The Soap Dish

Sneak peek of Amani's rebrand February 14, 2017 12:59

I have been working for months with a design team to create a new logo and packaging.

Lesson #1--it will take twice as long as you plan

Lesson #2--it will cost twice as much as you plan

Lesson #3--the results will be worth it.

Beautiful New Soap Box Packaging

Pisto: Spanish Ratatouille May 31, 2016 14:00

We had a wonderful Spanish college student stay with us for three months this spring. The whole family loves her; she's become a big sister to all our kids. She recently went back to Madrid and we miss her so much! One thing she has taught us is how to make the wonderful dish pisto. It is incredibly easy, cheap and healthy. The only drawback is it takes a long time to cook however, it isn't complicated. Below is the traditional version she taught me. I am going to experiment with making this in a slow cooker and report back.

6 tablespoons olive oil, divided

2 medium onions, chopped

2 green peppers, diced

2 red peppers, diced

1 half large eggplant, diced

2 large zucchini, diced

1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes

Salt to taste, at least 1 teaspoon

Lots of freshly ground black pepper


1.5 cups rice, rinsed

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 clove garlic, minced

3 cups water or water + broth

6 eggs

Head's up: the total cook time for this is well over 60 minutes!

In a large pan, heat half the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions and cook until translucent about 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Season with salt and pepper. Lower the heat and continue to cook the onion until very soft, about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Pisto: Easy cheap dinner recipe


Meanwhile, in a separate pan, cook the green peppers in the remaining olive oil for about 20 minutes then add the red peppers and continue to cook another 20 minutes.

 Pisto: Easy cheap dinner recipe Pisto: Easy cheap dinner recipe

Add the eggplant to the onions and cook about 15 minutes. Then add the zucchini and cook about 10 minutes more. Combine both pans together (you might need a larger pot) add the crushed tomatoes and cook another 10-15 minutes.

 Pisto: Easy cheap dinner recipe Pisto: Easy cheap dinner recipe

While the vegetables are cooking (maybe halfway through), make the rice. You can make it however you like but here's the way Maria made it for us. Heat up a tablespoon of olive oil in a large pot. Add the rice and cook for a few minutes. If you like you can sprinkle in a little minced garlic--just don't let it burn (that makes it bitter). Add water or broth and stir well. You can cover and cook on low heat until the water is absorbed or cook it with the lid off stirring well and very frequently. This was new to me, it was almost like making risotto. I did have to add some additional water since the lid was off it evaporated. It was a bit more work but the rice came out nicely and wasn't sticky.

When the vegetables are nearly finished, fry up an egg for each person. Ideally the yolk should still be a little runny. Serve the vegetables on top of the rice and top each serving with a fried egg. 

Pisto: Easy cheap dinner recipe Pisto: Easy cheap dinner recipe

Fast Company Article: Four Daily Habits That Will Make You Happier April 11, 2016 22:07

I love Fast Company magazine. It is so much more than a business magazine. If you don't have a subscription, you can follow them on Facebook and read a lot of their great articles. Bonus: they're quick reads. One particular article caught my eye recently, with some super simple ideas for being happier. Who doesn't want that?! Basically these come down to the following:

  • walk regularly: three times a week for 20 minutes
  • write about positive experiences: pick one positive experience per day and spend a few minutes writing about it
  • do random acts of kindness: commit to 5 small acts per week. 
  • meditate daily

I will throw in the additional tip--if you can, try to take a regular walk in the woods. Recent research has shown that hiking in the woods can actually improve mental health.

5 DIY Gift Basket Tips and Tricks March 28, 2016 09:00

Recently I stopped carrying gift baskets on my store because they were cost prohibitive to ship. It was a difficult decision and I didn't leave my room for three days because I was so devastated*. Gift baskets remain my favorite gift to give and receive (Mother's Day IS coming, kids). You can so easily create something that is personalized and will be cherished by the recipient. A few tips I've gathered from making and selling gift baskets:

1. Theme: having an overall theme for your gift basket will tie everything together and help tailor it to the recipient. If, for example, you were making me (ahem) a gift basket you might choose any of the following themes: movies, margaritas, books, crafts, etc. Here are a few ideas of themes and items to include in each gift basket.

New baby: onesies, bibs, pacifiers, washcloth, rattle, toys, burp cloths, socks, shampoo, rash cream, etc.

Book lover: books, bookmarks, coffee/tea, portable reading light, Amazon gift card

Chocolate: gourmet chocolate, hot chocolate, coffee, book about coffee

Crafts: colored pencils/pens, beautiful coloring book, pretty paper, nice scissors, craft book, fabric. Could also have a specific craft project basket with instructions and all the necessary supplies.

Game lover: board games, card games, popcorn, snacks

Gardening: flower/vegetable seeds, gardening book specific to interest or location, gift card to nursery, hand tools, wide brim hat

Gourmet food: Skip the basket and use a serving or salad bowl. Add crackers, cheese (must be able to refrigerate), wine, specialty pickles, high quality olive oil and vinegar, fancy olives, cook book, spices, kitchen tools

Lego: Lego set, block candy (yes, it's a thing), Lego book/magazine, storage box, themed products (key chain, watch, pencil case, t shirt)

Movie lover: popcorn, candy, gift card to local theater

Pets: cat/dog treats, toys, pet dish, leash, soap/shampoo

Spa: soap, lotion, lip balm, bath bomb, candles, book or magazine, bath pillow

Sport lover: t-shirt/jersey, ball (soccer, football, etc), shoes/socks, sport specific book or magazine, posters, computer game

You can also make a basket with no theme whatsoever. It's your gift, you can design it however you like. Add an assortment of small things the recipient would like: jewelry, socks, handmade pottery mug, candles, picture frame, gourmet candy, book/magazine, wine, etc. I like to include something handmade (easy in my case but you could include banana bread, cookies, flavored vinegar, etc).

2. Baskets and other containers: It doesn't have to be a basket at all! You could use a pretty tote bag, cutting board, serving bowl, vase, or a planter. If you want a basket, my go-to sources for these are Dollar Tree and Target. Dollar Tree sometimes has wicker baskets which are great since they're only a buck.Target has cute seasonal baskets and tins. Nashville Wraps has a gazillion different kinds of baskets, boxes and bags. I love them and they ship fast.

3. Pick a filling: I usually use crinkle cut paper. Dollar Tree carries lots of colors. Nashville Wraps carries all sorts of basket fill (paper, wood shred, etc). Skip the plastic cellophane fill; everyone hates it and it isn't environmentally friendly at all. The point of fill isn't to "fill" the whole basket. You should place your items first, then fill in the gaps with the filling. You may need to include a cardboard "riser" so that small items don't sink to the bottom and get lost. 

4. Product placement: taller items should go in the back. Include a variety of sizes and shapes to make the visual appearance more interesting. Include things in odd numbers (even numbers are too matchy). If possible, try to stick to a color scheme so that everything appears cohesive. 

5. Wrap it all up: You don't need to wrap your basket but it can help to contain things if some items might fall out. Dollar Tree carries gift basket bags and shrink wrap. I use shrink wrap if the top of the basket is relatively flat and I don't want the items to move around. Tie with pretty ribbon and a bow and include a handmade card.

I have Pinterest board full of basket suggestions and tips. Just be careful not to get sucked down the vortex...because next thing you know it might be 5 hours later and you still haven't started your project.** 

* Not true.

**This has never happened to me.

Behind the scenes at Amani Soaps + a lesson in physics February 08, 2016 11:50

My soap is made with a combination of liquid oils (olive oil, avocado oil, and castor oil) as well as solid oils/butters (coconut oil, cocoa butter and shea butter). I buy huge 25# blocks of organic cocoa butter and when I get it out, my house smells like chocolate! One day recently, my 11th grader came home from school while I was mixing up a large batch of soap making oils. He arrived right when I was starting to measure out the cocoa butter (50 oz). My son looks at my soap pot and tells me I should use a different one to melt the cocoa butter. He says, "that pot is so narrow and the sides are so high. It will melt faster is you use something else". 

Let me preface the rest of this story by fessing up to the fact that the only class I ever failed was Physics. 

Clearly my son did not get his Physics gene from me because, in 15 years of soap making, I have never thought about this. I did have another pot but it was made of aluminum and not stainless steel which I usually use. It seemed logical that the wider pot would melt things because of the increased surface area but would it really make that much of a difference? Plus I thought aluminum doesn't conduct heat as well as stainless steel which could temper (get it? baking joke) the benefits of using a wider pot to melt the cocoa butter. 

We decided to conduct a little experiment to see if this was indeed true.  I measured out half the cocoa butter into the shallow aluminium pot and the other half into my standard 6.5-quart stainless steel pot. I tried to make sure the cocoa butter chunks were close to the same size (which I independently verified with a highly skilled expert: my 12-year-old daughter).

Cocoa butter in shallow pot Cocoa butter for soap melting in a stainless steel pot 

I put one pot on the stove and timed exactly how long it took to fully melt the oils. I didn't stir or change the temperature. Then I repeated the exact same procedure (same burner) with the other pot.

And, he was right. The wide aluminum pot did melt the cocoa butter faster, by nearly 20%. Of course, that translated into just under one minute...but it's still different.

He takes Statistics next year so I'll update y'all then if the difference is statistically significant. LOL





Love is in the air...and the sink! Creating a custom wedding favor soap February 03, 2016 21:01 2 Comments

adorable wedding favor soapsA few months ago I was contacted through my Facebook page by a woman who had the coolest idea for her wedding: a treasure hunt! But let me step back first. Lisa and her fiancé, Corey first met in Decatur and fell in love with it for many of the same reasons I do. Despite being completely surrounded by Atlanta, Decatur is very different. It’s got a great small town feel, with a walkable downtown full of shops, restaurants and bars. Lisa and Corey decided that they wanted their wedding to celebrate all the things they love about Decatur and to share that love with their family and friends, especially those who don’t live here. They are getting married in late April, probably the prettiest month of the year here (second only to October), when the trees and flowers are in bloom, the pollen is gone, and the mosquitoes have yet to appear. I also got married in April, so I have a bit of a bias, but few Georgians would disagree that it’s gorgeous then.

But back to the wedding. Lisa and Corey are getting married at the Decatur Square, a well-known spot downtown surrounded by the county courthouse, shops, and greenspace. In the center of that greenspace is a large gazebo where they will be married. Interestingly, I can’t ever recall seeing anyone get married there but that seems unlikely because it really is an ideal spot. After the wedding ceremony in lieu of a cocktail hour, guests will be given a map and “tickets” to different businesses they have chosen as their "favorites" over the last two years of dating. Guests will walk over to Victory, a popular bar and restaurant to redeem their ticket for a signature Jack & Coke slushie and a delicious panini of their choice. Next guests will enjoy sweet treats and ice cream down the street at the Butter and Cream ice cream shop.  After this portion of the Treasure Hunt, guests will follow their map down to Twain's Brewpub and Billiards for a reception dinner and games late into the night. The final part of theTreasure Hunt will be to redeem their last ticket for their wedding favor: handcrafted soap.

That’s where I come in, obviously. Lisa and Corey love Home Grown, a really great boutique featuring locally made art and crafts. I have my soap there, and Lisa fell in love with them. (Not trying to toot my own horn, but she used those words exactly!) She reached out and asked if I would make their wedding favors. For those who don’t know, I had soap as favors at my own wedding four years ago so, of course, I loved the idea. We met recently and planned everything out. The soap is pink and cream, their wedding colors, and is scented with peach. They’ll be packaged in ivory organza bags with custom tags designed by the bride.

I feel honored to be part of their wedding and wish them all the best. Congratulations!

Bride and groom and their boys



Kifli (traditional Slovak Christmas cookie) December 11, 2015 11:06

I think every family has a traditional holiday dessert or cookie. If I did not make these, there surely would be a mutiny at our house. My parent's family is from Eastern Europe though they came to the US many generations ago. They are from what is now Slovakia but previously was Czechoslovakia and before that was a part of Poland. In Slovakia, these are called kifli. In the Czech Republic they are called kolachy and in Poland, they are called kolaches. There are many variations of kifli/kolachy/kolache; some call for yeast, some call for sour cream but ours do not. The dough has only three ingredients and the quantities are easy to remember (1, 2, 3).

This video is for Polish kolaches, but they're very similar to our family's cookies: The video leaves out two important steps: the dough must be refrigerated because it has so much butter and you should roll it out on powdered sugar. Don't forget those steps! I would use our recipe (below) because it makes more. You'll need lots--these go fast.

1 - 8 oz package of cream cheese (softened)
2 - sticks butter (softened, NOT melted)
3 - cups of flour
1 box powdered sugar
1 - can of Solo brand Apricot Filling (look in the baking aisle. Don't use pie filling, it is too runny. Use jam if you must, but Solo is the best by far).

Mix the butter and cream cheese thoroughly.  Then add flour a little at a time, blending well.  It is best if you can use a stand mixer but if you don't have one you can use a hand mixer until it gets too stiff, then you might have to finish it by hand. The dough should be similar to Play Dough. Then shape the dough into 2 or 3 balls.   Wrap the individual balls in plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight or for as long as you can.

Roll a small piece of the dough on a board which has been covered with powdered sugar. Put the rest of the dough back in the fridge, so it doesn't get too soft. Keep rolling and flipping the dough over until it is very thin and about 8" in diameter.  Keep adding powdered sugar on the board so the dough doesn't stick. Cut the dough into triangles, like a pizza. Put a dab (approx 1/4 teaspoon) of the filling at the wide end, then roll them up toward the point so you have a crescent shape. Put the cookies on a tin foil lined baking tray.  Bake for 12 - 15 minutes at 375F.  Watch carefully - remove as soon as they start to brown slightly.  Immediately use a spatula to transfer the cookies to a wire cooling rack.  Be careful - the filling will be very hot and sticky. Repeat until you have about 200. Don't worry, they won't last.

There are additional fillings you can use in these cookies. Most traditional would be poppyseed (which I kinda hate) and walnut, which I am too lazy to make (and kinda hate). I like Solo raspberry and almond filling and I am thinking of making my own pecan filling this year. My father is outraged about the pecan filling, but this is Georgia and, frankly, pecans are far superior to walnuts.

Enjoy! And if you give these a try, post a picture.
PS-don't tell my dad I shared the recipe. He'd be outraged about that too!

Roasted Root Vegetables November 25, 2015 12:26

Here is our often requested recipe for roasted root vegetables. It's a great Thanksgiving side dish. Truthfully, there's no "set" list of ingredients; I usually just include whatever is at the store.

1 onion, quartered

2-3 carrots, cut in 1" pieces

1 turnip, cut in 1" pieces

2-3 parsnips, cut in 1" pieces

1 beet, (often a contentious addition but I've grudgingly decided they're acceptable), cut in 1" pieces

Potato, Regular and/or Sweet. Cut into 1" pieces. The amount will depend on if you use new potatoes or larger ones.

6-7 cloves of garlic or more, peeled and lightly smashed

Small bunch of rosemary

1/4 cup olive oil (more or less)

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

Kosher salt and black pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 425. Cut the rosemary into small sections. I don't usually take it off the stem or chop it because I prefer to discard it after it's done its duty. Put rosemary, olive oil and vinegar into a bowl and mix. Toss in cut vegetables until the are well coated then spread on a large rimmed baking sheet. Sprinkly generously with salt and pepper. Don't crowd the vegetables as this will prevent them from browning! Use a second sheet if you have to. Bake for about 30 minutes until tender. Keep an eye on it, especially if it's close to the burner or you use a lot of oil.

Bring some to my house...


Upcycling ideas November 18, 2015 10:33

I am a big fan of repurposing old items into something new (my office desk), pretty and useful, especially if it keeps junk out of the landfill. This holiday season, I am aiming to buy gifts locally or make as many as can. I started doing this when my oldest son was a baby. One year everyone in my family got tailor made "fridge poetry" (back before non-magnetic stainless refrigerators were everywhere). Another year I made dog bed covers (which was really quite exceptional because I cannot sew to save my life). In my early years of soap making, they got a lot of bath and body products. Everyone should be suitably impressed because this was way before the days of Pinterest and even Google.

I really like some of the items here, particularly the knife block crayon holder, kids kitchen and dog bed hideaway. There are great gift ideas here as well. Some of them are a bit ambitious (the wine bottle chandelier) but others look quite easy. A good bit of the projects require you to knock over a paint store (101 craft projects with paint chips...). There are lots and lots of projects made with old maps, plastic bags, and the inevitable mason jar. This site has the motherload of upcycled gifts, including this awesome suede fringe purse!

I haven't decided what I will make this year though I am hoping to come up with a good sewing project. My 11 year old daughter got a sewing machine last year and, even though I don't know how to use it, I think she can teach me. I have a lot of gorgeous African fabric so perhaps we'll make something with that.

***When possible, I used a link that shows all the items on one page because I HATE slideshows.



Wine bottle chandelier

Knife block crayon holder

Suede fringe bag




Too much Stuff? Eleven Great Ideas for Experiential Holiday Gifts November 10, 2015 11:11

Recently, I was feeling frustrated by the clutter in my home and how it made me feel overwhelmed, suffocated, frustrated, and messy. I’m not super organized and one of the main reasons is because we have too much stuff. I knew the answer and it wasn’t cute storage boxes or new closet organization systems. It’s the stuff—all of it, the kitchen gadgets, the plastic toys from gift bags, the clothes, the decorative boxes and statues, the souvenirs from our travels. Why do we have so much stuff? And why is it so hard to get rid of? How can we keep it from coming back?

A few months ago I stumbled on "The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up" by Marie Kondo. It’s a short book and a quick read. You’ve probably heard of it. The author is Japanese and she has a very quirky style and a very strict system. But here’s the thing: it really works. She tells you how to let go of things: practically (first get rid of clothes, then books etc) and also emotionally (how to know when an item has served its purpose, how to manage sentimental items, what to do with clothes that aren’t quite right). So we started, we got rid of a lot of stuff and then we stopped. It’s a lot like a diet. We know what we need to do, but actually doing it and sticking with it can be tough. I still haven’t sorted through all of my soap making equipment and supplies. I have tons of different oils (olive, avocado, coconut, apricot, rice bran, and on and on) and a gazillion fragrance and essential oils. And micas. Sheesh. As soon as Christmas is over I’m going to be back to the grindstone with all of this.

But, Christmas. What about stuff and Christmas? I don’t want more stuff. Plus my kids are older. Four are in high school and the youngest is nearly a teenager. Gone are the days when Legos and art supplies made everyone happy. I want to give gifts that are appreciated, thoughtful, and fun but I don’t want more junk. So I set out to find gifts that are mostly experiences, with only a few things. Below is a list of the best ones I have found.

  1. Museum memberships--art museum, children’s museum, natural science museum, you name it. This is where you can personalize your gift—by choosing a membership that suits the recipient.
  2. Zoo, aquarium or botanical garden memberships--these are great family gifts and like many museums they sometimes partner with other museums so if the recipient visits another city they may be able to use their membership there too.
  3. Subscriptions--if you know of a magazine someone likes, get them a subscription. They’ll keep getting their gift all year. Bonus points: you can usually order then through a local school and they’ll get some extra funding. In our town, we have an amazing children’s bookstore called the Little Shop of Stories. They offer a yearlong book subscription service. Each month they’ll select a new book suited to your child’s age, gender, interests, etc. How great is that? Other stores might have this too so it’s worth it to ask. And when it’s all said and done: donate that book or magazine so someone else can love it.
  4. Classes-there is so much to learn! Dance classes, cooking classes, art classes, etc. My 11-year-old is a truly talented cook so last year she got a class in making French macarons. Boy was that a hit! If you’re in the Atlanta metro area, check out the Cooks Warehouse. Their cooking class options are huge! This year I am thinking of glass blowing classes. There are ones where you can make and take an ornament or paperweight.
  5. Season tickets--it doesn’t necessarily have to be major league football or baseball (though that might make some folks incredibly happy). Minor league teams are often just as much fun or more because the venues are small and family oriented. And the price is better too. If you can’t do season tickets, how about an individual game? This would be a great family gift because they can enjoy the memories forever. And this list isn’t limited to sports-there’s the theater, symphony, opera, whatever…again, this is how you personalize your gift.
  6. Restaurant gift certificates-perhaps to a new or fancy restaurant, someplace the recipient could go to on a special occasion.
  7. Movie tickets or a movie subscription service--I love going to movies both as a date and with the whole family. Or Netflix, Hulu, etc. Not having to pay for it?? Yay!
  8. Warehouse club subscriptions—hey, it may not be all that romantic but Costco or Sam’s Club can be pretty thoughtful really. You just have to sell it right. ;-)
  9. Investments--Last year, I bought my son a share of IBM stock, where his father worked for many years. You can get this through a discount brokerage or other services such as One Share (watch out for extra fees though).
  10. A trip or vacation—it could be Disney, a weekend at a cabin, even camping at a state park. Tailor it to your family. We took a family vacation over the summer to Mexico--all seven of us. We are getting pretty good at figuring out ways to save money with a big family. (I’ll try to remember to write about that someday). Anyway, our kids are older so we saw this as potentially our last full family trip. We drove all over Mexico and it was exhausting, but I am so glad we went. Every one of us got something different out of that experience, but we’ll all remember it forever.
  11. Experiences—race car driving, sky diving (no thank you), biplane rides, laser tag, etc. There are often good deals in Groupon or Living Social so check them out.

Do you have a suggestion for a “non-stuff” holiday gift? Please share it in the comments!

My office transformation October 22, 2015 10:50

Have I mentioned I am disorganized? Illustrative example: I just filed my taxes. In September. One reason, ok excuse, is that I don't have an office. We don't have a room that we can use as an office (5 kids and all) so I have been making do on the kitchen table. "Making do" is a stretch. 

Witness Exhibit A:

Crazy cluttered office area

 Just as an aside, I blame my parents for the state of things because this  is clearly an example of genetics gone awry. My mom is one of the most  organized people I know and my not. What I get out of this  genetic mash-up is a sincere desire to be organized and a complete  inability to do so without substantial effort and a lot of coffee.

 So after finally submitting my taxes and lamenting the fact that it took  me a good solid 24 hours to even figure out how much I had already  paid in estimated taxes, I figured there just had to be a solution. A  search on Google yielded filing systems and flow charts but not  something that would magically add an additional room to my house.  But then I hit paydirt: Pinterest. As a general rule, I think most projects  on Pinterest are clearly designed by people who don't have kids or jobs  because who the hell has time (or money) for this stuff??? But Pinterest had some pretty good suggestions for viable options.

                     Like this:                                                                            and this:



I've uploaded a bunch of other ideas to my Pinterest page if you want to see them. I decided to give it a try. I didn't have much to lose.

I found a cheap oak armoire on Craigs List for $50. It was solid (and heavy!) but in good condition. I bought some Valspar Chalky Paint at Lowes

 which seemed overpriced ($20 for a quart) but you didn't have to prime first. 


The rope around the armoire was because the doors wouldn't close. I fixed that with some magnets and a hot glue gun. I applied two coats of the chalky paint (I love the color) then a sealing wax. They also have an antiquing finish but since my piece doesn't have any carving or texture it seemed unnecessary. I painted a chalkboard on the inside door, added a cute lamp and that was it! I am so happy with the results. I still have to work on organizing my files but it's a start. If all else fails, I can shut the doors and no one has to see my disaster!

Here's the finished project. I don't know how much I saved in terms of money but I'm really satisfied with myself.

It's back to school season! September 10, 2015 08:53

It feels like the beginning of the school year is a logical time to introduce some much-needed order into my otherwise chaotic world. We've got five kids (three are mine, two are my husbands') and it seems like there's always something going on. There's piano, soccer, scouts, you name it. And it all happens between 3-9 PM; in other words, during rush hour when kids (and moms) are tired/hungry/stressed out, when homework needs to get done, and all of a sudden you realize you don't have anything for dinner.

I used to love to cook but then life got in the way. I hate saying "guess what kids? It's fend-for-yourself-night again"! Figuring out what to make is a challenge since my 16-year-old is vegetarian. I am perfectly happy to eat less meat, but I do still want some (as do the rest of the kids).

I'm always on the lookout for strategies, apps, etc that can help me stay on top of things. Have I mentioned I'm disorganized? It's true; just ask my husband, kids, accountant, friends. Anyway, I stumbled on a service called Cook Smarts. Basically, it's a menu/recipe service but there are a few things about it that are helpful. It's a paid service, but the cost is relatively reasonable (around $7 per month) and worth it, if it saves my family the mental trauma of a stressed out parent. They send you four recipes a week but each one can be modified for the number of servings or to be vegetarian, gluten-free or paleo. That means I can tweak it so that the whole family is having basically the same thing but with a few modifications for my vegetarian. For example, tonight's dinner is Latin Spice Rubbed Pork Chops. I got enough pork for most of us but then followed the vegetarian version and got some tempeh for Josh. If there's something on the menu you don't like,  you can access their recipe archives and sub in a different dish. Once you've picked out your meals for the week you can generate a shopping list (which also gives you the opportunity to mark the things you already have). They'll tell you which things can be prepped in advance so if you have time on Sunday night you can get ahead. Next week's menu includes the following recipes: salmon with orange ginger sauce, slow cooker chicken tagine, panko crusted pork chops, and pasta frittata with zucchini and red peppers. Yum!

If you have any suggestions or strategies for managing a hectic life please pass it on in the comments. 

Properties of Soap Making Oils August 11, 2015 14:25 1 Comment

Soap is a bit like curry. Sure you can buy straight yellow curry powder but most chefs will tell you that the very best curry is made by carefully combining lots of different spices. The end result is a dish where all the spices work to create something greater than the sum of its parts. But…it pays to know your ingredients. Too much of something (usually chili) and you’ve got a flop.

Soap making (saponification) is a chemical reaction between a base and an acid. Generally the base is sodium hydroxide while the acid is one or more oils or fats.

The trouble with short cuts April 28, 2015 13:00

I've been making soap a long time. Thirteen or fourteen years to be not very precise. I can't remember exactly because my oldest son was an infant at the time and, as any parent will tell you (in more detail than you want), no one remembers a darn thing from their kids' infancy because they're too damn tired. Why on earth did I think, "I've got a baby, my FIRST baby, so I think I'll take up a hobby"? Especially a hobby that involves caustic chemicals, precision, and patience. Things you really shouldn't pair with a new parent. But I tend to be the sort of person who is decisive (the synonym for that being impulsive) so I bought a bunch of books and gave it a whirl. Honestly, the last thing I needed was another hobby but I found I really enjoyed making soap. I liked the combination of art and science. I liked that it involved Chemistry (shout out to Dr. Collins, my Chemistry professor in college who had a shrine to Elvis) and I liked making something useful.

In the years since that moment of weakness, I have made a lot of soap. I don't even know how much. I know I haven't bought soap in forever (unless it's someone else's handmade soap or, God forbid, I had a situation where I HAD to buy commercial soap). I took a few breaks too, particularly when I was pregnant with kid #2. I had a moment of sanity where I thought, "Hmm, I have a toddler and I'm about to have another kid. Maybe I shouldn't be doing this right now". Ya think? 

But I always went back to soap making. And thanks to some extraordinary divine intervention, I really didn't screw up. Because, if you make soap, there are a GAZILLION ways to screw up. There's lye, which is extremely caustic and can be mismeasured or spilled thereby ruining you soap, countertop or a lot more. There's oils which are expensive and can get rancid or spilled. Actually, everything can and will get spilled. There are 25 different ways you can miscalculate a recipe, 24 of which have disastrous results. But overall, I made very few mistakes. I wasn't good; I think I was just too scared the house would blow up so I was really really careful. About a year ago I made my first big mistake. It was such a lovely recipe too; Orange Ginger soap, made with coconut oil, shea butter, olive oil, orange essential oil and a design which looked like a sunset in the desert. Except, I forgot to add the olive oil. This is why I should never make soap at night; I'm too tired (refer back to the above section on kids, except that now I had five). I kept thinking, "why is this batch so small?" but I never put it all together. The next morning I went to cut my soap and it was like a brick of 50-year-old Parmesan cheese--rock hard and brittle. I knew at that point I'd screwed up so I used the highly imprecise, but still very accurate zap test. I licked the soap. Soap that has any unreacted lye will zap you just like you'd licked a 9-volt battery. Up until that day, I'd never been zapped but that streak was now over. I went back over everything, realized my mistake...and into the trash it went. I could have salvaged it by using a technique called hot process, but I was so pissed off I just threw it away. I wish I'd taken a picture of my colossal failure but I did not.

Fear not. I screwed up again recently and this time I documented it in iPhone detail. I was making a new batch (always dangerous) using a well known essential oil blend called "Thieves" (more on the origin of Thieves sometime because it's a truly bizarre story). Anyway, Thieves is (of course) a very expensive blend. It has cloves, cinnamon, rosemary, eucalyptus, and lemon. It smells like a spicy doctor's office.

Because I have a number of shows coming up and because it's fall and people like to buy soap as gifts, I decided to discount the water I use to dissolve my lye. I won't get into all of the ins and outs of discounting water. Basically, all you need to know is that a) it will make your soap cure (get hard) faster and b) it can make your soap "accelerate" which basically means the batter takes less time to get thick. So, stupid me decides to do a big water discount. I knew it might make things go faster but I figured, "hey I've been making soap for thirteen or fourteen years--give or take a few; I can handle this". Mental note: Pride goeth before a fall. I add the lye water to my oils and damn expensive essential oils and within 90 seconds it is rock hard. In that 90 seconds, I had succeeded in pouring the soap batter into three containers with colors and mixed it just enough so that it was kind of colored, but mostly not. Just enough to look bad. Of course, it was pointless since I couldn't even get it off the spoon, much less in the mold. So there went my vision for a pretty cream colored soap topped with a layer of black soap colored by activated charcoal and another layer colored by purple Brazilian clay. Damn damn damn. That's not actually what I said. It was really worse than that.

I decided this time I would try to salvage my recipe since I knew I had the correct amount of oil and lye. And because of all those essential oils. I still don't want to calculate how much they cost. Anyway, you can save a mess like this by hot processing it--cooking it in a crockpot. The heat will soften it up, speed up the saponification reaction, and make it possible to get it in the mold. The only problem is, it will never liquefy the soap, just soften it to the consistency of lumpy mashed potatoes.

I really hate hot process soap. It is so damn ugly. I ended up having to mix the two colored batches together so instead of nice cream, black and purple layers I got brown vaseline layer topped by something akin to grey-black rock. In fact, the top looked pretty much identical to a blue corn chip.

Voila! The finished masterpiece.

I told my daughter and step-daughter about it on the way home from school that day. I explained it was pretty awful, but when they saw it they didn't mince words, "wow, that is really terrible". Thanks, guys. Then my daughter said, "nothing good ever comes from taking shortcuts, Mom".

She's a smart one.