre compliments the honey and cinnamon oh so well.

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The one problem I find with these bite-sized morsels is how moreish they are – I honestly believe I could eat my bodyweight in them!

 

homemade: pomegranate lemon tea

I saw an article the other day about a retired couple who had embraced sustainable living and the very in-vogue concept of ‘zero waste’ to such an extreme that they took an entire year to fill up one rubbish bag.

Now, I am nowhere near this level of dedication and while I can admire it, I am not completely sure that I could aspire to it. That being said, like much of my cooking, my recent pomegranate obsession (here and here – if you’re interested) left me with one by-product that I could bear to see go to waste – the pomegranate skin.

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Even though it isn’t something I would want to eat, the pomegranate’s skin is brightly coloured and fruity scented, it would be sad to see it go to waste and it also has a whole truckload of health benefits.

Trawling through the internet looking for interesting uses, many people suggest adding dried pomegranate skin to your shampoo and other beauty products for silky hair and smooth skin.

I’m not one to put the hard yards into anything if there isn’t going to be a benefit to my taste buds so instead I made a pomegranate and lemon powder to make tea infusions and flavour dishes in a Middle Eastern or Mediterranean way. Any added beautification is just a bonus!

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Using as much concentration as possible, I sliced the outer layer of blood-red skin away from the soft, white pith, and did the same with two small lemons. You can dry the skin in the oven like I did for my dried citrus peel or in a slow cooker like these limes – I used the slow cooker so I didn’t have to pay so much attention to them. Leave the lid slightly ajar once the pot has heated up and mop up any condensation with a paper towel.

Once the pieces are brittle enough to snap, you know they’re done. Remove them from the slow cooker and once they are cooled, crush them into a relatively fine powder in a mortar and pestle.

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Steep a teaspoon of the powder in hot water for a fruity, homemade tea, add a sprinkling into a sauce for a fruit punch. Or make your own grenadine syrup without any sugar by mixing equal parts of powder and hot water before diluting with ice cold sparkling water.

christmas countdown: stollen

The meaning of Christmas varies depending on where you are in the world. I’m not just talking about the way you celebrate it, or what it means to you – spiritually or otherwise. In every corner of the world, Christmas varies on all sensory levels; the way to looks, tastes and sounds, and the way it smells.

In New Zealand, a typical Christmas is a barbeque of sizzling sausages and an ice cold beer in the evening sun. On the flipside, my Christmases in France revolved around roasted goose and mulled wine, Christmas sweaters and staring out the window at the dreary, grey gloom. I know which one I prefer but here is something about a winter Christmas that is leaps and bounds ahead of the antipodes in festivity.

And that is the Christmas smells.

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This year I have found myself craving those warm, comforting smells; cinnamon, cloves, pine needles and ginger. Instead of brewing up a batch of mulled wine – which I didn’t think would go well with the temperature in the mid-twenties, I decided to try my hand at making stollen.

Stollen is a dense, festive bread from Germany, it is full of nuggets of sweetness and all of the flavours, textures and emotions associated with Christmas. Traditionally made with almonds, candied fruit and lemon zest, I decided to mix things up a bit by substituting in cashews, crystalized ginger and dried citrus peel.

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First things first, you need to get your dried fruit nice and drunk. I mixed a cup of raisins and a cup of candied ginger and fruit peel, chopped, with three tablespoons of Pimm’s – or orange juice if you’re not one for baking with booze. You could also use rum but I like the rich, fruity undertones of Pimm’s and use it in cooking often.

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Next up is the yeasty sponge; combine a tablespoon of yeast powder with ¼ cup of warm water, ¾ cup of warm milk, a teaspoon of clover honey and a cup of flour. Mix into a thick paste, cover with cling film and leave the yeast to do its thing. If your house isn’t too warm, then sit the bowl next to a heater for 30 minutes or until the surface of the mixture is speckled with bubbles.

In a separate bowl, whisk one egg and combine with ¼ cup of honey, ½ cup of butter and a pinch of salt. Toast ½ cup of chopped cashew nuts and add to the mixture, along with ½ teaspoon of nutmeg and 2 cups of flour.

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Add the yeast mixture and the boozy fruit and combine into a thick, wet dough. Slowly add another 1 ½ cup of flour until the dough isn’t so sticky. Knead for five minutes of a floured surface.

Once the dough has come together, roll it in a little vegetable oil and leave to rise. What I hate about so many bread recipes is that it always says the dough will double in size; mine never does and it makes me nervous for the end product. Nervous without cause, in fact.

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Divide the dough in half and roll into flat ovals. Brush the surfaces with melted butter and sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon. I used granulated sugar, but you could use icing sugar or even a layer of marzipan. Fold the ovals over on themselves and knit the edges together, making sure no air is trapped inside and the seams are tightly secured so they don’t rip open in the oven like one of mine did!

Leave to rise for another 45minutes before baking at 190°C for 25 minutes.

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As soon as you take the loaves out of the oven, baste them again in melted butter and dust with a thick layer of icing sugar which will melt and be absorbed into the breads outer crust. Delicious!

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Serve it hot as it is, or cold next to a steaming cup of coffee. On the rare chance you have anything left past a day or two, smear each side of a thick slice in butter and pan-fry until crisp and golden. A decadent, toasty holiday treat!

ode to the pomegranate

I had never really come across pomegranates before I relocated to Europe and was astounded by everyone’s obsession with them. Round and regal, with skin a strong, matte red, filled with tiny pellets; tart in flavour and vibrant in colour, pomegranate was this week’s pick from the market.

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The form of pomegranate that people are most familiar with is grenadine syrup. Dark pink and sickly sweet, to say the French are obsessed with it is an understatement! A guzzle of syrup topped with anything from water, lemonade or even beer is many people’s idea of a thirst-quenching treat.

Me, I prefer my pomegranates the natural way; popping a handful of the little red raindrops in my mouth – a million little explosions with every crunch. All it takes is a bit of a whack on the shell with the back of a wooden spoon!

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What I have also found interesting about Europe’s love of this interesting fruit, is how much it has been absorbed into architecture – in particularly in the south of Spain.

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The word pomegranate is derived from a bunch of Latin words essentially translating into apple of Granada, and oh, how Granada has taken that name and ran with it!

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Patterns painted on buildings and printed along tiles, buildings and fences topped with crowned bronze orbs – an elegant yet quirky touch to theming an entire region.

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a taste of south america – tamarillo salsa

I can’t sit still for long, I try to stay in one place for an extended period of time and it just makes me feel anxious. I am always thinking of future holiday destinations and daydreaming about where I want to go next.

My current obsession is South America, in particularly, Argentina. I went to an incredible Argentinian barbeque recently and while I was being rolled out the front door, my mind started swirling around ideas of how I could recreate many of the brightly coloured, punchy dishes in my own kitchen.

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As you can imagine, a barbeque joint is going to be packed to them brim with meat so I wanted to dream up something a little lighter but still with that South American kick. Taking inspiration from the vibrant buildings and streets of downtown Buenos Aires, the tropical flavours that come with year round sunshine, and what I could find scrounging around the kitchen cupboards, I whipped up a quick tamarillo salsa.

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Tamarillos are such a wonderful fruit; tart and oozing with dark orange blood, hands stained purple from scraping the soft flesh out of its casing is a sensation that fills me with childhood nostalgia. Their flavour is also a perfect contrast to the sweetness of salsa’s primary ingredient; tomatoes.

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Dice three small tomatoes, or a handful of cherry tomatoes, if the seeds are quite watery then discard them. Dice the flesh of one tamarillo, and ¼ of a red onion for a sharp flavour and an added pop of colour. Add them to the tomatoes. Dice one red chilli or ¼ of a red bell pepper; which you choose depends on how spicy you want it – if you’re not a spice fiend then use the bell pepper as it possessed a similar flavour to the chilli without the fieriness.

Add the juice of ½ a lemon or lime, a drizzle of olive oil, a tablespoon of rock salt and another of raw sugar, add a teaspoon of smoked paprika for an optional extra kick if you so desire.

Combine well and leave in the fridge to marinate for at least an hour – the longer you leave it, the more time the flavours have to combine and meld together – after a day you can hardly distinguish between the tiny cubes of pepper, tamarillo and tomato.

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This is a wonderful accompaniment to steak, lamb or chicken, or even heaped onto a piece of toasted ciabatta for a tropical bruschetta fusion.

boysenberry and peppermint sorbet

How to make ice-cream without an ice-cream maker” is one of my most common Google searches. I love ice-cream, I could eat it every day and often do. Because of its relatively similar content to a glass of milk and a bowl of fresh fruit, I have no objection to eating ice-cream for breakfast. My one problem, something that has haunted me for years, is that I can’t make it myself. I know that they say you can leave a tub of fruit and cream in the freezer and store every 10 minutes for an hour to break up the ice crystals, but I just don’t think it’s the same. You aren’t going to get that smooth, creamy texture not will it be as light and fluffy as anything you can buy. I was stumped.

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As much as I rejoiced when I discovered how to make an ice-cream-esque substitute out of frozen bananas, I didn’t want to limit myself to just one flavour. I didn’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on an ice-cream machine (or increase my dairy intake by 3000%), but I didn’t have an alternative to satisfy my ubiquitous cravings.

By the grace of god, or by pure accident, I made sorbet and it couldn’t have been easier! You may recall my recent cake catastrophe involving a large quantity of Italian meringue; the silver lining of that puffy raincloud of sugar was the leftover meringue. Not only is it delicious and very tempting to eat by the spoonful, it is also an excellent base to sorbet.

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The hardest part was already done; all I had to do was decide how to flavour it. Peppermint is an interesting and difficult flavour to pair anything with – you want to avoid creating something that tastes like toothpaste, but you don’t have to overpower the fresh, warming sensation of the mint. I opted to boysenberries – they are tart and tangy; a nice compliment to the sweetness of the meringue, but they also possess a freshness of their own that I thought would work alongside the peppermint beautifully.

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For each egg white of meringue, you want at least one cup of fruit puree. Because I had two egg white worth of meringue before I lathered my cake with it, I wanted about two cup’s worth of stinging purple boysenberry gloop – the equivalent of 500grams of frozen boysenberries. I whizzed them up in the food processor and stirred through 120mls of sugar syrup. Done.

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Upon combining the meringue and the berries, I left the tub in the freezer to set and thicken. Unlike ice-cream, it doesn’t really need to be stirred to break the ice crystals – it pays to if you want it nice and smooth, but you can run a spoon through the shiny purple icebergs just before serving and it will still be perfect.

The flavour combination is a match made in heaven; with each mouthful I was greeted with the raw freshness of the fruit, followed by the sweetness of the meringue, rounded out by a lancing hit of the peppermint – a whole meal in a single mouthful. Silky and smooth, dotted with bursts of boysenberry seeds, I was amazed at just how creamy it was, especially because it is actually dairy-free!

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Now that I know just how easy it is to make sorbet, the world is my oyster; I am unstoppable in my quest for ice-cream domination!

peanut butter banana milkshake

Continuing on the recent theme of drinks of the fruity and delicious variety, today I am going to share something a little different to my usual ware and fare.

I was flicking around on the internet the other day – I am constantly amazed at how quickly I find my very detailed search has moved onto a rather unrelated topic – and I came across a delicious looking recipe on the little kitchen for fried banana milkshakes.

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I love fried bananas; the caramelization of the sugar is my favourite part and I love the granulated crunch that surrounds the soft fruit. I fell in love with the pictures on the blog post and knew that I had to try it – so I did, with a little twist. Bananas are wonderful when combined with peanut butter; a salty crunch meets soft and sweet, and both flavours are relatively subtle so I knew neither would overpower the other.

Thinly slice four bananas, Julie uses two but I adjusted the proportions to be fruitier, rather than creamy… and also a bit healthier! Fresh bananas will hold their shape better than frozen; although they will end up being blended together so it doesn’t really matter. If you are using frozen bananas like I did, and if you don’t have a lightsaber, here is a good method of peeling them if you didn’t have the foresight to do that before popping them in the freezer.

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Melt three tablespoons of butter in a large fry pan, add two tablespoons sugar; white, brown or raw – your preference, and add the bananas.

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Once the bananas are beginning to show the slightest signs of caramelization, stir through a tablespoon of peanut butter – crunchy adds another dimension to the finished product, but again, it’s something that you can decide based on how you like it. Set aside to cool after about 5 minutes.

Blend the bananas with ½ a cup of milk and two scoops of ice cream. I used French vanilla (or as they say in France, just vanilla) but chocolate or strawberry would both make great combinations. Pulse until the shake is at a smooth consistency and it’s ready to enjoy.

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The flavour combination is one of the oddest I have ever tasted; the glass is packed with four bananas so I know it has a decent amount of nutritional value, but it tastes so sinfully good that I just don’t believe that. Maybe that has something to do with all of the ice cream?

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As someone who isn’t particularly a ‘health foods’ person, this peanut butter banana shake is a great, healthy dessert option, or something I would feel really good about drinking for breakfast, just don’t ask for any nutritionists’ opinions on that idea…

limoncello granita

We all know Italy as the land of pizza and pasta, beaches almost as beautiful as the people and so much sunshine it seems unfair to the rest of the world. It is one of the most widespread and well-known food localities, and we all have a favourite Italian dish which has no doubt, been bastardised by inauthentic interpretation. But there is so much more to discover than pizza and pasta; it is a nation of food just waiting to be discovered.

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Woody smoke fills the air, competing with the noise of the restaurant crammed to the brim with patrons giddy off wine and delicious food. An evening in the Ligurian countryside is always an evening of discovery; a hearty meal of panigacci (see above; a dish that I am too timid to ever attempt to recreate!) followed by this boozy little treat: Limonita.

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Pale and tangy, slushy with a little crunch, limonita is essentially a limoncello granita. Icy and easy to drink, it is a great after dinner digestive on balmy summer nights – and so easy to make at home!

I have had to do a little experimentation with this recipe because nothing I have found on the internet sounds anything like the way it was explained to me – although that could just be due to a lack of a common language. You might want to adjust the quantities of each element, but this is how it got my tastebuds tingling.

Step one: fill a champagne flute with crushed ice.

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Step two: add a shot of cream.

Step three: add a shot of limoncello.

Step four: add a tiny dash of vodka.

Finally, give it a bit of a stir and you’re ready to go!

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The trick is to get the balance of cream and ice just right; it is essentially a dessert drink, so fresh and creamy that you should be able to close your eyes and feel like you’re drinking ice-cream with the zesty lemon flavour lightly prinking your tongue.

If you are in the mood for a for something with a little more punch, you can make a dairy-free version; replace the cream with a shot of vodka and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and away you go.

banana almond muffin pudding

The heart wants what it wants, and so does the stomach. During winter I don’t give strawberries a second thought but I could eat them any day of the week when they are in season. But there are some foods that you can’t help but crave – regardless of the season and once your head starts asking for it, your stomach won’t stop needing it until it is satisfied. The other day, despite the humidity, I decided that I needed bread pudding.

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Maybe it was the little bout of rain we had last week that make we want to curl up on the couch with a nice, steaming bowl of pudding. I am not one to ever deprive my stomach of what it wants – it really is the force that drives, and controls me, so I made this little variation of a traditional bread pudding.

I am not a huge stickler for sticking too close to a traditional recipe; if you can change it to make it better – do it! While a bread pudding usually uses bread (as per the name), I have seen it made with brioche and croissants so I don’t think anyone is going to be too scandalised by the fact that I made mine with muffins.

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To begin, break or cut three large and slightly stale muffins into eight chunks each. You could use three croissants or pain-au-chocolat instead of muffins, or six slices of white bread. The muffins I used were banana and almond flavoured which I knew would give the pudding a lovely moreish flavour and it also meant that I wasn’t going to have to add much else to make it delicious – the work was already done for me!

Place the muffin pieces into a baking dish and set aside. In a recipe using just bread, pouring a little melted butter over top of the bread chucks is recommended, but these muffins were practically bleeding butter so I decided to skip this step for time’s sake.

For each muffin that you use (or for each two slices of bread) whisk one egg, a ¼ cup of sugar and a ½ cup of milk with a teaspoon each of vanilla and cinnamon. This is essentially going to form he custard that the bread absorbs.

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“Custard-soaked bread” is not a description that does this dish any justice, so we need to make it a little more exciting. Sprinkle about a ½ cup of dried fruit or chocolate drops over the bread and pour over the custard mixture. You could use raisins, pistachio nuts or even cubes of apple. As I mentioned, my muffins already had banana in them and were topped with almond slithers, but I topped mine with fresh slices of banana and a few dried cranberries for a little colour.

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Bake your assembled pudding at 175°C for 45minutes until crisp and golden on top.

A nice crunch on top, and an oozy warmth in the centre; folds of bread filled with bursts of custard – just what the doctor ordered! And by doctor, I mean my stomach. Enjoy piping hot while staring out the window as the rain runs down the window, like tears at the realisation that summer will eventually finish, or refrigerate overnight to enjoy as a cooling treat in the midday heat. Or eat the leftovers for breakfast. I did, and trust me, your arteries might not thank you, but your taste buds surely will!

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oh oh limoncello

“So you just shot it?” “Yeah, that’s how we do it in Italy.” My introduction to limoncello, followed by an acidic burning sensation lancing down my throat, a sensation I can only imagine is not too dissimilar to gasoline. Save to say, you aren’t actually meant to shot limoncello, and a gaggle of Italians chuckling at the sight of two spluttering tourists confirmed that it was not how they do it in Italy.

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Limoncello is sweet and syrupy, glowing yellow like the warm Italian lemons which lend it both its name, and its tang. Served ice cold, the subtle aromas are perfectly refreshing on a balmy summer’s night. Aromas that I found out the hard way, are followed up by a brick wall of hard liquor – commercially brewed with an alcohol content our about 24%, many Italian nonni consider themselves limoncello-producing connoisseurs, who opt for a staggeringly higher number.

Even though limonello is seen as an exotic after-dinner liqueur, it is by no means difficult to produce – I tried it, and here’s proof.

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Step one is relatively easy, buy a big jar, some lemons and some alcohol. Any kind of alcohol. Okay, not quite, but almost – any non-flavoured, clear grain alcohol. I chose vodka because the alternative was gin, and gin is reminiscent of rather awful university days. If you are feeling like a bit of a big spender, opt for 100 proof; 80 proof will give you a slightly different end product but will do (that’s what I did, so I will talk about those difference later).

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With a paring knife or vegetable peeler, remove the rind from one lemon for each 100ml of alcohol you are using. Things to take into consideration include, but are not limited to, the size of your jar – mine was a 500ml jar so I used 400ml of 80 proof vodka and therefore, 4 lemons.

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Make sure you have included as little of the lemons’ pith as possible, dump your lemon rind into your jar and plonk the vodka on top. Screw the lid on top of the jar, place it into a dark cupboard and there, the hardest part is done.

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Give the jar a swirl at least once a day to get the flavours mingling- they will be well mingled in around for days, but they longer you leave it, the deeper and more infused it will become. I waited a month, I dare you to do the same.

Once you are sick of waiting, buy a funnel and make sure you have drunk the leftover vodka so you are left with a nice, big, empty bottle. Strain the warm, golden liquid and transfer into the bottle – take a moment to truly take in its beauty. Then take a moment to make some sugar syrup. The amount of sugar syrup you will need depends solely on your tastebuds and partly on the strength of the alcohol you used. If you used 80 proof (like me), you will need to use less than if you used 100 proof, otherwise you risk making it too sweet and altering the chemical balance which can lead to you limoncello freezing solid (also, like me). Using the previous lemon algorithm, begin with 1/8 cup of sugar, and 1/8 cup of water per lemon – you can always add more, but you can’t take it away.

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Heat the syrup until the sugar has dissolved and leave to cool slightly before adding to the lemony liquor. Once it has cooled, pop it in the freezer until it is ready to serve. Chances are, if you used 80 proof it might still freeze, if that happens, just keep it in the fridge and serve with an ice cube.

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So, how do I think this little experiment went?

failure: technically
success: practically
delicious: obviously