There Is A Season

I mentioned in my last post that priorities are shifting slightly now.  While I draw up supply orders and accounting for Blue Yonder Botanicals, I’ve got other things to do.  Today, it was pulling together some beef jerky at the UUH’s request.

It’s not that difficult — you can do it with an oven, a grill/smoker, a dehydrator, or any combination of the above.  There are a couple key points, though.  The meat should be as free of fat as possible, which means a lot of trimming and for me, a couple very happy dogs.  The next question is whether you put a cure into the brine or the rub.  The cure (I use Instacure #1) when used properly, prevents certain bacteria (including botulism) from reproducing during a long, slow, low-temperature smoking and drying cycle.  Other people do not use it; the arguments on both sides are easily found in a Google search. The last factor is that you don’t want to heat it up so fast you get a “crust” on the top, which will mislead you about how dry the inside of the meat is.  That means lower temperatures.

I usually use some form of bottom round that I find cheapest at the supermarket.  I partially freeze it, so I can slice it thinly.  This batch went into a marinade of soy sauce, ponzu (for that citrus tang), cure, brown sugar, and sriracha sauce for a slight pepper kick. It sat for 12 hours in the fridge (flip and massage it a few times) and then, after warming up a bit, went into the smoker for 3 hours at 120 to 150 degrees over hickory.  We want to smoke and dry it, not cook it.

Out of the smoker, ready for the McGuffin.

After the smoke, it goes into the dehydrator (mine is the boss Excalibur 9-rack, called The McGuffin) for as long as it takes at the 155F setting.  A lot depends on how thickly the meat is cut (most jerky makers recommend 1/4″ slices at the thickest) and how big they are.  This batch took about 4 hours after the smoke.  When the pieces are dry on the surface, and bend and then crack, you’re probably done. Moist spots are no good — put those dudes back in the dehydrator.  Like most nifty alchemist things, jerky takes as much time as it needs.

The finished jerky. That’s the McGuffin that dried it.

This batch turned out well — a tender and delicious balance of sweet, smoke and salt, with a little kick of sriracha flavor at the end.

During the entire process, you lose more than half (at least) of the poundage of the meat you start with; the process is labor and ingredient intensive; and it takes time and attention to tend and test.  But man, is it worth it in the end for the sheer, though ephemeral, happiness of this stuff.

 

By Any Other Name, Would Smell As Sweet

Where’s Waldo in the Ginger Thomas? (If Waldo were a bananaquit.)

The Ginger Thomas is the official flower of the U.S. Virgin Islands, and on St. Croix it is everywhere.  It grows as a shrub or small tree, sometimes in thick stands, stays green all year long and produces thousands of trumpet-shaped, fluted, bright-yellow flowers.  Maybe because of its ubiquity, it has nearly as many names as its blossoms:  Yellow Cedar, Yellow Elder, Yellow Trumpet Flower, Yellow Trumpetbush, Yellow Bells, and in Spanish “Esperanza” (meaning hope). Or, if you’re an alchemist into Latin, Tecoma stans.

Ginger Thomas stand outside Blue Yonder.

 

Around Blue Yonder, the Ginger Thomas stands support a thriving community of bananaquits, Anguillan crested hummingbirds, yellow warblers, St. Lucia warblers, and the occasional smooth-beaked Ani, cattle egret, zenaida dove, or one of the kestrel pair that lives down the hill.

 

The plant’s not just useful for the birds, though.  According to Traditional Medicinal Plants of St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John, a remarkable book produced by the University of the Virgin Islands, the Ginger Thomas has had therapeutic uses for generations.  The leaves are used externally for fever and strengthening women after childbirth.  Internally, they are a treatment for colds, diabetes, headaches, high blood pressure, and jaundice.  It’s not all folk wisdom, either; a 1977 study showed that plant compounds in the Ginger Thomas demonstrated hypoglycemic activity, and may show promise for developing insulin substitutes.

You have coffee, I’ll have lunch.

While it’s cool to have what is essentially part of a medicine cabinet right next to your house, though, that’s not really why I am so passionate about these flowers.  There really isn’t anything like waking up to a mass of green and yellow glowing in the sunlight, and listening to the bananaquits and hummingbirds bicker their raspy, musical little complaints at each other while you have your morning coffee on the deck.  The bloom is highest in August, but there are flowers all year round.  There’s always a riot of green and yellow — so of course, inspired, I had to make a soap.

“Ginger Thomas.”

 

It’s a straightforward formula of olive, coconut and castor oils, colored with ultramarine green and lemon micas, and swirled using the “ITP” (in-the-pot) technique.  The fragrance of the flower is very delicate (and believe me, you have to watch out for bees if you try to smell one), so I mixed a number of fragrance oils to try to replicate it. The scent is both blossomy and lemony, with a touch of greenery as a base note.  I think, once cured, this soap will bring me right back to the island whenever I use it.

The greenery isn’t the only transfixing thing about St. Croix, though.  There’s always the water.

Waves over a reef on the way to Buck Island.

At just the right time, usually in the late afternoon when the sun lowers, the light can turn everything it touches to gold.  It will trace along the breaking waves in streaks and bolts, almost as if it is dancing with the water, and it lasts for only a moment.  I’ve never caught a picture of this happening, and given my clumsiness with a camera, probably never will.  But I have enough of a memory to try to replicate it.

“Swirling Reef of Death.”

 

Now I’d done more than one sea-inspired soap, the last being the “Swirling Reef of Death” — named after a snorkeling site that really isn’t.  It was obvious that I needed to create and name the next one after another dive site, but I had to show the golden light on the wave, and maybe make the soap itself a little less “busy.”

I used the same “tiger stripe” technique as Swirling Reef, and pretty much the same formula, but I let the soap thicken more before pouring. I also created a “mica swirl” with some gold mica and oils set aside from the base formula, and drizzled it along the peaks and valleys of the soap top to try to show the afternoon light dancing along the wavefoam.  The scent is my go-to island fragrance, sea and flowers and fruit.  What resulted was “Cane Bay.”

“Cane Bay.”

Cane Bay is a first-rate snorkeling, sunning, and dive site on St. Croix’s North Shore, visited by both residents and tourists, and about as low-key a place as you can find anywhere in the Caribbean.  It’s popular with young families because the water is warm and usually quiet. There’s a dive shop right there, because the Wall is very close by, but you don’t have to go far out to see astonishing visions of fish and corals. In fact, the UUH and I saw one of the biggest green Moray eels that I would not want to see ever, ever again, considering I was about a foot away from its astoundingly toothy face (seriously, you have never seen that many teeth in a single animal smaller than a shark) when I blundered close to its headquarters. I was amazed by how fast I could swim backwards and that it is indeed possible to wave one’s arms around Kermit-the-Frog-like while making incomprehensible but obviously alarmed sounds through a snorkeling tube at one’s husband.

I made one more soap from the images from the island.  Hibiscus flowers (Hibisca rosa-sinensis), like the Ginger Thomas, grow enthusiastically everywhere you turn.  They’re not only cultivated for their beauty, but for their usefulness — the flowers make a delicious traditional tea in the Caribbean.  One afternoon, I saw a single deep ruby blossom floating in a tidepool, itself as blue as a robin’s egg, near the shore.

Now I had a vague idea of how to reproduce this, and it involved a two-step process — making an insert for the flower, and then placing it in another batch of blue soap once it had hardened a bit.  I’d tried this before, last year during August’s Blue Moon, with a somewhat simpler insert.

“Blue Moon, for Neil Armstrong”

“Blue Moon, for Neil Armstrong” came out pretty well, so I forged ahead.

The first problem was the flower.  It’s one thing to pour soap into a tube.  It’s entirely another to make it look like a flower.  It stumped me until I thought of a cookie cutter — once the soap had set, I could push a cutter down the tube of soap, peeling off portions of the exterior into petal shapes.

And here’s where I made my first mistake.  I didn’t pay enough attention to how big I should make the flower insert, so I used a much larger cylinder mold than I should have.  Once I popped it out, I realized to my horror that not only was the bloody thing harder than a rock, it was enormous. (Spatial relations are not my strong suit.)  It was so big that it wouldn’t fit into the mold I was going to use for the finished soap. Stalemate.

A panicked search through the house produced a cardboard box that just might work.  And now I had to do the cookie-cuttering.  It must have taken an hour to push the cutter down the insert with about as much sweating and swearing as you’d find in a boxing gym.  I was so fed up with it by the time I finished that I briefly considered tossing it into the pool and saying, “THAT’S IT I’M DONE,” but fortunately rationality won that war.  I lined the box I found with a patterned silicone liner usually used for fondant on cakes (hat-tip to Cake Alchemist Navi for that idea!), whipped up the blue soap, and as carefully as I could I placed the insert inside.  24 hours later I had this:

Out of the box.

I immediately discovered ANOTHER problem.

Tank cutter.

 

 

The thing was so big it wouldn’t fit into the tank cutter.

 

 

 

The UUH’s handmade cutter (that’s the first “Christiansted” soap on it).

 

 

 

In fact, it was so big it wouldn’t fit into the other cutter either.

 

 

 

It was so big that the UUH had to make another cutter especially for it.  We had to use a gigantic chef’s knife to assault the thing. But in the end, after all the work and angst, we had “Hibiscus In Blue Water.”

“Hibiscus In Blue Water.”

Now I’m not kidding when I tell you this soap is BIG.  While most of my soaps run between 4 and 5 ounces, these dudes weigh in at about 11 ounces.  We could use this soap to deflect asteroids and then take a shower with it.  The irony is that it has a delightful combination of really lovely, full fragrances — the flower is scented with osmanthus touched with a deepening amber, and the sea is the island fragrance I love. Due to its size, it’s a soap for the sensitive, discerning yeti, I suppose.  But on the other hand (well, both hands) it will be a gentle, bubbly and creamy soap once it’s done curing and it will last forever.  Let’s not be sizeist.

Everything is relative.

Now that I’m back on the mainland, other things are starting to take precedence.  There’s a garden that needs tending, jerky and sausage and bacon to make, and the Hive Queen has some prickly pears that should be made into syrup, jellies, and hot and barbeque sauces.  Calendulas and roses need drying and the front of the house needs replanting since the water main explosion. (Don’t ask.) There’s a lot of recordkeeping and paperwork and accounting to be done for Blue Yonder Botanicals — not to mention a massive reorder for supplies — that needs to be fitted into the usual routine of shopping, feeding, cleaning, and dealing with water main explosions.  You know, just like everyone else’s life.  So I’ll leave you with this:

Wherever you go, there she is.

Until next time.

/ps That’s Big Fred The Reluctant Passiflora in the pictures.

Don’t Break The Line, The Last Gasp, and A New Start

Over at Great Cakes Soapworks, Amy Warden has thrown out a weekly challenge.  Each week presents a new technique for cold process soapmaking.  The first week’s was the “tiger stripe” technique, which resulted for me in “Kathakali Dance.”

Tiger stripe technique, “Kathakali Dance”

 

This week’s challenge is what’s called an “elemental swirl.”  It involves splitting the formula into four colors, swirling two of the colors into one pot and the other two into another pot, and separating the two swirled pots into the mold separated by a dividing line.

It’s nuts. It will make your lab look like it exploded and it requires you to work faster than the guy trying to sell you OxyClean on late-night cable.

So I did it.  I had a vague idea of a St. Croix beach, where the sand slides into the sea, reef lines calm the closest waters into gentler greens and blues, and the sky and clouds touch the ocean out on the horizon.  I used my go-to shea butter recipe, assembled the colorants — ultramarine blue and violet, the stargazer flower stamen colorant, a bit of apricot Labcolor, some crushed chamomile flowers, a bit of titanium dioxide, and some purple and blue micas for the dividing line between the two sets of swirled colors.  (Of course I had to clean the kitchen about three times before this, because somehow we create more dirty dishes than the 49ers cafeteria on a daily basis.)

The key to this technique is (well, actually there are enough “keys” to suit a janitor’s belt) but the KEY is DON’T BREAK THE LINE.  There are a number of ways and materials to make the Line, but I used the foot of a new pair of nylon stockings stretched over a ramekin full of the mixed blue and purple micas.  I experimented with “poofing out” the micas through this primitive device and in the fog that resulted ended up looking like part of the Blue Man Group.

Apologies to the artists, but you really need a visual for this.

 

Micas are basically colored dust and boy do they act like it.  A half hour of cleanup later I determined that gently tapping the bottom of the ramekin would distribute the mica evenly in a (sort of) contained area.  The next trick is to slide the following layer ever so gently atop the mica line.  Of course, I had to do two mica lines instead of one, because I am that kind of idiot.

Frantic mixing, panicking, and pouring later, I ended up with something I didn’t quite expect, but pleased me all the same because I knew exactly what to call it.  For those not in the know, the “Painkiller” is a pretty powerful rum-based mixed drink that’ll sneak up on you worse than the next Twilight movie.  It’s the official drink of the British Virgin Islands and the unofficial drink of all the others.

Elemental Swirl technique, “Caribbean Beach After A Few Painkillers”

If you’d like to see other phenomenal examples of the Elemental Swirl technique, check out the challenge page here.

Before “CBAAFP,”  I’d finally decided to make a lavender soap.  A lot of people like lavender, but I’ve never been a big fan — until I met a little varietal called “Thumbelina.”  Thumbelina is a dwarf lavender that produces a fragrance so rich and deep that it bears almost no resemblance to the powdery, headachy, acrid lavender scent you run across way too often.  I knew that would be the kind of lavender I wanted, and finally found it in a Hungarian lavender essential oil “fixed” with a touch of patchouli.

“Night Lavender.”

It smells exactly as I hoped — very much lavender, but full and complex. It was colored with a purple mica, touched with blue (much like the combination for the Line in the CBAAFP).  I’ll be making it again.

With “CBAAFP” and “Night Lavender,” I’ve come down to the last of my oil and butter supplies, which is what I intended to do.  I have a new soapmaking program that not only records formulas, costs, and batch production, but also controls inventory.  Trying to make sense of what I had would have only made things more difficult, so I thought I’d draw everything down as close to zero as I could before starting up in a “serious” fashion.

Now’s the time I take final inventory on colorants and fragrances, make up the order list for oils, butters, and other necessaries, get the inventory program up and running, and finally get Blue Yonder Botanicals off the ground.  I think a few Painkillers are in order.

 

The New Christiansted

Blue Yonder from the South Shore

Ten minutes away from Blue Yonder lies Christiansted, one of the two major towns on St. Croix.  It’s small; Wikipedia will tell you that in 2004 it had a population of about 3,000.  The population might have grown (slightly) since then, but it remains an eminently walkable and very beautiful little town, arcing up from a brilliant blue harbor and wooden boardwalk with cobblestone streets and stone-floored pedestrian pathways that look like medieval cloister walks.  Each building seems a pastel bleached by salt wind and rain, and heavy wooden doors built to withstand hurricanes conceal little shops containing extraordinary treasures.  St. Croix is known for its jewelrymaking — you have to look hard to find the usual “Made in China” junk jewelry here — and the area around Christiansted’s “Company Street” is one of the places to find not only jewelry, but gorgeous handmade items from clothing to original art to woodworking and home decor.

Christiansted is a continuing inspiration.

The first Christiansted color inspiration.

 

Last year, I came home from a trip to the island with a picture that I wanted to reproduce, in color, in a soap.

 

 

I’d tried an enfleurage of the island’s official flower, the Ginger Thomas, while I was there.  I thought I would use that as a starting point. While at first the brilliant yellow seemed to hold true in the soap, in a short time it had morphed a creamy white.  Now this wasn’t at all what I was after, so I “remilled” it.  I shredded the original soap, added new oils and a good shot of Morroccan red clay, and did what’s called an “in the pot swirl.”  It turned out to be one of my testers’ favorite soaps.

The first “Christiansted.”

I’ve made a lot of soaps since then, but Christiansted as a subject kept coming up. I had another picture that I kept referring to, the washed and textured pink of one of the cloister walks leading down to the harbor, and it would not leave me alone.

The Walk.

 

Helpless, I decided to try this year’s version of “Christiansted,” emphasizing the delicacy of the pink and the texture of the surfaces.  I would use the same remilled technique as I had with the first version.

 

 

For Step One, I started with a coconut oil, olive oil, shea butter and castor oil formula. For scent, I used some essential oils I’d picked up in Kochi, India:  lotus and jasmine, with a touch of patchouli to “fix” the scents.  Once the soap had set up, I discovered that not only had the scent oils “poofed,” but they hadn’t even bothered to leave a forwarding address.  So I had a free hand with fragrance on the remilled step.

Once the Step One soap was shredded and moistened with coconut milk, it was added to a new batch of coconut, olive, and castor oil as well as a healthy dose of mango seed butter, fragranced with my favorite “island” scent of salt air, fruit, and ginger blossom, and then colored with a swirl of ultramarine pink.  Oh, and I added a couple tablespoons of St. Croix honey, dispersed in warm retained water, to the formula to increase lather and bubbliness.

The gentleness and delicacy of the color and the fragility of the swirls surprised me when I finally unmolded and cut it.  Below you’ll see “The New Christiansted:”

Two or three of the pieces, not shown here, contain tiny droplets of pure St. Croix honey that reformed from dispersion during the curing process.  I call those my “Sweet Honey in the Rock” surprise, and I covet them.  Since then, I’ve learned how to avoid the phenomenon (it’s well known), but I’m still ridiculously pleased by its appearance in the “new Christiansted.”  It’s nice to receive a surprise gift like that.

The new Christiansted is loaded with skin-loving oils and butters — both shea and mango seed — and has the fragrance of the tropics.  It’s more than ready for use-testing, and I’ll report back on how it does.

A Brief Digression Into Disaster

Sometimes things go really wrong in the lab.

 

 

 

Oh yeah.

 

 

 

A few days ago, I posted about a soap I’d made using a technique called “tiger stripe.”  I was trying to reproduce some of the colors, scents and the the overall sensory dazzlement of an Indian cultural dance called “Kathakali.”  I posted the picture of the end result:

“Kathakali Dance.”

But I also dropped some hints in that post that my first attempt at this soap was a nearly unmitigated disaster.  It thickened, almost to seizing, at an absolutely lightning rate. I was digging and blopping and slamming things around even to get it into the mold.  I unmolded and cut it and then abandoned it on the cure rack, where I tried to avoid looking at it every time I went into the Lab.

But you know, they’re still your babies.  After four weeks (which is as early as I’ll try a soap in cure), it smells wonderful. It behaves beautifully, lathering and conditioning superbly. But it also, still, and will eternally, look like something scraped off a wet barn after it escaped from a Monsanto lab.

I figured it would only be fair to show you exactly what my first attempt looks like.

Glop, air bubbles, resolidifying oils, weirdly morphing yellow: what didn’t go wrong with this?

Every soapmaker has Those Soaps We Only Use In The House: the “Uglysoaps.”  They might be some of the best-performing soaps you’ll ever use, but if your first instinct is to recoil in fear and protect your children when you see them — well, that’s not such a great marketing feature.  I’m afraid this guy is an Uglysoap, but he’ll have a home (and a use) simply for being such a terrific instructor in the value of trying again.

 

 

Do-Overs, Mulligans, and Restarts — Let’s Take It From The Top

I spent a pretty good portion of the day yesterday combing through comments posted to the blog.  Considering I’ve been out of the ring for a couple months, due to the Bad Situation and its ongoing effects, there were more than a few of them.  Over a thousand, in fact.  And most of them were autogenerated come-ons for various websites selling — well, here’s a very partial list:

replica handbags, knockoff handbags, michael kors, levitra, viagra, retin a, clarisonic, soma, parajumpers, strattera, propecia, nike, kamagra, bose, dr dre, montblanc, seo, burberry, bose, and apparently Michael Jordan.

It was pretty clear pretty fast that my filters really needed fixing, but I was unwilling to universal-wipe the comments just in case there was some gem buried in there.  (For the impatient types, there wasn’t).  Accordingly, I was able to experience the full spectrum of Interwebs barker teases, which kept raising unanswerable questions in my head as I scrolled through. Most were fairly innocuous:  If soma is a drug, how do you make a bra out of it? Who is Karen Mullen and why is her coat so important — does it make you invisible or something? Is she here standing behind me, transparent, right now? What on earth is a “parajumper” and why do I need one? Do I get a base jumper for half off if I buy it?  Is everyone on earth selling “replica” handbags except me, and if so, how did I miss the memo?

Others were a bit more disturbing — such as the website that asked, “Does Viagra work on dogs?”  or the one that promised in English not just broken but annihilated that I’d become a “supercharged dildo” if I used their SEO scripting.

I finished the job and fixed the filters (again) and then, hoping for some lighthearted entertainment, moved over to my favorite vice: the U.K.’s best rag, also known as the Daily Mail.  There, I learned about various family murders, a guy too dumb to turn off his truck when the tailpipe got buried in mud, more than enough about Kim Kardashian’s sartorial choices, and the news that a cute young woman had just received a $500,000 advance to write a book about her life buying drugs, taking drugs, having sex for drugs, and writing magazine pieces about all of the above plus some comments about makeup.

I had the John Cleese moment in “A Fish Called Wanda” — the courtroom scene where he says, “Right, that’s it” — and went outside into the back garden, wishing that life had a “Reset” button.

Well, sometimes it does.  As Robert Orben remarked,

Spring is God’s way of saying, ‘One more time!’

 

Chamomile and chives. I’m pretty sure that pot was empty before winter.

Instead of my usual manic winter cleanup last year, I’d decided to let the various containers, pots and the side bed do as they would without any interference.  And sure, I found a tangled mess of dead tomatoes and peppers, a marjoram that looked like it committed seppoku, and what I think are three-foot-tall dandelions in the side bed.  They’re either dandelions or they’re triffids, and I have no more bandwidth to worry.

The Brave Little Valerian x 4

 

But I also found that the Brave Little Valerian had not only survived me ripping it up last fall, chopping off its roots, and cutting its root crown into four pieces before replanting — but that all four of them were thriving.

 

 

The passifloras, both Big Fred and the Little Guy The Butterflies Gnaw Down To A Stick During The Summer, had also pulled through.

Passiflora edulis “Frederick,” a.k.a. “Big Fred”

 

Fred seems to have forgotten that he is supposed to be a “vine,” the kind of plant that climbs things, and settled into a comfortable couch potato position on the fence.

 

 

 

The side bed was a jungle.  I’d sown calendula seeds at random right before the rains set in, simply out of curiosity as to what they would do.  I found, amidst the three-foot-“dandelions” mentioned above,

Calendulas, an official Really Useful Plant

a riot of blossoms that I immediately started cutting and drying. (Calendula has an herbalist and culinary history since the Middle Ages. King Henry VIII insisted that his food be brightly colored and his cooks used Calendula for bright orange and yellow shades.  According to ancient and modern herbalists, it’s also a superb treatment for skin conditions, burns, bruises, and strains, and has applications for gastrointestinal disturbances as well).  But it wasn’t just the calendulas that had taken advantage of my benign neglect.

Golden lemon thyme, lime thyme, Faustino thyme, yarrow, and one determined strawberry plant

 

 

The various thymes had run riot, the yarrow was exploding, and a strawberry plant that had appeared really, truly, and seriously dead for months had resurrected itself.

 

 

Even better, the lemon verbena had come roaring back after my perhaps too-enthusiastic harvesting last fall.

A very forgiving lemon verbena.

 

(Lemon verbena makes a fantastic tea all by itself, adds terrific flavor other less appealing medicinal teas, and can convince almost anyone to eat their vegetables when added as a delicate seasoning, either fresh or dried.)

 

 

And much to my delight, my lavenders had survived.  I’ve had about as much luck with lavenders as I had in the past with passifloras — I’d plant them, they’d flourish for a while, and then they’d curl up and die overnight.  Less water, more water, less sun, more sun, feed them, don’t; nothing I did seemed to make any difference.  But simply being left alone was more to their taste.

Lavendula augustifolia “Hidcote” — English lavender.

There’s also another one, planted next to an aloe that also seems to have pulled through pretty well.

C’mon, little fella! You can do it!

It’s a smaller varietal which, unfortunately, I seem to have forgotten the name of, though its flowers last year had a lovely, rich, deep scent that a lot of lavenders don’t possess. (A lot of them have that cutting, acrid, headachy sweetness that smells like Grandma’s wardrobe).  It’s looking a little punky right now, but I hope the spring will inspire it as it has its companion.

It takes a lot of stress and awfulness to make someone like me ignore a garden for months.  But you’d think I would have learned from something I posted myself a while ago — sometimes, it’s not a disaster to step back, take a breath, and leave things alone for a while.  There might just be a “Start Over” coming down the road.

 

 

 

And Now For Something Not Too Completely Different

Up in Blue Yonder (that’s her center in the picture above — she’s kind of hard to miss from the St. Croix South Shore, where this picture was taken), you’re surrounded by Ginger Thomas flowers.  From the deck, you quickly become aware that there are entire nations
of birds, lizards, mongeese, bees, and other bugs you don’t really want to think about that view the place as home.

The most common birds, bananaquits and Anguillan crested hummingbirds, rely heavily on the nectar produced by the bright yellow Ginger Thomas flower.  They get it, though, in two different ways:  while the hummingbirds use their tongues to go into the center of the flower, the bananaquits are a little more brutal.  They use their curved beak to pierce between the petals and the calyx (the little green pocket that holds the petals), to get directly to the nectar without any fuss.  This might be because, unlike hummingbirds, they cannot hover and must perch to get their food.  It also might be because it’s more fun that way, which is the explanation I tend to believe because of their relentless pugnacity.  (Also, anyone who’s ever torn apart a baked potato might appreciate this.)

I found this time that the Ginger Thomas isn’t the only local plant that produces the nectar these guys desire.  Along a stone wall above the house, some wild-looking cactuses grow.  They have long, spindly, wickedly thorned appendages that look like they just stopped flailing around the second you turned to look. And this visit, I found that they produce an equally-weird looking flower that was like crack cocaine to the hummingbirds and the bananaquits.

This is the lone bananaquit I caught actually getting at the cactus flower.  The rest of the time, the cactus was surrounded by a buzzing swirl of divebombing hummingbirds, who would argue in their rasping musical-saw voices with each other, the bananaquits, and me whenever I dared step foot outside.  (I always apologized profusely. I doubt the bananaquits did.) Now the hummingbirds move like lightning, and I’ve never been able to get any good photographs of them.  But when you’ve got the avian equivalent of a “Free Beer” sign right outside your door, you might just have a chance.

Gotcha. Anguillan Crested Hummingbirds on the Weird Cactus Flower.

In fact, one stuffed himself so much that he had to stop and take a break.

I ate the whole thing.

Most of the time, in the light you have, you’ll see these guys as nearly black, tiny little projectiles whizzing around in the branches or right past your head if they’re annoyed.  But in the shot above, you can really see the irridescence of their feathers.  (A moment later this guy de-poofed and zipped off, yelling at the top of his lungs at an interloper.)

The ferocious competition over the Weird Cactus Flower made me start thinking about nectar, and then honey.  St. Croix has a thriving apiary/beekeeper community, and the honey they produce is the best I’ve ever had.  Like fish and lobsters and fruit on the island, you can buy local honey in unexpected places:  for instance, from a little stand by the side of the road on the way from Blue Yonder to Christiansted.  So I bought some,

The secret weapon.

(well, a lot), and when I got home I started thinking about a St. Croix honey soap.

Mushroom cloud or alien spaceship? You make the call.

Honey soaps can be tricky; as with any additive that involves sugars, you take the risk of massively overheating the saponification reaction in the batter, and ending up with a) a mess  b) a disaster or c) a Soap Volcano, which is the absolute epitome of all soaping screwups.  I’ve seen pictures of soaps that their horrified makers described as “crawling out of the mold and across the counter,” bubbling and steaming and spreading its active lye on anything that came close. (Go ahead — Google it.)  But it isn’t that I’m blameless in this.  I’ve had a Tiny Soap Mushroom Cloud, and that’s about as close as I want to come to this experience.

So I had to think pretty carefully about the formula I’d use, and the technique for incorporating the honey, at what temperature I’d mix the oils and lye, and how I’d handle the molded soap afterwards.  It was pretty clear from my research that I had to disperse the honey in reserved water first, mix it in at “trace” (the point, demonstrated by a certain thickening, that the saponification reaction between the lye and oils is well and truly roaring along), and then whip that puppy into some ice after I molded it up.  If I didn’t disperse the honey well, it might recollect in droplets inside the soap — harmless and actually kind of cool (think “sweet honey in the rock”), but not exactly what I was after.  If I didn’t cool it down fast enough, I might end up playing Steve McQueen in “The Blob” to the dismay of everyone else in the house as well as the local HazMat team, who I seriously do not want to piss off.

So with all due caution, “St. Croix Honey Blossom” began to come together:  olive and coconut oils, shea butter, and a generous dollop of genuine St. Croix wild bee honey premixed for addition right before the mold.  I picked a combination of amber, honey, and citrus blossom fragrances to try to maintain the richness of the honey scent in the bottle I had.  And then I had one of those orthogonal ideas about how to color it — I’d try the stamens from a bouquet of Stargazer lilies that the UUH had brought home out of the basic goodness of his heart. For the next couple days, every time a blossom opened, I’d carefully clip the bright-orange stamens off and collect them in a little container.  Once they were done, the moment of truth arrived — would the stamens release their color at all, and if so, into what?  My first experiment was a grand slam.  Olive oil will release the color of the stamens, and it’s a beautiful dark red-orange.  I let it set for a day, strained it a few times, and then my new natural colorant was ready to go.

The very last aspect of the soap involved the garden. It ran wild all winter after I sowed a few seeds, and I went out a few days ago to find it blanketed in Calendula blossoms. Calendula is both a flower and an herb that’s been recognized since the Middle Ages for certain medicinal properties — but that wasn’t why I was going to use them this time.  Unlike almost every other herb or flower petal, Calendula petals do not turn brown when in contact with the high-pH of cold process soap. (Lavender is well known as turning into “mouse poo” after a few weeks on top of soap).   I cut a few, tossed them into the dehydrator, and in a few hours had the petals I needed for the tops of St. Croix Honey Blossom.

“St. Croix Honey Blossom.”

It’s a softer soap that’s going to take a bit longer to cure, but the stargazer colorant came through as a lovely honey shade, and when it’s done it should have superior lathering and conditioning qualities due to the honey and shea butter.  The fragrance is citrus blossom with a deep bottom note of pure honey.

I think both the bananaquits and the hummingbirds would be pleased.

 

 

 

Well, I’m Back

“But Sam turned to Bywater, and so came back up the Hill, as day was ending once more. And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap.
He drew a deep breath. ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.” — J.R.R. Tolkien

 

Like a lot of people — Frodo included — I’ve always admired Samwise the most among all of the cast of the Lord of the Rings.  This is a guy who is more than a little awkward to the people around him; he’s clumsy, shy, and completely transparent while others plot, negotiate and manipulate.  Yet he also has an impenetrable sense of duty and responsibility despite attacks from all directions, and most importantly he never gives up even in the worst circumstances.

If you’re going through hell, keep going.  — Winston Churchill

 

Coming home from a once-in-a-lifetime trip to India in January, excited and inspired by everything I’d seen, smelled, eaten, and done, I was immediately confronted by a terrible situation caused primarily by an adult who should have known better.  It knocked me flat but in the spirit of Samwise and Winston, as well as having no other option, I kept grinding through it with the help of the UUH (Unbelievably Useful Husband).  It took its toll — and continues to do so — but one of the nice things about alchemy is that you get to fool around with various dangerous substances when you’re emotionally out of your skull.

So, of course, that leads us to the soap.

Cold process soap — the soap you make “from scratch,” with oils, butters and our favorite drain-sizzling, death-fog-producing meth-lab pal, sodium hydroxide* — is a product that lends itself to enormous creativity in technique.  From single solid colors, to textured tops, to embedded objects and to swirls and layers, you can attempt practically anything with this stuff.  That’s not to say the finished soap is going to work out the way you envisioned it.  In fact, I can virtually guarantee you some sort of surprise with nearly every batch, even those where you think you’ve got the formula nailed down.  The surprise factor multiplies exponentially when you’re trying something new — a new ingredient, fragrance, colorant or technique. Usually, these surprises are bad.

Accordingly, under intense emotional stress, I decided to check every box of the above.

But let’s back up a minute.  In Kochi, India, I’d seen a performance of Kathakali dance.  It’s extraordinary mythic storytelling, performed silently except for a drum, with dancers who have trained for years to learn a complex vocabulary of gesture and expression.  The costuming and makeup are both dazzling and meaningful.  I knew as soon as I reeled out of the theater that I had to try to reproduce something about the experience, and it involved the colors I’d just seen.  My plans (and posting here) were held up at home as the bad situation developed, but eventually I found myself with enough time and sense to put my hand to something useful.  I decided I’d make a soap involving the colors of one of the Kathakali dancers (the guy right up there).  And to try to recreate the overwhelming sensory experience of the dance, I’d try to use a technique called “tiger stripe.”

Now I’ve tried tiger stripe before.  It’s demanding.  It requires exquisite timing and a thorough knowledge of your formula and ingredients.  But when it’s done right, it can produce a really nifty-looking soap.

“Swirling Reef of Death.” Named for a St. Croix snorkeling site that isn’t.

Swirling Reef is a pretty straightforward coconut, olive, palm kernel flake, and castor oil soap, colored with ultramarines, micas, and titanium dioxide to get the white.  The trick to the technique is emulsifying the soap completely — in other words, incorporating the lye into the oils thoroughly enough to start the saponification process — without letting it “trace” too thickly to pour in stripes, one color atop another, into the mold.  You gotta move fast with this, which means you have to emulsify the base batter BUT NOT TOO MUCH, add your fragrance, separate out the amounts for your colors, mix your colors, and then pour like a madwoman.  (Preferably to the “Benny Hill” theme music.)

With “Swirling Reef” under my belt, I gathered all the materials together for “Kathakali Dance.”   I was trying a new fragrance and new colorants, which should really have been the first hint that this would end in disaster, but I was undaunted.

Well, it was a disaster.  The batter traced and thickened almost instantaneously.  In a panic I just glopped everything into the mold, eventually using a spoon to dig nearly solid soap out of the mixing container and smash it in.  The finished product smells great, lathers beautifully, and looks like something growing on the side of a wet barn.  I can barely bring myself to look at it on the curing rack.  It is a continuing reproach.  It is my Cautionary Tale.

So instead of giving up like any sensible person, I decided to try it again.  I tweaked the formula (abandoning the palm kernel flakes, among other adjustments) in the hope that it would stay liquid longer.  I changed some of my colorants to micas.  I did use the same fragrance — an exotic and intoxicating mix of wood and spices, flowers and rain — because it seemed so perfect for the experience I was trying to recreate.  And then I got the mise in order, turned up the music, and threw myself at it.

“Kathakali Dance” — iteration two.

The green mica morphed blue a bit on me — I’m going to stick with ultramarines for green from now on, I think, and the black didn’t come across as much as I’d like — but otherwise it’s pretty close to what I had in mind.  It’s curing on the rack right next to its cousin.  To me, both illustrate Sam and Winston’s principle of not giving up.

* I’m using a little hyperbole here, except for the “meth-lab” part.

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