I saw and did things that made me gasp, but maybe shouldn't have, like the rolling hills with these slate spikes jutting out from the the grass, every one of them pointing west. And when we crossed--and noticed that we crossed--the north-flowing San Joaquin River, the one that meets and joins the Sacramento River just an hour away from my front door, and pours out a narrow funnel into the San Francisco Bay, and out to sea.
And then there was the feel of it all--how it was even drier there in those central California foothills than it is here on the west flank of the Sacramento Valley--how it was also just a twist less hot. It was midler enough, in fact, that I hardly broke a sweat in the heat of the day in the shade, and only beaded a tolerable amount on the walk up the hill or while standing in the kitchen, making guacamole without the aid of an air conditioner.
When we arrived we set up our tent on a slope of grass in my friends' rural backyard. That night our feet angled down, and now I know why beds are made to lie level. I woke every hour or so to a sound I couldn't place at first--aliens? fairy prayer bells? I spent half the first night wondering.
I hadn't seen the wind chimes hanging in the tree, but they were there, tuned to gong at a higher pitch than a singing bowl, but no less fundamental, haunting, or beautiful. Not so good for deep, uninterrupted sleep, but no less magical.
During the day I stood around, unpacked a few boxes for the estate sale they were having, cooked, ate, talked, and watched the hummingbirds drink sugar water. Meanwhile, Cedar ran amok, pushed the toy lawn mower incessantly, took multiple walks down to the pond to scare frogs, looked for owls, and got dirtier than I have ever seen him before.
It was, in a word, lovely. And unexpected. And a little unlikely. I had invited myself on perhaps the worst weekend possible, hoping, quite ridiculously, that we could either stay out of the way or really actually help.
To soften the blow of guests in the midst of chaos, and to show how thrilled I was to have my friends within driving distance, I brought a Welcome to California gift of edibles. It was a smattering of random bits I've made and gathered over the last year: quince jelly,orange marmalade, apricot kernals, amaretti, my favorite olive oil, and a small flask of just-bottled limoncello.
The last night we were there, we sat inside, just finishing up some peach strudel, and talked. Joshua tried to convinced us to try the limoncello, despite its potential immaturity. He won and we three stood around the butcher block in the kitchen, drinking the freezer-cold booze from juice cups. It was dark and late, and the boys were asleep, and the limoncello wasn't too bad after all. By sip two, boom, we all got the giggles. Uncontrollable giggles. It lasted all of ninety seconds, but oh those seconds were nice. By sip four we were mellow again.
I can't quite tell you what happened to me over the weekend in the hills near Mariposa. Maybe it was just nice to see friends I haven't seen in a while. Maybe it was nice to eat their food, and drink their margaritas in the heat of evening with really good salsa, and see where they have settled for the time being. Maybe it was just nice to get away. But since I've been back I have finally broken my no-cook streak. I have cooked dinner. I have baked bread. I have made cookies, with Cedar. I have cleaned my kitchen and even made a basil-lime margarita. And pesto.
I'd like to say I'm back, and I have plans. Today I picked elderberries and bought vodka and put them together. And tomorrow, who knows, maybe I'll use my handy-dandy melon baller to make some rose water spiked watermelon salad, with pistachios, and dates. Maybe I'll get some peaches and stop by the store for brandy. Maybe I'll make fried rice. See what has happened? Something good, that's all. Something good like what limoncello did for our last night: a round of giggles, a sipper of sweetness, a mellowing of character, and a loosening of the tongue. For that, oh friends, and so much more, I thank you.
Like most of my favorite recipes, this one is a set of guidelines, not rules. There are many recipes for limoncello. The point here is to start somewhere and find what you like. If the end result is not quite sweet enough, add more simple syrup. If it is not lemony enough, up the count for lemons next time. Too boozy? Cut out one of the bottles. Also, fun alterations remain tempting: the addition of herbs like basil or mint, a swap out of milk like Elise endorses to make a creamy version, or adding a few pods of vanilla.
Need a different way, aside from drinking, to use that enormity of product? Bake cookies, soak a pound cake, pour over ice cream, or make gelato. All of these are in my future.
adapted from Jen's recipe
750 ml vodka
750 ml Everclear
16 lemons, zested with vegetable peeler
4 cups sugar
6 cups water
First Stage:Combine alcohol and lemons in a large, two-gallon glass container. I used a huge, very well washed pickle jar. Infuse for about 6 weeks, give or take a few days, shaking, if you think about it, once a week.
Second Stage:Combine the sugar and water on the stove and boil for a few minutes. Let cool completely, then add the syrup into the steeping booze. Shake vigorously, or stir. Infuse for another six weeks.
Final Stage:Strain the limoncello through a fine mesh sieve. Discard peels or use for something else whimsical and boozy. Next, strain through a coffee filter set inside the fine mesh sieve. Strain a second time through the coffee filter to ensure a perfectly clear result, and a treat that will last indefinitely.
Pour or ladle into bottles and cap tightly. Store either in a cool, dark place, or in the freezer. Serve freezing cold from a chilled glass, preferably with friends or family who like to giggle. Enjoy!