Sunday, February 27, 2011

Sliced Soap: Diary of a Soapmaker

I haven't talked about soap in a while. I've been busy making baby things and such, but I thought I should revisit this topic, as it is a favorite hobby of mine.  Today's soap-making activities have inspired a little offering on techniques.

Not every batch of my delectable soap, believe it or not, comes off smoothly. I blogged about it before, but this time I thought I might share some valuable "learning opportunities" for those of you who are thinking about making soap. Pay attention, Grasshopper, and learn from my mistakes.

Opportunity #1: When making goat's milk soap (cold processed) it separated and never set.
Lesson #1: Milk-based soap is notoriously tricky. I had insulated the mold after filling it (which you should never do).  The top looked solid, so when I turned the mold over to release it, much to my surprise, oil and little rice-sized chunks of soap spilled everywhere. Not to worry, though. I threw the whole debacle back into a pot on the stove, heated it up while stirring, and poured it back into the mold once everything had melted again. Next morning it was good as gold. I have had to conduct several re-do's on this recipe and I suspect that it might have something to do with the clove essential oil. Even with the disasters, this is one of my favorite soaps. When working with milk the trick is to not let it ever get too hot (while mixing it with the lye as well as after it goes into the mold).

Opportunity #2: Not wearing shoes while dealing with the lye.  Ouch. Yes, this can happen to you. A tiny pin-drop of lye must have splashed out and landed on my big toenail.  I never even noticed it until several hours later when the lye had finally burned its way through the nail. The pain was excruciating even though I could hardly even see the damage.
Lesson #2: This should be obvious.

Opportunity #3: Added fresh lavender flowers to the soap.
Lesson #3: They turned brown and looked very unappetizing. I've read that you shouldn't add fresh botanicals as they will "cook" and discolor. Dried is better.

Opportunity #4: Took too long to mix in color. 
Lesson #4: If you want a marbled-colored look to your soap, you need to remove a bit of mixed soap, stir the color into it, and then add it back into the main batch and give it a couple of stirs. Today I took too long and by the time I turned around to add it back in, I could barely get the blender out of the pot; it was stuck firmly into the batch.  I managed to mix the color in and muscle the soap into the mold, pressing it in with a spoon (it was surprisingly still molten hot). Perhaps I'll add a photo of this one to the blog later. I imagine that it will be full of air pockets. The obvious remedy is to work faster, or bring it to a lighter trace before adding the color.  Sometimes the scented oils can speed up trace. I used Aquaflore by Sweet Cakes today (I've never tried it before).

You may read in some literature about soap making that if something goes wrong with your soap batch (i.e. separation, seizing, etc.) that you must throw the batch away and start over. I've found, however, that if I heat it back up, either on the stove or in my huge crock pot, I can rescue the soap and it will still be wonderful. I find it helpful to keep detailed notes about each batch I try. Record your process; the time it took to trace, how long to set, how it turned out - look, lather, etc. Record how the bar appears several months after making it. Also, don't forget to note your mistakes. This will help prevent making the same mistakes again.

I've also read that before you start handing out your soap or start selling it, you should make soap for at least a year. At first I thought this was a ridiculous suggestion as all of my soap batches were wonderful right from the get-go. In hindsight, though, they were absolutely right. Both my recipes and techniques have improved tremendously over the years and I would now be embarrassed to hand out my earlier attempts.  

"Practice is the best of all instructors" - Publilius Syrus (Roman author, 1st century B.C.)

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

What a grand thing, to be loved!

Life and spirits have been renewed!  A new generation has been born!  New life to replace one lost. Yes, I am now a Great-Auntie!  

But, here is where the confusion lies.  Of course, I've always been a great Auntie (if I say so myself), but now I'm a Great-Auntie.  Whoa there. Wait a gosh-darned minute (today I'm going G-rated in honor of my new Great-Nephew, whom I'm sure will also be a great nephew)! 

Why is it that I've been elevated two generations with just one simple birth? Parents become grand-parents who become great-grand parents with every subsequent generation. But, BAM,  Aunties become great-aunties in a blink of two tiny, newborn eyes. 

I've decided to protest. I'm mounting a campaign to popularize the Grand-Aunt. It already exists as a generational demarkation, but it is only equivalent to a great-aunt (according to Wikipedia), and apparently not very popular. I think being two generations removed from this beautiful new life form should receive special and recognized status.  

All right, I may be a teensy bit insecure by the fact that telling people that I'm a great-aunt smacks of octogenarians and BenGay, but, heck, I'm throwing down my cane and jumping out of my rocking chair to claim my grand-hood status.

Welcome, grand-nephew Samuel Gale Williams! I love you more than words can say. Forever, your Grand-Auntie Keren.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Taking time to take the time

Luckily I have my hearing and I know exactly what time it is. Say what? Yes, Art just told me. He struck eleven solid and resonating bongs all the way in the other room and I knew that it was way past my bedtime.

Art is the antique clock that has been passed down to me from my mother, which was passed down to her from her mother. It was given to my grandparents as a wedding gift from a friend of theirs named Art, thus the endearing moniker. This is the kind of stately and beautiful clock that makes the "top ten" list. You know, the list of the top ten things you'd grab if a hurricane was about to hit, the roof was caving in, or the house was on fire. It is strong and majestic.  Classically beautiful.  Functional art, if you'll pardon the pun. 

I wind him every Sunday and he keeps time to the minute, even after 101 years, many moves to various states, and even high humidity. If Art had a last name, it would be Reliability.

It is nice to have this bit of "constant" in my life.  It reminds me of my family, comforts me in the wee hours if I am having trouble sleeping.  It reminds me that I'm running late to work and that I've stayed up too late again. It calms with with its rhythmic tic toc tic toc. It welcomes me home.

Art is a wonderful memento that is the artifact of my ancestors, as well as the possession of my descendants. Future generations that will look upon Art and be reminded that they too are late for a date,  have only fifteen minutes to catch the jet-tube tram, and need to fold themselves up into their sonic sleep chamber.

I think I'll slip a little note inside the back of Art and turn him into a time capsule, if you will.  It will say, "Keren was here and loved this clock. Please take care of it, and it will take care of you."

"Ding!" Shoot, now it is half an hour later and I still need to take the dogs outside.  Goodnight!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

I've got an app for that

Aren't Smart phones great? Well, not all of them. I won't mention what brand of phone I had and hated, but suffice it to say it wasn't Berry good.  One of the great things about them, though, are all of the "Apps" that you can get for them.

There I was one evening playing with the new Dog Whistle app that I had newly installed on my phone.  Being an owner of a dog that doesn't come when called, I thought that this new app could come in very handy. I pressed the button. A little bone wiggled on the screen to let me know that the high-frequency sound was emitted. Glancing at the dogs, there was no reaction. Not even an ear twitch.

I tried it again, this time for a little longer.  Nothing.  At this point I'm wondering if maybe you have to train the dogs to respond to the whistle. For some reason I was thinking that the high-pitched and inaudible sound was something the dogs would instinctively respond to. Like morning revelry blown on a coronet or something. They would hear it and spring to attention.

I pressed it one more time, just to make sure.

Finally, my daughter (who was sitting next to me on the sofa watching T.V.) turned to me and quite sharply told me to stop playing with that annoying whistle! She had heard it every time! 

I'd like to think that she has inherited my uncanny hearing-genes, but alas, the only high-pitched noise I hear is from my tinnitus. No, I'm tending to think that she has been bitten by a bat, a mouse, or perhaps a beluga whale and her ability to hear over 45,000 hz is her super power. 

I eventually took the app off of my phone, seeing that the likely-hood of training my dog to come using my Smart phone app seemed somewhat remote. I think I stand a better chance of just buying my dog a smart phone and calling her up on it to see if she'll be home for dinner.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

It really isn't about the bone

The other night, I was watching my dogs with the bones I had given them. On the rug in the middle of the living room was a collection of four 6" tubular-type cow bones, some of them quite old, bleached, and gnawed-looking. The dogs switched back and forth from bone to bone, deciding which ones had the best remnant flavor...I thought.  Then I noticed something interesting. Whatever bone the non-dominant dog (Koko`o, the larger of the two) had, the smaller, dominant dog (Bean), wanted. Call it what you will, but there was definitely a power-play going on.  Posturing, tug-of-wars, teasing, and body-blocks were all employed in the "Dance of the Bones".

Their behavior wasn't really about the bones and which one tasted the best; it was about who had control over the overall situation. It is where ingrained behavior bests common sense; enabling a 10 lb. canine to out-maneouver another dog 4 times her size. For Koko`o, it might have been about which bone was the best, but for Bean it was all about control. 

How many times have I beaten my head against the wall because, defying logic, people did not behave the way I had expected them to (i.e. one for me and one for you)? It is all clear to me now. Daily decisions and interactions do not rely entirely on what is right or wrong on a global, humanitarian scale. Decisions are made relying on what is right or wrong for the "ME" in the situation ("ME" being the person needing the most control). I see this behavior over and over again. 

Oh, we all have situations that we feel we need to control, some of us more than others. But maybe every once in a while we can focus more on the bone and less on the "ME". The world would be a happier place, and I would finally get what I want. Just kidding. Kind of.