March 18, 2012

My First Request: JJ's Lemon and Basil Soap

A rather long story on how the soap came to be.

JJ is a driver I work with at Grayline. He's one of my favorites. We always have a lot of fun—even if we've got a bus load of arrogant Italians that won't shut up or cheap Americans that won't tip.  He's from the Islands, so he's very laid back.
When I mentioned that I'd started making soap, he told me that he used to buy this great Lemon and Basil Soap from a woman at the Hell's Kitchen Flea Market, but she's not there all the time.
"I'll make you some soap," I said.
"How much should I give you for the ingredients?" he asked.
"First bar is free," I said, knowing that this is exactly how drug dealers operate.  And soap is kind of a drug. "You just have to let me pick up some shea butter when we stop in Harlem."
There's a guy that sells fragrance oils of knock-off perfumes, shea butter ($10 for a whole pound), cocoa butter and black African soap on 125th Street right next to our stop. I always try to get tourists to get off there—not just for the shea butter guy, but for everything in Harlem. Most of them don't get off. I think they're afraid—the 1970's Harlem is still in their collective memories.
So, I jumped off when we got to the stop and bought some shea in less than 30 seconds.
Then I had to come up with a real great recipe. The basil part was easy. I bought a big bag of dried basil from this market near Port Authority. I only had a smidge of Thai basil that I had grown last summer left and I wanted an infusion that would be really basil-ed out.
The lemon however was going to be tricky. Lemon juice and lye don't mix. Lemon juice neutralizes lye, so you end up with a pot full of oils. I didn't want to do lemon peels either, so decided to rebatch. I found this lemon juice that's ironically from Italy (and I should say that any generalizations I make about any nationalities are based on my experience with tourists—and people on vacation—no matter where they're from are always on their worst behavior) and it actually contains lemon essential oil. Bonus.

If you see this in the store--buy it!

Last problem was fragrance. Citrus is fleeting. I'd been reading about how may chang works as an anchor and a boost on citruses. My normal fragrance guys (Exotic Fragrances, Scents Elate, and Gold Star Fragrances) didn't stock it—and hadn't even heard of it. I really don't like ordering things online. I don't have a doorman, so I have to have stuff shipped to my local bar, Perdition. PLUS, I live in the center of the center of the universe. I believe everything I need or want can be found somewhere in the five boroughs.

After some internet sleuthing, I found Enfleurage in the West Village. They have a ton of amazing essential oils. Some I didn't even know existed. Shell oil, rice paddy herb, artichoke, mak nhieu. I ended up spending about $60—but have got some very fun essentials to play with.
So, basil-infused olive oil was rebatched using the lemon juice and scented with holy basil, sage (to green up the spiciness of the holy basil), may chang, bergamot and lemon essential oils. Then a top layer with a little more shea that added a light lemony color. And some corn meal for scrubbiness.

When I gave a bar to JJ, I told him he had to wait about a month before he could use it since it was still curing.

He looked pretty disappointed, but then held it up to his nose and sniffed. "This smells so good," he said.
olive oil infused with basil and Thai basil
shea butter
palm kernel oil
cottonseed oil
soybean oil
castor oil
distilled water infused with basil
Polenghi lemon juice
powdered basil

March 17, 2012

Midnight in Hell's Kitchen

A column of lights in the building a block away from mine.
They have an elevator.
But I have a bathtub in my kitchen.
A tenement luxury.  
I can soak and look out the window and cook pasta all at the same time.

The Empire is lit up green for St. Patrick's Day.
Every so often there's a flash as a tourist takes a photo.
It will go dark at 2 AM.

olive oil infused with nettle, sage/marigolds and annatto seeds
shea butter infused with lemon thyme
palm kernel oil
coconut oil
soybean oil
castor oil
NYC tap water infused with activated charcoal

Poetically scented with patchouli, nag champa and black sandalwood fragrance oils and vetiver, tea tree, may change and lemon essential oils.

March 16, 2012

How To Make Soap

This is not my tub.
This tub is in Oasis Community Garden.
It houses fish.

My writing teacher/guru/mentor, Elaine Edelman is a bit concerned that I'm spending too much time making soap and not enough time applying pen to paper.
And she's right. I'm not writing much new material at all, but I don't feel like writing either. A lot of it has to do with publishing You Are Here last April. It's a post-partum thing.
And I'm still convinced that eventually making soap will tie into my writing and somehow inspire me to write some great fiction.
Anyway, after submitting a very short story to my mother washing my mouth out with soap (that I plan to embed in some soap as a Mother's Day gift), Elaine asked me to scribble her a note about how to make soap. So here it is—written with tongue firmly placed in cheek.
1. Check out every book about soapmaking from NYPL. Read them.
2.       Do search for 'soapmaking' on the net. Discover thousands of websites, forums and blogs. Realize there are millions of soapmakers—most of them women. Some of these women make soap that looks like cupcakes and smells like chocolate fudge. You picture these women living in the Midwest or the South. They shop at Walmart and share their lye supply with their husbands who have a crystal meth lab in the basement. Vow never to make soap that looks like a cupcake.
3.       Buy olive oil and start infusing it with herbs.
4.       Re-read books from the library.
5.       Order organic palm kernel oil, castor oil and some essential oils from Mountain Rose Herbs who only sell palm kernel oil that is sustainable and doesn't kill orangutans. Use birthday money from your mother given to you with the strict order to "buy something fun—don't use it for bills."
6.       Shake oils being infused daily. Marvel at the colors and fragrances—especially the mint.
7.       Begin to gather equipment you'll need. Try to buy it used from Housing Works to save the planet and money. End up at Bed, Bath and Beyond feeling guilty.
8.       Compare prices of coconut oil at Whole Foods vs. Westerly. Find Westerly is less expensive. While in Westerly, look at all the teas, herbs, oils and vegetables with a new understanding that they can all be used in soap.
9.       Start a soap making journal.
10.   Re-new soapmaking books from library. Re-read chapters on how you actually make soap. Take copious notes in your journal.
11.   Surf the internet some more. Look at photos of soap with so much glitter, mica and dried rose buds on top that you wonder how people can actually use the soap to get clean. Vow never to make soap like this.
12.   Read Fight Club. Wonder if it's possible to make soap from liposuction-ed  fat. Vow never to make soap like that either.
13.   Decide it's time to actually do it.
14.   Weigh out oils. Put them into the crockpot you found on street to melt them.
15.   Put on goggles and rubber gloves.
16.   Weigh out lye. Be super careful.
17.   Weigh out water.
18.   Sprinkle lye into water. NEVER EVER pour water into lye. Horrible, terrible things could happen.
19.    Stir until lye is dissolved. Note that the stainless steel spoon makes an awful scratching/scraping/nails-on-a-chalkboard sound against the Pyrex measuring cup.
20.   Let lye mixture and oils cool. Re-read chapter on making soap while waiting.
21.   Slowly pour lye mixture into oils. Watch how the mixtures changes color and begins to thicken up.
22.   Insert stick blender into mixture. Turn it on and stand in awe as the mixture begins to saponify. Notice the incredible soap smell filling the kitchen.
23.   Keep stirring and using the hand blender until you reach trace (what a lovely word).When this happens, squeal with joy.
24.   Add essential oils and some powdered herbs for texture.
25.   Pour the batch into your silicon mold from Bed, Bath and Beyond, cover it with an old towel and set it on a radiator for 24 hours.
26.   Unmold the soap. Marvel how beautiful it is. Touch it even though you know it's still caustic from the lye. Smell it. Resist urge to kiss it.
27.   Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

March 10, 2012

Myrtle Soap for My Mom #1

Scented with neroli orange blossom and may change essential oils

My mom's birthday is coming up in May, so I'm going to give her a bunch of soap that all have myrtle in them (that's her given name, but she never really liked it, she goes by Holly).
The balls in this are made from myrtle-infused olive oil. I then rolled the balls in powdered lemon balm. It bled, but I actually like it. Happy accident.
More myrtle soap to come.

olive oil infused with myrtle/annatto seeds
shea butter
palm kernel oil
cottonseed  oil
soybean oil
castor oil
powdered lemon balm

If you like this blog, check out my new one: The Haley Maxwell Soap Making Mysteries

March 6, 2012

Growing Next Year's Soap

If I washed my windows, I'd get more sun
Have started a bunch of seeds (ordered from Horizon Herbs) in my decrepit, but still functional Burpee Grow Kit. I also got inspired from Herb Companion to re-purpose some plastic bottles and food containers into mini-greenhouses.
I went a little nuts on basis—I've got African basil, lime basil and mtuli basil (a perennial if brought indoors for the winter)—since I really like how JJ's Lemon and Basil Soap turned out. Basil makes a great green infusion. There might be a lime basil and patchouli soap next year.
Some new plants: lady's bedstraw (smells nice and will make a yellow dye—also love the name—supposedly the Virgin Mary used it for bedding material), yarrow (cleansing and can also be made into a yellow dye), woad (an astringent and a blue dye—easier to grow than indigo) and vervain (a natural sedative and related to verbena).
I also started some marigold seeds that I harvested last year. Love the color they made in the Beach Bars.

In the column (a trash find) are calendula seeds.
Meanwhile, in the garden itself, The Readers' and Writers' Subplot looks a little bare—there're a few things pushing up through the soil (mints, lemon balm and of course, weeds)—but I'm trying to think of it more like a blank slate.
Better yet, it's a short story that I started last year and am now coming back to (it is a 'plot' after all). Last year was a first draft. I was just buying random plants that smelled nice, this year I know what I want the story to be about: soapmaking herbs.