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life in balance


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Rummage and Lye, and a tutorial

Amy's dining room table

After a busy week of canning and soapmaking and rummage sale goodness, I’m gearing up for another trip out of town, this time up to NYC with friends for the weekend. One of my favorite parts of my job change has been having this time to travel without having to plan around paid leave, and I feel an obligation to really take advantage of this opportunity to go out and explore. I’m not a great traveller and I’m not a great homebody – I’m always wanting to set down roots, always wanting to move on, always at the same time – so travel tends to make me profoundly uncomfortable, but it also speaks to some sort of deep-seated need within me, a craving that seems to just get bigger the more I feed it.

Canning applesauce at Amy's house

For my last few trips, I’ve found myself frantically packing in the entryway at midnight the night before I’m set to leave, so yesterday, I sat down to get my backpack ready and make a packing list, determined to be prepared this time, and to my surprise, I found that all of the hullabaloo didn’t seem necessary anymore. After all of this travel, how much do I really need to think about it? Toiletries, clothes, a book to read and a book to write in. My camera and some knitting to occupy my hands. What else is there? I know now what’s essential to me and what’s just dead weight – no lists required. Ten minutes of packing later, and I’m ready to go.

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As usual these days, the week before I head out of town is packed with projects and people to see before I go. We drove out to Leesburg this weekend to attend the Ladies Board rummage sale for the first time, in search of treasure – aka cheap sugar bowls for my new shaped sugars from Provisions – and had an absolute blast. We went on Sunday, when the staff were starting to really mark things down for the second day of the sale, and got some incredible bargains. My favorites, though, were a little green sugar bowl for a dollar, and some amazing vintage hankies to use as foundation pieces for embroidery.

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And today I got to host my wonderful friend Amylynn for a drink and a chat at my place; she kindly offered to drop off the cured soap and sealed jars so that I wouldn’t have to take them with me on the Metro ride home from her house. Oh, boy, that house. I want to sneak in and live in the basement. Her kitchen has vintage metal cabinetry in a lovely subdued robin’s egg color, and there’s light everywhere you turn. Quilts handed down through the family, well-loved and in use all over the house? Yes please. And we haven’t even talked about the studio space in the basement, or the late 1800s canning jar on the kitchen windowsill, or the collection of kitchen dishtowels… or the light. Most of the photos in this post were shot at her place while we worked on our applesauce.

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I thought it might be fun to share a little tutorial for the soap we made – a goat’s milk soap with a few drops of lavender and rosemary oil and some dried lavender buds on top. The recipe is adapted from a how-to on Martha Stewart Living. Note that the percentage of goat’s milk, which was what the original recipe emphasized, has been changed drastically. If you refer to the Martha Stewart site, you’ll definitely be preparing a different batch from what Amy and I put together.

Scented Herbal Goat’s Milk Soap

Supplies you’ll need; note that if the supplies come into contact with the soap mixture, you shouldn’t use them for cooking afterwards, so you will need separate utensils from those you use in your everyday kitchen.
– Candy thermometer or laser thermometer
– Immersion blender
– Spatula
– Large heatproof bowl (a Pyrex works really well and bonus, has a pour spout; you really want a bowl with a pour spout so that it’s easy to transfer your mixture to your mold)
– A mold to pour your soap into (this can be as unsophisticated as a cardboard box lined with freezer paper or parchment paper, but can also be fancy soap molds if you like)
– Cookie racks
– Digital scale
– Plastic wrap

Ingredients you’ll need for the batch:
– 7.43 ounces goat’s milk, partially frozen
– 2.82 ounces lye
– 4.25 ounces extra-virgin olive oil
– 5 ounces coconut oil
– 12 ounces vegetable or soy shortening
– Essential oils (one or more; optional)
– Dried herbs (optional)

Before we begin, an important safety message! Any time you’re working with lye, it’s important to take safety precautions. Make sure you wear a respirator mask, safety googles and rubber gloves at all times and be very cautious as you work. Also, while we’re getting started, note that all temperatures here are listed in Farenheit. Now, onto the fun stuff!

Begin by putting the partially frozen goat’s milk into the bowl and slowly add the lye. Stir with your spatula until you’ve got a nice, smooth, lump-free mixture. Be very careful to go slowly; you don’t want to splash yourself. The contents of the bowl will get very hot, between 95-100 degrees. Set the bowl aside to cool down.

While your lye and milk mixture is cooling, melt your olive oil, coconut oil and shortening together and heat them to 90 degrees. This can be done in a pot you’ll continue to use for cooking as all these ingredients are food safe.

Once the goat’s milk and lye have cooled to about 90 degrees, add the oils to the lye mixture. Blend them with the immersion blender to combine. Note that if you’ve never used an immersion blender before, you may want to familiarize yourself with it before you use it for soapmaking. It does have a tendency to splash when used improperly – not something you want with lye! Be sure you understand how it works before you start blending your lye with it.

You’ll want to blend the oils into the lye and milk until you begin to see something soapmakers refer to as “tracing” – basically, the mixture becomes thicker and, if you turn the blender off and lift it out of the mixture, its drips will leave behind a noticeable trail in the bowl. Amy told me it would look a lot like a pancake batter, which indeed it did.

At trace, set the immersion blender aside and stir the mixture just a little bit with a spatula to eliminate any air bubbles. At this point, you can also blend in any essential oils you might like to use. In this batch we used about 25 drops of lavender and rosemary essential oil, but Amy recommends a full teaspoon’s worth of your essential oils for a stronger smell in the finished bars; ours came out a bit subtle. You can also blend in dried herbs at this stage – the amount you add is up to you.

If you’d like to top your soap with dried herbs (we used lavender, both on top of and mixed into the bars), sprinkle the herbs into the mold.

Pour the soap mixture into your mold or molds. Tap the bottom of the mold firmly but gently against the counter to even out the mixture’s distribution in the mold and place a piece of plastic wrap against the top of your soap. Leave your soap to set for 24 hours with the plastic wrap on; remove it and let the soap set an additional 24 hours with it off.

After 48 hours, you can remove the soap from the mold and, if needed, slice the large brick of soap into smaller bars. Set the soaps on the cookie rack to cure. They’ll need to cure for 3-4 weeks until they’ve hardened. While they’re curing, be sure to flip the bars every couple of days to ensure that both sides of the bars are getting the proper ventilation.