The Power of Liqueurs
by Anthony Scanio, Chef de Cuisine for Emeril’s Delmonico
as told to Marla Norman, Publisher
Here at Emeril’s Delmonico, we proudly offer our guests a great variety of house made liqueurs. If we’re particularly fond of you, we’ll even offer them to you gratis as a sign of hospitality. Indeed, that was my original motivation for the liqueurs — to replicate the kind of warmth and hospitality my wife and I were lucky enough to experience on more than a few occasions in Italy. As a consequence, the first liqueur we offered here at Delmonico was the liqueur we were offered most often in Italy- Limoncello. I don’t pretend that our Limoncello taste exactly like the homemade Limoncelli on the Sorrento Peninsula or Amalfi Coast. Nevertheless, our Limoncello is a delicious, lighthearted way to end a meal here at Delmonico.
During the winter we grow a fair amount of citrus here in southern Louisiana. Of course, we’re most famous for our satsumas. Their thin skin, which easily separates from their flesh, makes them perfect for eating out of hand. That same thin skin, however, makes them unsuitable for liqueurs because it is impossible to remove their zest ( the flavoring component of citrus liqueurs) without including a fair amount of the bitter pith. In short, it doesn’t work. On the other hand, our Louisiana Blood Oranges make for a very fine Blood Orangecello which we also feature on our menu.
From the late winter to spring we also have a wonderful strawberry harvest here in South Louisiana. We macerate these seasonal treats into grappa for our Louisiana Strawberry Grappa. It combines the wonderful nose of a bowl of ripe strawberries with the smooth glycerin mouthfeel of grappa. This liqueur is unusual because it is our only liqueur that doesn’t utilize a neutral spirit (100 proof vodka) as its base. Like all our other liqueurs, however, it does include a bit of simple syrup to balance the alcohol.
Walnut trees do not care for the humidity of the Gulf Coast. I, however, love Nocino. I still recall more than fondly the afternoon in Cisternino, Puglia ten years ago when Rodolfo Guiti befriended us, and an hour or two later we’re at his sister Anna’s home and she is offering us homemade Nocino and telling us how to make our own. You see, on the evening of the Festival of St. John the Baptist – June 24 – you have to pick the green walnuts from the tree. For a liter of neutral spirit, she explained, you need about 12 green walnuts. Quarter them and put them in the spirits. Add a vanilla bean, a couple of cloves, half a cinnamon stick and close up your spirits and put them in a dark place for forty days. Strain out your walnuts and aromatics and to your now black liquid, add some sugar water. How much? Enough. Is it ready now? No, no, no! You must wait and open and enjoy on Christmas. We’ve got it year round at Delmonico.
During my stay in Italy, I discovered a book entitled Profumi di Sicilia by Giuseppe Coria. I carried the book home with me – at 669 pages it’s a hefty volume. Within the book, I found a recipe for a liquor called Elisir dei Sette Potenti or Elixir of the Seven Powers. I was immediately intrigued. Elixir? Seven Powers? What sort of alchemy is this?
Well, needless to say I had to figure this magical liquid out myself because in typical Italian cookbook fashion, the recipe is simply a list of ingredients with no amounts or ratios given. Over the course of a couple of trial batches at the restaurant we were able to create our own ratio and technique which are guaranteed to wow our guests as they sip contentedly after their meal. The seven “powers” refer to each of the seven ingredients- saffron, anise seed, fresh mint, cinnamon, clove, vanilla bean, and orange flower water – which are steeped in neutral spirit for well, seven days naturally, and then we add a bit of simple syrup and then traditionally one must wait, you guessed it, seven days before enjoying. And these simple ingredients over the course of this time are transformed into a golden liquid which carries hints of all the individual ingredients but which tastes of something new and wonderful. In short, the base ingredients are changed into a golden Elixir of the Seven Powers. Alchemy indeed!
Interestingly, Signore Coria mentions how he himself discovered the liquor in an old unnamed recipe book. And so 30 plus years since he originally published the recipe I go around telling everyone how I discovered the Elixir in an old Sicilian cookbook. Perhaps one day in the future someone will tell his guests the story of how he found the recipe by this Scanio guy for this elixir thing.
Well, those are the liqueurs on our menu. We also have a couple off-menu liqueurs as well. We occasionally make a Bay Leaf Liqueur. It is simply fresh bay leaves, spirit, and simple syrup. It has an herbal almost Chartreuse like flavor. I truly believe that it does aid in digestion after a large meal. I first enjoyed some after such a meal including some horse involtini at Cucina Casereccia in Lecce, Puglia. We also make an Arugula Liqueur-Rucolino – with some locally grown arugula. This is a specialty of the Island of Ischia in the Gulf of Naples. And no it doesn’t taste at all as if you are drinking a salad. Rather, you taste a bit of mint and citrus ( which are also in the liqueur) and finish with some arugula pepperiness.
The Picayune’s Creole Cookbook which was first published in 1902 or so, and has never gone out of print, is a great source of information about the popularity of homemade liqueurs in old New Orleans. Many are ratafias which refer to fruit macerated in spirit to which sugar is added. Most Italian recipes for these start with a neutral spirit. The Creoles of early 20th Century New Orleans preferred cognac or brandy as their base spirit according to the Creole Cookbook. Mary Land’s 1969 New Orleans Cuisine is also a great source for the sorts of liqueurs New Orleanians made in their homes once upon a time. In fact, she has a recipe for an Elixir herself and in typical New Orleans fashion, brandy is the base spirit. Maybe I’ll make that one soon. Also want to figure our own version of Southern Comfort. It was, after all, created by a New Orleans bartender.
Scanio didn’t begin his culinary career until he was in his late ’20s, when he decided to shift his career path from English teacher to chef, enrolling in Delgado Community College’s culinary arts program in New Orleans. He cut his chops in the industry at New Orleans restaurants Café Indo followed by Herbsaint, where he studied under James Beard award-winning chefs Donald Link and Stephen Stryjewski.
He and his wife then moved to Italy, where he spent about a year studying the country’s cuisine and staging in Rome. Scanio joined the Emeril’s family at Delmonico in 2005 as a line cook. Today, he leads the kitchen at Delmonico and oversees all facets of its culinary operations, from sourcing products, to managing the restaurant’s in-house dry-aging program for beef, duck and charcuterie, to working with local farmers, and crafting ambitious nightly tasting menus for guests at his kitchen table.