Friday, February 26, 2010
Thursday, February 4, 2010
The labels on the homemade soap I give family and friends say “Sapouny”, which is the Greek word for soap. My Greek relatives used to sing an old song about soap: “Sapouni, two cents a pound, for dirty clothes, for floors, for plates.” And in the South, there was a song about Grandma’s Lye Soap “good for everything in the home. The secret was in the scrubbing; it wouldn’t suds and couldn’t foam.”
Sapouny does actually make suds and foam, but my soap mishaps are the subject of as much teasing as was the soy turkey I tried to construct one Thanksgiving. The worst mistake I ever made with soap was transferring a full pot of just-setting stuff into an aluminum pan because the mixture was threatening to boil over.
Sodium hydroxide or lye, the active ingredient in many soaps, will eat aluminum. In my case, there was an explosion, the kitchen filled with gas, I ran to the bedroom, closed the door and called 9-1-1.
After the firemen had arrived and asked if I was all right, they put the aluminum pot in the sink and ran water into it, simultaneously cleaning the sink really well and diluting the still-caustic soap mixture. When they finished (they were all decked out in fancy yellow HazMat suits), they showed me the pan, which had a big hole in the bottom. They said that sodium hydroxide and aluminum put out aluminum hydroxide gas.
“Why would you make soap?” they asked. “You can buy soap at the store,” they said, laughing. “It’s not that expensive.”
This was the most spectacular soap goof, but there were others: The butter soap which smelled like bad cheese, the grey lavender soap which was supposed to be purple. I once tried to make my own lye, dripping water through wood ash, which would make potassium hydroxide if you knew what you were doing. As it was, the mixture was far too weak to combine with oils and saponify (the official word for the process) and I had to throw the whole batch away after stirring for hours.
I have made a few batches of cold-process soap from scratch since the 9-1-1 episode. It is expensive to make and very labor-intensive. You don’t cook it, but you sometimes have to stir the oil-and-lye solution for a couple of hours. The hardening soap has to cure for about a month before it is safe to use, and if you make the mistake of putting a raw bar on your table, it will eat through the finish. However, it smells really good while it is curing and if you make it with olive oil and coconut oil, it is really good for your skin once it is finished.
You must scrape the ash from the bars, because it is the residue of the lye. I save it in a jar for really difficult cleaning tasks (wear gloves).
Lately I have mostly made recycled soap, which uses the easiest of all hand-milled processes and doesn’t involve physical danger. You pare or wash soap scraps to clean them, grate them and put them in a pan with a cup of water, heat and stir until they are liquid and more or less amalgamated (an electric hand mixer helps here), then add whatever fragrance or additives you like. Let the mixture cool and harden and then put it in molds or shape by hand.
The biggest hit of the hand-milled soaps has been chocolate soap, achieved by adding chocolate fragrance oil and cocoa powder to the soap mixture once it has liquefied. You can, of course, use any mild hand soap for milling if you don’t want to recycle scraps, and soap-makers’ supplies on the Internet include melt-and-mold blocks in several formularies including glycerine.
I don’t know why it is so satisfying to make soap. Maybe it reminds me of making mud pies as a kid. Maybe it is because all the utensils you use to make soap wind up shiny and clean instead of sticky and greasy. Or maybe it is as simple as bathing with a bar made to order.