Why I Love Handmade Soap

lavender cocoa butter soap on wheat plate

About mid-spring, I got stuck on the idea that I wanted to make my own soap. Now, soap and I have not had a particularly happy history. It’s not that I have trouble with lye or fragrance (though I do try to avoid frangrance with phthatlates), it is simply that I have dry skin, and sometimes, using commercial soap was akin to dousing myself with itching powder–and then combine that with our hard water, look out.

I always had better luck with handmade soap. I tried Soap for Goodness Sake and absolutely fell in love with Nuture Botaincals and Bazil Essentials, which is a local-to-me company that I cannot recommend enough if you are in the market for vegan body products. I could lather up with these soaps and get out of the shower and not feel like my skin was going to snap Cassandra from Dr. Who style.

lavender cocoa butter soap bars

So what’s the big difference? Most commercial soap are made with Sodium Laueth Sulfate which is a detergent and skin irritant. Mixing it with oils make it resemble soap, but it more strips grease than cleans, hence the getting out of the shower and diving straight into a bucket of lotion. With traditional soap, yes, made with lye, the soap gently loosens dirt and debris off your skin as it lathers, but the oils in the bar also moisturize your skin. Since I switched to completely handmade bath products, I haven’t needed lotion at all. (Obligatory disclaimer: This is all totally my experience from n=1 experimentation with soaps. These statements are not to be taken as medical advice.)

lavender cocoa butter soap

I spent most of the month of June reading up on oils and their different properties–which ones make a super sudsy moisturizing bar, and which ones make a nice hard bar that one dissolve immediately in the shower. I discovered that my favorite oil is probably cocoa butter. It’s rich, creamy, supremely moisturizing, and makes the kitchen smell like fresh chocolate while you’re working with it.

lavender cocoa butter shave and shampoo bar

The chocolate smell, unfortunately, does not last through the soapmaking process, but the properties of the butter do. The lavender soap I’ve been sharing photos of has cocoa butter, castor oil, and just a little bit kaolin clay, which gives it such a creamy, rich lather that is perfect for shampooing or shaving. Plus, it’s really pretty.

Lavender Infused Soap

The second batch of soap I made with my soap making kit from brambleberry.com was a small batch of lavender infused soap. I used the recipe that came along with the kit, but instead of mixing my lye with plain old water, I boiled some lavender buds I had laying around–they were food grade, and I had always planned to make ice cream with them, but never had–and soap seemed a great way to make use of them. It’s hard not to love a classic, relaxing scent like lavender.

I was still working with the cardboard mold that came with the kit, and as I discussed last time, I wasn’t completely thrilled my soap biscottis. I wanted soap bars, so I did surgery on my mold.

modifying a cardboard soap mold

I finally found a use for that washi tape I had lying around. (I’m not even sure where it came from, but it’s pretty funny.) By shortening the mold, I was able to make the soap taller.

lavender soap2
It almost looks like regular soap bars! It’s still a little short and wide, but it seems like it will be a little bit more practical to use in the shower.

lavender soap
I sprinkled a few buds over the top of the soap, but because I was still wearing some honking big rubber gloves, it was really more of a dump. Overall, I like the effect. And it smells wonderful. I added just a few drops of lavender essential oil, but I’m thinking most of the scent comes from the infusion. Next I need to get some little reusable tea bags and start infusing some olive oils.

Pogona Progress

pogona progress
In my few free minutes over the last two weeks, I have been knitting on my pogona, not without progress.

pogona on the needles
One of the best things about knitting stripes is that I don’t want to stop. I want to see what it’s going to look like after the next stripe. And the next stripe. I’ve stayed up way too late a couple of nights doing this.

cozy stripes
This might be one of the coziest looking things I have ever knit. I give all the credit to the handspun. It makes me wish it wasn’t going to be 100 degrees outside today so I could cuddle up with it.

Weekend Garden Update

We are finally starting to have some summer harvests, though the going is slower than I expected. Part of it might be that we got a bit of a late start, and part of it may be that it’s our first year in clay-y soil. Does anybody know any good cover crops for us to lay down in our beds for the winter? Or would it be best to mulch really heavily with compost and newspaper?

the summer harvest has begun

The tomatoes are ripening. The peppers are growing, even though the bushes they are on remain small. The cucumbers are doing what cucumbers do, but getting them enough water is a problem. They are all balloon shaped because it’s so dry–a problem I have never had before. The eggplants, like the peppers, are small, but producing one or two slender little ichibans at a time.

So far, we have one zucchini. One. I thought we would have six billion, but our zucchinis aren’t producing very many fruits. The little ones keep sprouting up, but they don’t ever seem to take. The blossom is about to fall off our one fruit, so I’m going to cut it tomorrow and hope the rest of the little ones catch up.

My main triumph is that I made salsa with the peppers and tomatoes you see in the bowl above, along with a handful of cilantro–all from the garden. Delicious.

How’s your garden doing?

The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Livng

country living book

One of the few pleasure trips my husband and I have made since Felix was born was to Barnes & Noble for Brock’s birthday in May. While it was for his birthday, I came away with a pretty great find. (Don’t worry he found plenty of good stuff too.)

gardening country living book

The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Living was in the sale section at Barnes & Noble and was about 80% off. I picked it up and flipped through it while Brock and Felix were perusing books by Richard Feynman and Carl Sagan, and I was hooked right away.

This book is definitely an encyclopedia. It’s a quick reference to a lot of different things. Obviously, the craft section is my favorite. It tells you how to do all of the following fun things.

basketry country living book

candles country living book

soap making country living book

They also have small tutorials on knitting and spinning and beekeeping and gardening. There is a lot of practical advice too. There is a whole chapter on building furniture–which has kind of got me hankering to invest in some power tools.

There’s also this
main objective

and this

smoking fish country living book
(that’s fish in a smoker)

One of the most valuable sections in this book is the section on canning.
canning country living book

Buried in the middle of this encyclopedia is a 120 page book on canning, which pretty much makes the book worth the full cover price alone.

I love this book.

I like to flip through the pages for inspiration, because the photography is phenomenal, and the subject matter in dear to my country-loving heart. It’s one of those books that you’re glad when you have when you don’t have internet access.

Also, now I really want to try my hand at basketry. Anybody with me?

Beginner’s Cold Process Soap Making Kit from Brambleberry.com

brambleberry soap kit

A few weeks ago, I started doing a bunch of research about making soap. What directly sparked my research, as I have noted earlier, was a customer in one of the store I run at my day job, complaining that my handmade soap had lye in it. After I told her that all soap had lye in it, I decided to Google it just to be sure. Sure enough, lye and fat makes soap. This article from humblebeeandme explains it pretty well, and if you ever wondered about soap, it’s a great read.

I’ve had a passive interest in soap for awhile, but hadn’t really pursued it. It was a very passive interest, as in, I would click on pins that claimed to be soap recipes and all it would be was adding essential oils to Dr. Bronner’s soap. I would click away, frustrated, because I wanted to know how to make the Dr. Bronner’s, but not enough to look it up directly.

The first soap making supply website I came across was brambleberry.com, and ordered their beginners cold process soap kit almost immediately. I ordered it before I really understood what was in it or really how to make soap with it once it arrived.

The kit contained four types of oil, lye, fragrance oil, and a box to use as a mold. (I had to supply the gloves, goggles, bowls, measuring cups, thermometers, and stick blender, etc.

Now, I didn’t know all that much about soap making when I ordered the kit, and I was so excited to find a concise set of supplies, that I didn’t realize the kit included palm oil until after I had paid for it–and I didn’t realize what the palm oil was for when it came to soap making. I did know that palm oil is often used in foods instead crisco to avoid trans fats, and I also knew about the toll it is taking on Indonesia. Even though Brambleberry’s palm oil is RSPO certified, I still have reservations about using palm oil. In cooking, palm oil is a fat that can be easily substituted with butter, lard, or tallow, or shortening if you don’t use animal products. As far as my reading has gone in soap, palm oil is one of the only hardening oils that does not come from an animal. I hesitate to to call it vegan, like so many soapers do, because to me, anything that takes that large a toll on it’s local community is not vegan by any stretch of the word. To me, it’s far more preferable to use lard or tallow, because I can buy it from local farmers or butchers, and because a lot of the time, it gets thrown out anyway. Making soap is a great way to start using all of the animal that has already given it’s life. Plus, traditionally, soap was made with animal fats, and I can get behind that.

So anyway, the soap you are about to see was made with palm oil, because I had paid for it, and I felt responsible to use it. I had enough palm oil for two small batches of soap, and have since switched to lard. I am now getting off my soapbox. (Tee hee, see what I did there?)

cranberry fig soap

Overall, I think this is a great kit for someone to get if they want to try out cold process soap making, but aren’t sure they want to make a habit of it. The mold you receive is a cardboard box, which is a good size, and show’s a new soap maker how to be creative, but I don’t think the size matches the recipe given. I think, when someone makes soap for the first time, they want the soap to turn out in nice bars, not in little biscotti pieces (I’ve been calling this batch of soap biscottis, which is just about what size these bars are.) I understand why the mold is what it is, but I wish either the size or the recipe were different.

cutting soap
I got my crinkle cut soap cutter at Michaels. Perhaps I am just a novice, but to me, handmade soap is more fun if it’s crinkle cut.

The kit also came with a cranberry fig fragrance oil. While not an unpleasant scent, I find that I am not all that fond of fragrance oils. I prefer a subtler scent, and am naturally just more drawn to essential oils–but the oil in this kit taught me that, so it’s a valuable lesson. I do think that if I had been a little bit more patient, I would have assembled my own oils, mold, and essential oil before starting, since I knew I wanted to give soap making a good go of it.

Overall, I am very glad I ordered this kit. I have at least one more week for this soap to cure before I can test it out–and a couple more before I can tell you the difference between palm oil soap and lard soap, but stay tuned. There’s much more to come.

Gluten Free Banana Bread Sweetened with Raw Honey

gluten free banana bread with text

Since I went gluten free two years ago, I have been searching for a good banana bread recipe. My husband likes to take bananas to work as a mid-morning snack–but he very rarely eats a whole bunch in one week. I’m not too keen on fresh bananas, but I love banana bread. My mother had a phenomenal recipe, which my dad continued to make after she passed. That particular banana bread is one of those nostalgic pieces of my childhood that represents love and family and happy memories. I know that’s a lot of pressure to put on one recipe, which could be why it took over two years to develop one that tastes the same, but incorporates a few healthier options.

gluten free banana bread slice

My mom’s recipe isn’t up for grabs, but here’s the one I’ve come up with

Gluten Free Banana Bread
Makes Two Loaves

3 1/2 cups Bob’s Red Mill Gluten Free All Purpose Flour
2 cups mashed bananas (I throw mine in the blender)
2/3 cup raw honey (full disclosure, I never measure, just pour in what I think is enough, and is probably always less than 2/3 cup)
1/2 cup butter
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp xanthan gum
pinch of salt
4 eggs well-beaten

Mix all ingredients, folding in well-beaten eggs last.
Bake in two parchment-lined loaf pans for 45 minutes at 350.

gluten free banana bread

Do yourself a favor and please,please, please use the parchment. If you just grease the pan, your bread will stick. I grease the parchment, and then I am able to lift the bread straight out of the loaf pan and set it on the cooling rack.

banana bread served with honey and cinnamon

I like to eat my banana bread plain, or with just a little bit of butter. My husband likes it with just a little bit of honey and cinnamon on top, especially when I don’t get quite enough honey in the bread before hand.

Weekend Garden Update

We still haven’t had any real harvests of the summer veggies. The peppers are popping out nicely, and the oldest tomatoes are finally starting to turn orange on their shoulders. The cucumbers are slow to grow, and as they get bigger, are doing this strange curly thing. I’m going to pull some tomorrow to put in our lunchtime salad, just to make sure they still taste OK.

new and almost ripe blackberries

bigger jalapenos

wonky cucumber

finally a ripening tomato

blue flowers

Here’s hoping I’ll be eating a tomato sometime this week!

Solar Dyeing Wool with Kool Aid

solar dyeing wool with kool aid

My house faces south, and I have this big concrete stoop, that at some point, somebody painted red, along with all of the sidewalk in the front yard. Why, I have no idea, but that’s something to explore some other time. Right now, it means that I have a front stoop that gets a lot of light and reflects heat back up pretty darn well. That makes it perfect for solar dyeing. Don’t worry if you don’t have a red, south-facing stoop. Any spot in your yard where you get a good 6-8 hours of sun should do it.

clean gray colombia fleece

I haven’t done a lot of work with this gray Columbian fleece, and as much as I adore the natural gray color of it, I also have plenty that can be dyed. And since I want to drum card most of this fleece at either sell it as batts or roving pulled from a batt, I’ve learned the hard way that it’s a lot easier to dye the locks first. I have been super busy lately, mostly stuck under an infant, and that makes it difficult to pay attention to a dye pot. Passive dyeing seemed the way to go.

solar dyeing with kool aid

I started with six quart ball jars and six different flavors of Kool Aid. Fruit Punch, Strawberry, Orange, Lemonade, Blue Raspberry Lemonade, and Grape. I’m still loving the rainbows.

kool aid and ball jars

I dissolved each pack of Kool Aid in 8 oz of warm water, then diluted with another 8 oz. Then I submerged 1 oz of dry Columbia locks in each jar and set them out in the sun until the water ran clear. (Kool Aid has citric acid in it, so you don’t need to soak the wool in a vinegar solution first.)

kool aid dyeing in ball jars

I left these outside for about a day’s worth of sun, on the solstice no less, so you never know, they might be magical, then brought them in to cool. You can put these in the sun for a couple of days if you need to get them hot enough to absorb all the pigment, but don’t leave them too long, anytime you introduce water, not to mention whatever the heck is in Kool Aid, your wool will mold if you leave it wet too long. Give the locks a good rinse with some wool wash and lay them flat to dry.

kool aid dyed gray columbian wool locks

I love how these came out, bright on the bleached tips and muted on the bulk of the locks. These six ounce are going to make a couple of really nice, nuanced batts.

Homemade Probiotic Sauerkraut

With all the fun fermenting talk that’s been going on around here, I felt like I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about sauerkraut.

sauerkraut from above

When I was about seven years old, and my dad was between jobs, my family stayed with some relatives for a couple of months who lived on Sauerkraut Lane. I was told, in that teasing way adults have of speaking to young kids, that living on Sauerkraut Lane, I had to like sauerkraut, or at least try it. I, like most seven year-olds, refused to try it and insisted I wouldn’t like it. At some point, they did trick me into trying it. Whatever kind of sauerkraut it was I ate back in 1992, it came from a can, and I gave it two thumbs down. I probably didn’t try sauerkraut again until I was in my twenties, but when I did, it was fresh-not-canned, and it was so different from what I remembered it being.

cabbage in a hot pink bowl

For a long time I bought Bubbies sauerkraut, but at $6 a jar, making my own is so much more economical. The last head of cabbage I bought was 75 cents. Cabbage plus a little bit of sea salt is all you need to make it.

Just shred a head of cabbage, and grind some sea salt over it.

shredded cabbage in a hot pink bowl

Then spend about ten minutes squishing the salt in the cabbage and grinding it with your fists. It’s the best excuse ever to play with your food. Enjoy it. It will eventually become limp and watery, which is what you want.

fresh sauerkraut
Then pack it down into a jar. This one is two quarts. And put a jam jar in the top to tamp the cabbage down below the water that came out when you were grinding the salt into it. You’ll want to keep the cabbage leaves below the water level.

finished sauerkraut
Let it sit in a cool, dry, dark place for about 3 to 10 days, tamping the leaves down below the water line a couple times a day. After three days, start tasting it to see if it’s done. This batch was done after four days. Then put it in the fridge to stop the fermenting process. Then eat it, and be happy.

homemade sauerkraut on beef brats
I had some just the other day over these beef brats from a local ranch, but I will also just eat it from a bowl for a snack or as a side. Do it. Your guts will thank you.