When my wife first came home with an etrog, I was enchanted and aghast. This was before we were married, when we were just beginning to celebrate the cycle of Jewish holidays together. I knew that to observe the holiday of Sukkot, Jews traditionally constructed makeshifts huts, and performed a ritual waving tree fronds while holding a citron, the knobby cousin of lemons which in Hebrew is called etrog.
Our first etrog was a beauty: a large, bright yellow fruit, exactly like an oversized Eureka lemon except for the irregular bumps. I scratched the rind and inhaled, and it was all citrus blossoms, tangerines and limes.
Then Naomi told me how much she paid for it, and I said, “Seriously?”
“That’s what they cost,” she said.
Forty dollars. Forty dollars, for a lemon.
What I learned was that to be kosher, an etrog has to meet certain requirements. The fruit can’t be the result of a grafted tree, and its stem end, called pitom, must remain intact. For that reason, each citron receives careful oversight and handling, and the pricey ones come individually swaddled in tissue, like a Tiffany bracelet, in a fitted cardboard box.
And then they’re tossed.
That is, after the holiday, the vast majority of etrog users throw the fruit away, because there’s no obvious use for a lemon-like thing that is 90 percent rind, with little juice or actual fruit.
The first few years I refused to just toss our pricey etrogs, so I allowed them to dry, thinking they could be a very Jewish air freshener. As they dried into hard brown oblongs, they retained a pleasant fragrance. But after a year, they smelled like dust and looked like petrified turds.
I read recipes for etrog marmalade, but I’m not a marmalade, jelly or jam person.
But then I came across a recipe for etrog liqueur. I like liqueur.
Etrog liqueur is basically limoncello. It also turns out not to be original. The citron is an ancient fruit, and in the areas where it’s grown, especially Greece, it has long been used to make or flavor alcohol. On the Greek islands of Crete and Corfu, it is called kitro. When we were in Chania, Crete one summer, the owner of our AirBnB left us a bottle of yellow liqueur as a welcome gift. It was kitro.
DIY liqueur is simple. You steep the peels in a decent quality vodka, strain, add sugar and more vodka, then let it mature for a few months. The result is smooth, tart, fresh and sweet. You can drizzle some over ice and add seltzer for a Sukkot Spritzer. Or you can drink it straight and chilled after dinner.
There’s something fitting and right about drinking last year’s etrog in this year’s sukkah. I think the word is enchanting.
Makes 1 quart
3 cups vodka
1 1/2cups superfine sugar
Peel 3 citrons – avoid the bitter white pith.
Put the peel in a 1-quart bottle with 2 cups vodka and close up for a week or longer.
Strain and discard the peels.
Add 1 1/2 cups extra-fine (bakers) sugar and shake or stir vigorously until dissolved.
Add 1 more cup vodka. Shake until clear.
Close jar and store in a cool, dark place at least 6 weeks.
A version of this appeared originally on the blog foodaism.com. For more of Rob Eshman’s recipes, follow @foodaism