I’ve made a lot of lemonade in my time, including mint lemonade, raspberry lemonade, and lime-y lemonade. But when Carolyn admiringly mentioned that her Cousin Mary had served lemonade flavored with fresh basil, I was instantly furious.
You see, Cousin Mary doesn’t know this, but she’s my arch-nemesis. She’s one of those people who’s always making her own bread and growing her own vegetables and keeping pet ducks to teach the kids what its like to keep pet ducks. Her kids eat sushi and speak nine languages; I think the 7-year old is up for a Pultizer. Mary does all these things rather effortlessly and at the same time, she’s nice and funny. I bet she can sew. So why would someone so seemingly fabulous qualify as an arch-nemesis?
The answer is obvious: I’m insanely jealous. Mary’s daily accomplishments are so breezy and second-nature, all the duck-raising and vegetable-growing and child-rearing. I’m lucky if I use the asparagus before it rots. The Basil Lemonade put me over the top. I was slightly comforted when I googled “Basil Lemonade” and came up with a whole host of recipes, any one of which Mary could have been inspired by. But I think it’s safe to say, bitterly, that Real Simple and Gourmet got the idea from her.
I decided to go mano a mano, lemon a lemon with Cousin Mary. I wanted to one-up her lemonade. I wanted to prove to Carolyn who the undisputed lemonade champion really is and win back her thirsty heart. I wanted to give Cousin Mary the Smackdown Royale (in the nicest, most homemade way possible, of course.) But I needed stronger ammunition than lemons and basil. I had to up the ante, if I was going to return Carolyn's culinary affections to their rightful owner (me.) So I made the only move left: I added vodka.
My first try was kind of a cheat; I muddled the leaves in lemonade, but took the lazy girl's route: Crystal Light. I actually don't mind Crystal Light; it's not as good as the real thing, but it certainly does what it says on the tin. Unfortunately, the basil flavor was pretty understated and the mouthful of wet greenery that came with every sip wasn’t terribly appetizing. Steeping the basil for a few hours in cooled simple syrup produced pretty much the same, wimpy basil flavor, but with the added annoyance of having squeezed 23 lemons. Including the fresh basil in the simple syrup from the get-go was my “a-ha!” moment. Enough basil flavor to know it’s there, but not so much that you feel like you’re eating a lemonade Caprese. Plus, my ingenius combination of half bottled lemon juice (way too acidic and sharp on it's own) and fresh squeezed lemons saved some work. A shot of vodka in the glass, and a frosty Basil Lemonade Cocktail was delivered to Carolyn’s side. She was delighted and I felt triumphant.
Shall we tally the score? Cousin Mary gets a point for the Basil Lemonade concept, a point for introducing it to Carolyn, a point for squeezing every single lemon herself, and two points for making her own bread (unrelated but still impressive). I get a point for persevering to find the best method and fifty-six points for adding vodka.
Good game, Cousin Mary. You're a worthy adversary. I'm just praying you don't demand a rematch.
Basil Lemonade Cocktails
2 cups fresh basil leaves, packed
1 cup granulated sugar
5½ cups water
1½ cups lemon juice
Vodka (optional, but totally fabulous)
1. Combine basil, sugar, and 2 cups of the water in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, stirring once or twice until sugar dissolves. Let cool 30 minutes and then chill for 1-3 hours, so the basil flavor steeps into the syrup. Pour syrup through a strainer, pressing on basil leaves with a spoon to extract all syrup. This will make about 2½ cups of basil syrup.
2. Combine remaining 3½ cups of water and lemon juice. Add syrup, ½ cup at a time until you reach your desired sweetness (I used almost all of it). Stir and chill.
3. To serve, fill tall glasses with ice. Add 1½oz vodka to each and fill to the top with Basil Lemonade. Stir and then garnish with basil sprigs (or mint, if you run out of bail, like I did; see photos) and lemon slices.