Melinda’s Drunken Prunes

October 30, 2017

Italians love to put things in alcohol.

In the short life of this blog, we’ve already covered limoncello, cherries in brandy, and liquore al lauro.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that I love to put things in alcohol. If so, I’m not alone!

Melinda Orlando and I started working together in early 1989 when I moved to Chicago and became the Medical Director (Chief Medical Officer in today’s terminology) of Chicago-Read Mental Health Center, at the time a 600-bed psychiatric hospital with approximately 7000 admissions per year.


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Melinda and I have worked together ever since. Most recently she and I were business partners in The Mihalik Group, LLC (TMG). Though we sold the company last year, we still do a limited amount of consulting.

In our twenty-odd years at TMG we traveled a lot and ate at a lot of restaurants. We frequently joked that we probably ate more dinners together during that time than either of us did with our spouses.

At Chicago-Read, Melinda and I bonded early-on over a love of good food, especially Italian. Chicago-Read was located adjacent to a large Italian-American community. There were some really good Italian restaurants, butchers, pasta shops, and grocery stores just minutes away. It wasn’t a struggle to maintain my weight in those days so eating lunch at one of the nearby restaurants happened often.

This recipe for drunken prunes came from Melinda’s Grandmother.

Melinda’s grandmother came to the US as a young wife with two children. A third, Melinda’s father, was born onboard the ship. After going through Ellis Island she traveled to Chicago by train to meet her husband.

At one point, Melinda’s grandmother rented an apartment on Grand Avenue and took in boarders. These were day laborers who were working to save enough to bring their families to this country. They slept on the floor of the apartment and used the toilet in the hall. Baths were taken by all at Hull House down the street. They paid “rent” and got sleeping space, breakfast (coffee and something baked) and dinner (always including pasta).

Melinda’s grandmother was frugal, eventually saving enough to buy a building in Elmwood Park, at the end of the trolley line out of the city. The building became home for her and her five children (her husband was out of the picture), a store (selling candy and cigarettes), and a “bar” (providing beer for a nickel and a free bowl of pasta). It had the only telephone booth in the area. Eventually there was a jukebox and it became a popular place on weekends.

Melinda’s grandmother served drunken prunes in a shot glass speared on a toothpick, with some of the grappa poured into the glass.

Melinda’s Grandmother, center, and her five children including Melinda’s father, far right

If not served at family events, the prunes generally accompanied a game of canasta among Grandma’s “women friends” and were intended to be nibbled on. Never were they eaten in a bite or two.  Seconds were rare, though they did occur.  (I’d love to know what the women said of those who had a second prune but that information is lost to history.)

Christmas at Melinda’s Grandmother’s house

Before canasta, there was always lunch, almost always pasta, and dessert, usually pound cake.  Occasionally the pound cake was used to sop up the grappa in the bottom of the shot glass if it wasn’t  consumed outright.  A glass (single, of course) of wine was sipped all afternoon.

Melinda’s Grandmother and Aunt Enes, the youngest of the five children. Enes and her husband gave up their house to live with Melinda’s Grandmother

Drunken prunes were only served in the winter, never in the summer. As to what took their place for those summer canasta games, we’ll just need to wait for the next installment from Melinda!


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Melinda's Drunken Prunes
The amount of sugar will vary based on personal preference. I suggest starting with the smaller quantity and then adjusting after a month. Once you find your “sweet spot” you can put all the sugar in at the beginning.
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Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 5 minutes
Passive Time 4 months
Servings
quart
Ingredients
Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 5 minutes
Passive Time 4 months
Servings
quart
Ingredients
Votes: 0
Rating: 0
You:
Rate this recipe!
Instructions
  1. Place prunes in a one quart glass jar.
  2. Add 1/3 cup sugar.
  3. Add grappa.
  4. Cover tightly.
  5. Rotate the jar several times daily until the sugar dissolves.
  6. Store the prunes in a cool spot out of direct sunlight.
  7. After one month taste and add additional sugar to taste.
  8. Allow the prunes to age for at least four months total before serving.
  9. Serve the prunes individually in shot glasses with a toothpick. Pour some of the grappa over the prunes.
  10. Nibble on the prunes holding them with the toothpick and sip the prune-infused grappa, preferably while playing canasta.
Recipe Notes

Copyright © 2017 by VillaSentieri.com. All rights reserved.

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Liquore al Lauro (Italian Bay Laurel Liqueur)

October 6, 2017

Making liqueurs at home is a time-honored Italian tradition. Limoncello is probably the most well-known but there are many others.

Many years ago at a now-shuttered artisanal Italian restaurant in the Andersonville neighborhood of Chicago I tasted house-made Liquore al Lauro, also referred to as Liquore Alloro.

I was hooked.

Every time I went to the restaurant, my meal ended with Liquore al Lauro.

Then the restaurant closed.

The Liquore al Lauro ended.

And I vowed to make it one day.

That day happened in late 2009 when our bay laurel plant was trimmed back for the winter. There was a pile of bay leaves on the kitchen counter. After I put a stash of them in the freezer for easy access during the winter (far, far better than dried!) I still had a pile that I couldn’t bear to discard.

Out came a book I bought on a previous trip to Italy with my in-laws. I think it’s the same trip where we brought back a copper polenta pot (which you can see in my Polenta post), a grape press, and a super-fancy (and super-heavy) brass faucet that is a gargoyle head with a sea-creature coming out of its mouth out of which the water comes, among other things.

The faucet was ultimately to be incorporated into a garden fountain. That hasn’t yet happened but I’m not giving up.

The book “How to Make Liqueurs at Home” (see the photo below) had a recipe for Liquore al Lauro.

It was an ill-fated first attempt, however. I was using California bay leaves instead of Mediterranean bay leaves. When cooking, recipes often specify using half the quantity of California bay as Mediterranean bay as they are more aromatic. I was prepared to dilute the liquore to determine the correct quantity of California bay leaves so that wasn’t the major issue.

The real issue is that after I put up three large batches of bay leaves to macerate in alcohol, one plain, one with cinnamon, and one with coffee beans, my company landed a consulting contract in the United Arab Emirates.

Late fall into winter 2009 became a whirlwind of activity culminating with my moving to Dubai in January 2010 for much of the year.

A view from my apartment looking out at the Arabian Gulf and the man-made Palm Jumeriah island with the Atlantis hotel in the distance
Another view from the apartment looking at part of Dubai Marina, a 7 kilometer long man-made waterway
An evening view from the apartment

Dubai Marina is a paradise for walkersThe bay leaves macerated for months upon months. When I finally got around to trying to finish the Liquore al Lauro the mixture had turned bitter from over-extraction.

I had to discard gallons of bay-infused alcohol.

A few years went by before I decided it was worth trying again.
This time, I reduced the bay leaves by half right up front and shortened the maceration to four days to avoid any chance of bitterness. I made plain and cinnamon-infused but have not, to date, gone back to the coffee bean experiment.

Because I want my recipes to be reproducible, I do my best to eliminate unnecessary variation. To that end, I weigh and measure ingredients precisely. For this recipe, I use a small metric scale that measures in hundredths of a gram (for the bay leaves and cinnamon), a large metric scale that measures in increments of one gram (for the sugar), and a graduated cylinder (for the water and alcohol). I can assure you that this does not happen in the average Italian household, nor does it need to happen in yours. The recipe app will convert the metric measures to US measures at the click of a button and I’ve provided an approximate count of bay leaves and inches of cinnamon stick that will work well.

The small scale that I use for precise weights

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Liquore al Lauro (Bay Leaf Liqueur)
Don’t be put off by the use of Everclear (or equivalent) the high proof is needed to extract the volatile oils in a reliable manner. The final liqueur ends up being about 63 proof, equivalent to most commercially produced liqueurs.
Votes: 1
Rating: 5
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Course Beverages
Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 15 minutes
Passive Time 5 days
Servings
liters
Ingredients
Course Beverages
Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 15 minutes
Passive Time 5 days
Servings
liters
Ingredients
Votes: 1
Rating: 5
You:
Rate this recipe!
Instructions
  1. Wash the leaves in cool water and dry gently.
  2. In a jar with a tight-fitting lid that holds at least 2 quarts, combine the bay leaves, cinnamon (if using) and alcohol.
  3. Cover the jar and swirl.
  4. Put the jar in a cool spot out of direct sunlight for four days.
  5. Swirl the contents once or twice daily.
  6. On the third day, combine the sugar and water in a one-gallon jar (or other non-reactive container) with a tight-fitting lid.
  7. Swirl the sugar and water mixture every few hours throughout the day, until the sugar has dissolved. It can take up to 24 hours for the sugar to fully dissolve.
  8. On the fourth day, strain the bay-leaf-infused alcohol into the jar with the sugar water. The liquid may become cloudy but will become clear in about 24 hours with the occasional swirl.
  9. After 24 hours, ladle the liqueur into smaller bottles, such as empty liquor bottles.
  10. Seal tightly and store in a cool, dark place for one month before drinking.
  11. Serve chilled or over ice or at room temperature based on your preference.
Recipe Notes

Copyright © 2017 by VillaSentieri.com. All rights reserved.

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Limoncello (Italian Lemon Liqueur)

March 13, 2017

I love mead, more so dry mead than sweet mead.  I first tasted mead at the age of 19 when my college roommate, Ray Hugh, and I visited his mother outside of London one summer.  For some reason, I never had it again but the experience stuck with me.  (I know you’re wondering how this is going to get around to Limoncello but read on!)

Fast forward to the late 1990’s when my husband began making wine at home.  We didn’t have a proper wine cellar at the time, though we ultimately built a temperature controlled wine cellar in the basement of the coach house at our estate on Oakdale Avenue in Chicago…right below the gear works that were once used to rotate the horse-drawn carriages on the floor above.

This is what the coach house looked like when we owned the property on Oakdale Avenue.

We had a whole row of five gallon carboys of grape juice bubbling away through air locks in our family room.  The wooden floors became stained purple.  Luckily we were planning on remodeling the room and tearing up the floor so it didn’t matter much.

The wine was surprisingly good.  We had both red and white.  We made labels for our “Rohkam House” wines that portrayed a picture of the house as it looked in the late 1880’s.  You can find that picture in a previous post.

After a few successes with wine, I asked Frank to make mead.  He settled on a recipe he fancied, though it was not entirely a traditional northern European mead.  It contained honey, of course, but the recipe specifically called for orange blossom honey which obviously has no connection to northern Europe.  The recipe also required some freshly squeezed orange juice instead of just water.  I was a bit skeptical about the non-traditional ingredients but…hey…I was finally getting my mead after all these years.

I found a beekeeper in Florida who would sell me five pounds of orange blossom honey from his own bees.  I ordered five pounds of honey.  I got fifty pounds sent overnight delivery!

It turns out that Muriel, the beekeeper, got two orders at the same time.  My order was for five pounds sent by UPS ground.  Someone else ordered 50 pounds sent express.  Muriel got the orders confused and we suddenly were in the business of making ten times as much mead as we had planned.

That also meant we needed ten time the number of oranges we had planned on to get enough juice.  I couldn’t bear to let those orange peels go to waste so I took out the recipe for limoncello that I got from relatives in Tuscany on our visit a couple of years earlier and decided to make it with orange zest instead of lemon zest.

I dubbed it arancello, using the Italian word for orange in the same way the Italian word for lemon is used to make the word limoncello.

I ultimately served it to friends and family visiting from Europe.  I explained what I had done to make it.  Not one of them had ever heard of anything like it but it was a hit.

Fast forward a decade or two and arancello started to be imported from Italy (often called orancello or orangecello).  While I can’t claim to have invented arancello, I am pretty sure it was not a common product when I got the idea to repurpose the family recipe for limoncello.

Oh, and that mead…it was pretty darn good.  We served it for many dinner parties in place of white wine.  Everyone thought it was wine.  It had that haunting floral quality so like a good Viognier.  Now that we have orange trees outside our door in Palm Springs maybe we can dig up that mead recipe again and make arancello as a buyproduct!

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Limoncello (Italian Lemon Liqueur)
While you will find recipes for Limoncello made with vodka, using higher proof alcohol yields a more consistent extraction of the flavor compounds. The higher the proof, the better. However, 190 proof alcohol is not available everywhere so I’ve adjusted this recipe to use 151 proof alcohol. The original recipe, which came from family in Tuscany, called for less than half the amount of lemon zest I've used here. Over successive versions for over the last 2 decades, I find I like these proportions best. Lemoncello does not keep indefinitely. It is best to use this within a year. Use the freshest lemons you can find for the most flavorful limoncello.
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Rating: 0
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Course Beverages
Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 75 minutes
Passive Time 11 days
Servings
liters
Ingredients
Course Beverages
Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 75 minutes
Passive Time 11 days
Servings
liters
Ingredients
Votes: 0
Rating: 0
You:
Rate this recipe!
Instructions
  1. The starting point: lemons in the tree in Palm Springs.
  2. Using a vegetable peeler, carefully pare zest from lemons without including any of the white pith. Use a peeler that removes the zest in strips, not the zesters that remove little tiny curls.
  3. Weigh the zest.
  4. Combine the zest and alcohol in a large glass jar with a tight-fitting lid. I use a one-gallon jar, though something of approximately three quarts will work just fine.
  5. Put the jar out of direct sunlight in an area that is at comfortable room temperature for seven days. Swirl the contents of the jar daily. The alcohol will not cover the zest so it is important to mix up the contents at least once a day.
  6. On the fifth day, combine the sugar and water in another glass jar or non-reactive container. Stir or swirl several times a day until all the sugar is fully dissolved.
  7. After the zest has macerated for a week in the alcohol, add the sugar syrup.
  8. The limoncello will initially become cloudy as some of the sugar comes out of solution.
  9. Allow the lemon zest to steep in the alcohol-sugar syrup mixture for an additional 3-4 days, swirling once or twice daily.
  10. It will become mostly clear after a few days. Because of the amount of lemon oil in this limoncello, it may remain slightly cloudy.
  11. It is important to not over-extract the lemon zest or the limoncello may become bitter.
  12. Strain the limoncello. Discard the zest. Divide the limoncello into bottles with tight-fitting lids. I like to use 750 ml liquor bottles.
  13. Store for at least one week before using to allow the flavors to mellow.
  14. Limoncello is best served frosty cold, over an ice cube or two. I like to keep a bottle in the freezer. It may get cloudy but just shake it well before using.
Recipe Notes

Copyright © 2017 by VillaSentieri.com. All rights reserved.

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