The holidays are nearly upon us, friends! Halloween is squarely in the rearview mirror, and it’s less than two weeks until turkey and sweet potatoes. (I know. Say it with me: where did the time go?) And as soon as the bird is out of the oven, we’re in for a calendar-packed countdown to 2011, a happy blur of Christmas tree hunting, open houses, holiday shopping, Hanukkah gatherings, visits with family, cocktail parties, caroling and cookie swaps all the way through the New Year.
I’m trying to be patient, I really am, but I love the holidays. I love the evergreens and the goodwill and the get-togethers. Love. (It’s taking a considerable amount of mental energy to keep from stringing up lights right now.) Rather than get ahead of myself and drag out the ornaments, I’ve found a loophole: crafting hostess gifts for all those holiday invitations. I needed a project that would take about a month and/or keep incredibly well, if it was edible. Early-to-mid-November is perfectly acceptable, then, to make a big batch of homemade amaretto for the holidays.
I embarked on an infused vodka project a few Christmases ago (cranberry-orange turned out to be the favorite, sweetened with a little simple syrup), so I dug out my dust-gathering glass gallon containers to make the amaretto, a sweet almond-flavored liqueur with origins in Italy. (A liqueur is defined as any distilled spirit that’s both sweetened and infused with spices, herbs, fruits, or nuts; the aromatics might be distilled along with the alcohol, or they might just soak in booze, as we’re doing here. A high-proof, neutral alcohol will extract and hold the flavors. Liqueurs differ from bitters only in that they’re not, you guessed it, bitter-tasting.)
Amaretto is typically served as a cordial after dinner, neat or on the rocks, but it also makes a cheerful dashing-through-the-snow spike to hot cocoa or egg nog. There are plenty of baking applications, too, so I’ll hunt down some recipes that look promising.
This is all a bit of an experiment, of course, since I’ve never made amaretto before, and it won’t be ready for a month. (That said, I’m feeling pretty confident about this easy little project, if you care to join me.) I’ll update you with part two (filtering, bottling, gifting) in a few weeks, but it’s all pretty straightforward: mix, let sit, filter, sweeten, bottle, share. (Crafty and thoughtful, yes, but also frugal, since these gifts will cost much less than the customary bottle of wine or Champagne we’d otherwise bring to all those holiday parties.)
The hardest part thus far was tracking down dried apricot kernels (I found them at Rainbow Grocery, a natural food emporium here in SF, but you may need to order them online), which impart the distinctive bitter almond flavor of amaretto. I used gallon-capacity containers to macerate the fruit and nuts, but you can also split your batch among smaller quart containers; your hardware store likely carries them with the canning supplies. I doubled the recipe for a big batch, but it scales down easily and stores well for about six months.
- 1 cup dried apricots, coarsely chopped
- 1 1/2 cup bottled or purified water
- 4 cups vodka, at least 80-proof
- 2 cup brandy, at least 80-proof
- 3 1/2 cups whole, unsalted almonds, skins on and roughly chopped (I found steam-pasteurized, unroasted almonds at the natural food market)
- 1/2 cup dried apricot kernels, roughly chopped
- 1/2 cup dried, unsweetened cherries, roughly chopped
- one cinnamon stick
- one whole nutmeg, halved
- half a vanilla bean pod
In a clean, gallon-sized, food grade or glass container (one with a tight lid), soak the chopped apricots in the water. Let rehydrate, uncovered, for three hours; the apricots will absorb much of the liquid. Chop the almonds and apricot kernels and sift, discarding as much “dust” as possible. Add all the remaining ingredients to the apricots. Cover and shake to combine. Find a cool, dark home (cabinet, pantry, etc.) for your container for 4 weeks, shaking about once a week.
To finish the liqueur in four weeks, you’ll need:
- 1 cup packed dark brown sugar
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1 cup bottled or purified water
- 2 cup vodka, at least 80-proof
- 1 Tbsp + 1 teaspoon almond extract
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- ultra-fine cheesecloth
- fine-mesh strainer
- flat-bottomed coffee filters (sweet-talk your neighborhood barista)
- individual bottles for gifting or four pint-sized glass containers