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Wales, United Kingdom
Documenting one couple's attempts to live a more self-sufficient life.

Thursday, 16 December 2010

Soap - first attempt

I was quite scared of soap making, to be honest. It's not particularly difficult, but it involves caustic soda, and if you get the quantities wrong you can end up with caustic soda in the soap, which is really not something you want to be washing with. However, I'd decided to give it a go, so after much procrastination I pulled myself together, gathered up my ingredients, donned safety goggles and rubber gloves, and started measuring things.

Ian found the goggles and gloves highly amusing, so he took a picture

Part of the procrastination was lack of internet, which slowed down the research. I'd seen some information - and there's plenty out there - but hadn't settled on a recipe. Being me, I didn't just choose a recipe then set about following it, because most of them include some fairly exotic ingredients, like coconut oil. I'd read some general introductions and learnt that basically, you mix alkali (or lye - either sodium hydroxide or potassium hydroxide) with oil or fat in the right quantities and you get soap. Too little lye and you get a sloppy mess; too much and you get something that will eat through your skin. Unsurprisingly, most recipes build in a margin of error in the direction of the sloppy mess.

The decisions to be made were which oils and fats to use and what quantities of the various ingredients to include. I found excellent websites that told me what kind of soap to expect with various ingredients, calculators for what quantity of lye to use, and one that even adjusted the quantities to suit the dimensions of my mould.

I had thought to use just oils, but with research got worried that the soap might not be hard enough, so chickened out and included some lard (I did attempt to render this myself from leftover bacon fat, but didn't keep an eye on it and ended up with brown, smoky smelling lard. Not so good for soap). I also had some hemp oil, which apparently makes luxurious soap, so that went in. I ignored the bit about it having a short shelf life - seemed fine to me. I'd bought peanut oil for moisturiser, but what little information I could find suggested this was quite similar to olive oil, which I had in much larger quantities having restocked twice by mistake at some point. I also found someone eulogising about sunflower oil, which appears to be much less available in the US (rarity value possibly contributing to the eulogy), whereas this is my main cooking oil, so I was pleased to be able to include some of that.

The recipe I finally used went like this:
Lard: 7 1/4 oz
Hemp oil: 3 3/4 oz
Olive oil: 8 1/4 oz
Sunflower oil: 3 3/4 oz
Caustic soda: 3 oz
Water: 7 1/2 oz

I'd played with the recipe resizer to get a nice round number for the lye (how deep you fill the mould is somewhat flexible) and rounded the other ingredients (mostly up) to the nearest quarter ounce, because that's the smallest weight I have with my scales. There was also a minor adjustment due to adding-up failure; the original version had less olive and more sunflower oil.

So to work.

Step 1: Mix the lye with the water. Yes, it does get hot. Yes, it would have been a good idea to do this in a well ventilated area.
Step 2: Melt the lard then mix with the oils in a bowl.
Step 3: Wait for them all to cool down to about 110 deg. farenheit. This is boring. Also, I didn't have a thermometer that I was willing to put into caustic soda, so I had to guess. 110 is a bit above body temperature, so should be fairly easy to judge, though the rubber gloves did make it a bit harder.
Step 4: Add the lye and water to the oils and stir. The usual advice is to use a stick blender for this, alternating blending with stirring. I don't have a stick blender and thought I might use an electic whisk instead, but one site helpfully explained why this isn't a good idea - air bubbles don't make for a nice soap texture. I started with a tiny manual whisk that I could keep completely submerged, so whisk without drawing in air. This proved difficult in rubber gloves, and before long my hands got tired, so I gave in and used the electric whisk. I should point out that the stirring took a VERY long time. At one point, I took a break and went to off to consult John Seymour's self sufficiency book. He gives very sparse instructions (no warning about how long it might take, for example), but advises adding the lye slowly, otherwise it won't mix, which I hadn't seen elsewhere. No mention of a stick blender here, either, just 'stir gently'. I wondered if the blending was necessary to compensate for the too-fast addition of lye at the beginning. Too late to do anything about that now.

Eventually, after about an hour and a half, I saw the first signs of 'trace', which is what I was waiting for. This means that the spoon leaves a trace in the surface of the mixture as it moves through it. It came on gradually - at first only visible when I flipped drops across the surface. Bubbles from the blender became more evident, so I stopped using it at that point and just used the spoon to mix. It also started to smell less like oil and more like soap, which was encouraging. Even better, it smelled like Grandma's soap, and she only ever bought the best.

Once I was sure I could see the trace, I added some fragrance (but not too much - I didn't want to lose the Grandma's soap smell). I'd bought two bottles - just cheap stuff for scenting rooms - so had a choice of white musk or rose. I had chosen white musk, but the mixture was a soft peach colour, which I thought suited the rose better. I had plenty of time to think about it! (Actually, it finally set to an ivory colour, which would have suited either - I'll know next time).

I have to say, I was very excited to see the mixture finally turn into soap - all that time stirring it must have built up the tension!

Step 4: Pour into mould, cover and leave for 24-48 hours to set. Within 24 hours it was hard enough to remove from the mould, so I cut it up and, as instructed, wrapped it in a towel and...

Step 5: Leave to cure. The amount of time for this varies a lot between recipes. For some it's as much as six weeks. A bit of research told me that the time required varies according to the choice of oils, and that olive oil takes as long as any. Oops - these are supposed to be for Christmas presents and I don't have six weeks until Christmas. Doh! I'd really like to test a piece before giving it to people, but I guess I'll just have to give it with instructions not to use it for a few weeks. Oh well.

Monday, 13 December 2010

"It sounds like you're just a housewife"

This was said by a friend concerned that I might find the new life a little short on mental stimulation - "But will you find it fulfilling?" I'm sure it was said in a spirit of loving friendship, but it bothered me quite a lot. For a start, it's a bit late to be expressing concerns after I've left my job and moved house, but there was more to it than that.

All of my adult life, my career has been central to my view of myself - "I'm a psychologist," or, "I'm a scientist," or sometimes, in earlier days, "a philosopher." I've recoiled from the idea of being a housewife. This was partly because my first husband never seemed to take my work seriously, and assumed I'd drop it all and be a stay-at-home mother at some point, so there was something to recoil from.

Grandma once said to me, "It's all very well being so clever, but what's important is that you're a good cook." At the time I found this quite objectionable, but now I'm moving round to, "Well, that's an interesting point of view."

I'm trying to work out why I was so bothered to be thought, "Just a housewife." Perhaps I've spent more of my life than I appreciated fighting to be recognised as something else.

So am I going to suffer from lack of mental stimulation? This morning, after a stroll down to the local shop to buy milk and matches, and a chat with the neighbours on the way back, I had a look at facebook (it's so nice to have the internet again after being deprived of it for a couple of months). My friend Amanda, of Realize Beauty, had posted a couple of links. The first was to an article about the effect of adverts on women's self esteem. "That's interesting," I thought, and started looking for the original research article to read more (isn't the internet great!)

The second was a rant about an article highlighting - shock horror - that beauty products contain lots of chemicals. I share Amanda's frustration with the media demonisation of "chemicals," but I'm also quite keen on using natural ingredients. I've made moisturiser using a very simple recipe - just oil, water, beeswax and scent, and am planning to make another batch very soon. "Hmm," I thought, "I wonder how many chemicals there are in beeswax?" A quick google search (have I mentioned how nice it is to have the internet back?) gave me a rough breakdown of the chemical composition of beeswax - enough to confirm my suspicion that the answer is "lots." A little later, I looked up a psychology research blog, read a few entries, and bookmarked it.

The answer, I think, is no, I'm not going to miss out on mental stimulation so long as I have the internet and interesting friends.

The second part of the question is, is this fulfilling? These are recreational interesting things. I don't have to engage with them and they make no demands of me. I probably won't find fulfilment in that direction if fulfilment equates to a sense of achievement (a question I may consider further some other time). On the other hand, fulfilment may be found in other avenues.

Returning to my day, come lunchtime, I decided that the bread dough hadn't risen enough to be cooked for lunch, so opted for chicken pies instead. I made pastry using lard I'd rendered from leftover bacon fat (rejected for soap-making purposes on the basis of a brown tinge and smoky aroma - turned out to be fine for cooking) and filled the pies with leftover chicken from the roast we had on Saturday with stock made from bones of the same roast. That's something I find very fulfilling - making delicious food out of leftovers, some of which - offcuts of fat and bones - would certainly be thrown away by most people. I take great satisfaction in making food out of rubbish.

There is certainly fulfilment of a sort to be found in this new life. It remains to be seen whether this is more or less satisfying than the intellectual challenges and achievements I had in my old life.