One of Spain’s signature desserts, the sorbete de limón al cava, or lemon champagne sorbet, is often served at weddings and fancy restaurants, but is simple enough to easily make at home.
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What is the Sorbete de limón al cava?
One of the most common desserts here in Spain, especially at fancy shmancy restaurants, is the sorbete de limón, or lemon champagne sorbet. It is a frozen drink made by mixing lemon ice cream or lemon sorbet with cava (Spain’s sparkling wine made using the Champagne method).
The lemon champagne sorbet is normally served in a fluted champagne glass with a straw and is garnished with a few leaves of fresh spearmint.
At weddings, rather than serving the sorbet as a dessert, it is often served between the fish platter and the meat platter to cleanse the palate. Yes, it is common to have long meals at celebrations that begin with appetizers followed by a fish platter. Next comes the sorbet which is followed by the meat dish, all of which are followed by the dessert and the wedding cake! You can imagine that dinners at these sorts of events can last for hours.
The most common sorbete that is served is the lemon sorbet “al cava,” (lemon champagne sorbet) but other common varieties include tangerine, lime, or mango.
I decided to make a sorbete de limón for New Year’s Eve this year because it is a simple yet fancy cocktail befitting such a celebration.
How to make a lemon champagne sorbet
Here, many people make these sorbets at the last minute quickly and easily by buying a pre-made lemon ice cream or sorbet and mixing it with cava right before serving. Think of it as a lemon float or soda in a way.
It isn’t difficult to make your own, though, from scratch using fresh lemons. By making it yourself, you can also adapt it and make it in any flavor you choose.
Make a simple sugar syrup
To give yourself plenty of time to make the lemon sorbet, it’s best to make a simple sugar syrup ahead of time. By making it early in the day, it has time to cool off before mixing with the other ingredients. Once cooled, you can combine all of the ingredients and freeze them to make the sorbet.
To make the simple sugar syrup, combine equal amounts of sugar and water in a pan over low to medium heat until the sugar has dissolved. Once dissolved, remove it from the heat source and allow it to cool.
Make a frozen lemonade
The next step to making this sorbet is to prepare the lemons (or whatever citrus fruit you choose to use). First, clean and dry them and grate the peels to obtain the lemon zest. (Avoid adding the white part of the rind as much as possible as it adds bitterness.)
Juice the lemons and add the lemon zest to the lemon juice. Add the simple sugar syrup (or another sweetener) to make a lemonade of sorts.
Once made, place the lemonade mixture in the freezer until ice crystals start to form.
Adding the egg whites
While not entirely necessary, by whipping the egg whites and adding them to the frozen lemonade, you end up with a smooth, simple dairy-free “ice cream” or sherbet. This adds creaminess to the finished champagne sorbet.
To make an unsweetened meringue, beat egg whites until soft peaks form.
Fold the frozen lemonade into the beaten egg whites and place the mixture in the freezer to make your lemon sherbet.
To keep the lemon ice cream/sherbet smooth and prevent large ice crystals from forming, remove the mixture from the freezer and mix it several times throughout the freezing process.
Put it all together
Once you have made your homemade lemon ice cream/sherbet, you’ll want to mix it with the sparkling wine. This can be done by taste. Obviously, if you use more cava than ice cream, you’ll end up with a thinner mixture with a higher alcohol content. If you use more ice cream, you’ll end up with a thicker, sweeter mixture with less alcohol.
Some people prefer to blend the ingredients together to make a more homogenous mixture. Others prefer to hand mix them and leave more of the ice cream on top to keep it more like a “float”. Again, this is a matter of preference, and you can choose to make yours however you like.
Customizing the Recipe
The first time I made a lemon champagne sorbet, I used a simple syrup made with regular sugar.
You probably know by now that I rarely use regular table sugar, but I first made my lemon sorbet in the traditional way for two reasons. One, I figured it was probably best to try it that way first to get a better idea of the process before making changes to the recipe.
Second, by making this with regular sugar, you end up with a light-colored elegant looking cocktail. By using unrefined sugars or maple syrup, the color of the sorbet is darker and doesn’t have the same type look that I’m used to seeing. For me, that isn’t a big deal, but for some, it may be an important enough difference to make them keep things traditional.
Using Maple Syrup
While you can make a sugar syrup with an unrefined sugar instead, you can go an even easier route and use maple syrup. Since then, I’ve tried making the sorbet with maple syrup and it works really well in this recipe. Plus, it simplifies the process.
By using maple syrup, there is no need to make a sugar syrup and wait for it to cool. Just sub out the sugar syrup for maple syrup.
Sparkling wine vs. Cava vs. Champagne
It doesn’t matter which type of sparkling wine you choose for this. You can use an American sparkling wine, a Spanish cava, or a French Champagne. In the end, it doesn’t even matter if you choose a dry one, a semi-sweet, or a sweet wine. It’s all a matter of taste.
I would suggest, though, that you should use an inexpensive sparkling wine for a mixed drink recipe like this one. Save the expensive stuff for drinking on its own.
A non-alcoholic sorbet
If you want to make a “virgin” version of the lemon sorbete, you can substitute the sparkling wine with something else. Rather than use cava, you can use a non-alcoholic “champagne” or even just use sparkling water or tonic. I have even tried it with water kefir and thought it was delicious. I may have even liked it even better than the champagne version. ?
Using a store-bought lemon ice cream or sorbet
Of course, the easiest way of making this at the last minute is to just buy lemon ice cream, sherbet, or sorbet and mix that with the sparkling wine.
Here, the lemon sorbet varies from restaurant to restaurant quite a bit. It appears obvious to me that sometimes it is made using ice cream and sometimes it is made using a lemon sorbet instead. (Sometimes it’s probably pre-packaged and sold from a mix.)
Use other fruit
While the most common sorbet is the one made with cava and lemons, other citrus fruits can be used interchangeably. You can easily adapt the recipe to make a sorbet with oranges, limes, or tangerines.
By changing up the recipe slightly, other fruits can also be used to make a delicious sorbet.
Lemon Champagne Sorbet Recipe
Sorbete de Limón al Cava: Spanish Lemon Champagne Sorbet
For the Sugar Syrup
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/4 cup maple syrup can be used in place of the 1/2 cup simple syrup
For the lemon "ice cream"
- 1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
- lemon zest from 2 small lemons
- 2 egg whites
For the cocktail
- 750 ml sweet sparkling wine champagne, cava, etc. or substitute with water kefir
Make the Simple Sugar Syrup
- (If making the paleo version with maple syrup, skip to step 2.)
Mix together 1/2 cup sugar and 1/2 cup water in a small pan over medium heat on the stove. Keep heating it and occasionally stirring until the sugar completely dissolves. You should end up with just over a half cup of simple syrup. Remove the syrup from the heat and allow it to cool.
Prepare the Lemon "Ice Cream"
- Meanwhile, rinse and dry the lemons. Grate the peel of the clean lemons, obtaining only the zest for flavor. Try to avoid adding any of the white pith as it adds a bitter flavor.
- Juice enough lemons to obtain around 1/2 cup of lemon juice.
- Mix the cooled sugar syrup or maple syrup with the lemon juice and zest and place the mixture into the freezer for several hours until it begins to form ice crystals.
- Add the egg whites to a bowl and begin to beat the egg whites until they form soft peaks.
- Fold the egg whites into the cold lemon mixture until throughly combined.
- Place the new mixture into the freezer for several hours more, until you are almost ready to serve your champagne sorbet. To keep large ice crystals from forming, remove the sorbet from the freezer and mix it occasionally throughout the freezing process.
Put it all together
- When the time comes to serve the champagne sorbet, mix some sparkling wine with the lemon sorbet, to taste. Use just enough to make it slushy and drinkable through a straw. Some people prefer to blend the ingredients together with an immersion blender to make a more homogenous mixture. Others prefer to leave the ice cream on top, more like a "float". That, of course, is up to you.
- Serve in a fluted champagne glass with a straw, optionally garnished with a sprig of mint.
If you enjoyed this citrus and cava based Spanish cocktail, I’m sure you’ll love “Agua de Valencia.” Agua de Valencia is a simple sparkling wine-based cocktail that uses freshly squeezed orange juice. It comes from the Valencian region of Spain.
Agua de Valencia Recipe
If you’d like to know more about how New Year’s Eve is celebrated in Spain, check out my post on Spanish New Year’s traditions.