Ahhh, cherry blossoms - that's how you know Spring has officially sprung! Or, well...sort of. Here in the Washington, D.C. area, we tend to have bipolar weather. As one of my former customers (back when I worked in the food industry) told me, "Mother Nature is going through menopause! All these chills and hot flashes! Yikes!"
This year, we had a warm spike, and then it snowed the following weekend. The poor cherry blossoms started to bloom and then got frozen! Thankfully, they still managed to bloom and peak well into their traditional month of April, and they were spectacular! I live north of DC, which is colder by several degrees, so I got to witness their blooms for a long time this season! They are truly beautiful and have a lovely, delicate scent. When they start to shed their petals, it's almost like watching a beautiful, floral snow coat the ground as they gracefully float through the air. Cherry blossom time is my favorite hallmark of Spring! (Way better than pollen!)
As you may or may not know, the Cherry Blossom Festival held in DC every year signifies, "the gift of the cherry blossom trees, and the enduring friendship between the people of the United States and Japan." People come out in droves to view the sakura (cherry blossom in Japanese) all along the mall and tidal basin. There are food trucks, street vendors, lots of swag, and even a parade! The Cherry Blossom Festival is one of my favorite things to go to DC for, and it's such a fun atmosphere to be a part of. The food is delicious, the festival is colorful and fun, and there is a LOT to do in the area!
As it happened, I have a bottle of Cherry Blossom fragrance oil from Bramble Berry! So why not turn this local favorite into a soap to commemorate the event? That's exactly what I did! And I decided to call it, "Sakura Festival."
I started out formulating the recipe with oils that I knew would be nourishing, conditioning, but also offer me the whitest bar I could make. I wanted my colors to be white with a light pink drop swirl, and maybe a lighter swirl on top. After working everything out, running it through a lye calculator, and buying myself a new (more accurate) scale, I set to making my soap!
The fragrance oil performed beautifully in this soap, and I had a great amount of time to work! My top swirl turned out great, though I think from now on I am going to go with a light pink sparkle mica instead of fuschia. I really want this soap to be delicate like the flowers it's made after, so I think lighter, more delicate colors would be a wise choice. I learned that I really DO need to micronize my Titanium Dioxide (ugh, I only have one coffee grinder and it's for coffee, dammit! I ordered another one, though. I was trying to hold out, but no longer!), and that I should probably add some sodium lactate to my soap (and increase the percentage of my hard oils). After 3 days it was still incredibly soft, and I couldn't get it out of the mold. I froze it, got it out, cut it (love itttttt!), and set it downstairs to start its cure. Alas, it was ever so slightly weepy today with some of the excess moisture from the oils, so a recipe reformulation is in order (I also decided it's that time of the year to turn on the dehumidifier in the basement).
Other than that, though, this soap turned out just gorgeous and I am so in love with it. The only down side is that as I was outside taking pictures, the wind blew the soap out of the tree I set it in, and alas, it got smooshed. Not just a little bit smooshed - SUPER smooshed. So, the pictures are lovely, but you can definitely see a little bit of dirt from the ground in the soap. That will just have to be my personal bar!
Now these lovelies are downstairs curing, and I am super inspired to perfect this recipe to be the best it can be. I absolutely love it!
By now, you're probably sitting on the edge of your seat, just dying to know what the mistakes I made were! Dear lord, you're saying, tell us! Or not, I don't expect anything of you. You might even be bored (though if you are, you might ought to go read something more interesting. I'd hate to bore ya!).
First, I will start off by saying my #1 mistake was not having a freaking checklist. Why does this matter? It matters a lot, for reasons that will soon be apparent. I started my soap just like any other time I've made it - adding lye water to oils, bring to extra thin trace, blah blah. Normal stuff. Falter number one was: I stupidly added the FO blend to the entire batch BEFORE splitting it up. Why did I do this? I saw Clyde do it, and thought it was a good idea. Whoops! Now I know why Soap Queen splits her batches up and adds FO last. As you may know, florals tend to accelerate trace. And as I mentioned in my previous post, I also had a FO in my blend that can cause ricing. So here I am - adding accelerating and ricing fragrances to my main batch before even splitting it. Dear lord, what was I thinking?
I lightly stick blended it and started to split up the batter, but I could see it starting to thicken, and some ricing was happening in my yellow color. Shit! Oh god! How do you fix ricing? You have to blend it out with the stick blender. Know what also accelerates trace? Freaking stick blending! There I am, stick blending the hell out of an already accelerating soap batter, desperately hoping for a drop swirl/hanger swirl! IDJIT! I quickly realized what I was doing, set the stick blender aside, and grabbed my whisk. I am not a praying person, but I was there in the kitchen trying to negotiate with the soap gods to - for the love of all that's holy - spare this lovely soap batter from becoming ploppy gloppy horribleness!
Obviously, someone heard me (I don't dare believe I have any kind of skill at this yet), and I was able to fix the ricing, and keep the various colors relatively liquid enough to start pouring into the mold. I worked as quickly as possible, swirling and layering as quickly as I could. I noticed that once the mold was filled, it wasn't quite to the top where I'd expected it to be - but maybe that was just because there was so much gloppy batter left behind. I scooped out as much as I could from the measuring cups, and set about doing a hanger swirl.
Shit! Oh god, my hanger! Where is it?!?! I had forgotten to grab it! What's worse is that it was a regular ol' closet hanger - you know, the old school type from the 90s that all the cool kids were using before plastic hangers became the thing. I tore upstairs where I'd left the hanger, meekly bent it into a somewhat acceptable shape (went at it with the wire cutters, but am not strong enough. Thankfully, Hercules husband saved the day later that evening), and shoved it into my mold, trying to remember the technique I'd seen on YouTube.
I could feel the batter getting thick and resisting the hanger, and was starting to get really discouraged. But, I went with it anyway and tried my best. I did, in fact, go with a somewhat textured top, though I am not really happy about it, and the colors kinda mushed together, so in the end it was not my favorite. Know what I am good at? Mica swirls. I might just stick to those for now.
So, here is a picture of the soap when I was finished with it. As you can see, it's pretty low in the mold. But!! I got it in there! I was sooo proud! I didn't mess up too much, and even with a misbehaved batter, I still managed to get everything into the mold AND do a swirl! Huzzah! Only, not so fast....Wanna know why the soap is so low in the mold? Fast forward to me cleaning up, when I go downstairs to put away my supplies and open the cabinet where I store my oils to find - one of the oils I'd forgotten to put in the recipe. Ten...freaking...percent of my oils right there, staring me in the face. I just stand there in disbelief, while my soap is upstairs gelling on a heating pad, knowing that it is going to be lye heavy and I'm going to have to rebatch. I was heartbroken.
I trudged back upstairs frowning, cursing the shitty Monday for being so awful, and pouted the entire time I did the dishes. My husband came home and gave me a hug and I just sobbed about how terrible my day had been and that look, I made this beautiful soap and I'll have to melt it down! Ugh!! My first hanger swirl! UGH!!! Stupid kid and his stupid chihuahua and my stupid workday and now my stupid soap!! Yes. I did throw an inner tantrum as if I were a five year old. No matter how adult I may pretend to be, I'm definitely not above some self-indulgent whining every now and then. It was just one of those days, you know?
The next day, I came home and cut my soap. Oh gosh, it was so pretty! I loved it! You could see that it was definitely "off," but I loved it nonetheless. I was so worried that my swirl hadn't really worked, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that it (mostly) had! I am still proud that I achieved that, even if it's not the greatest thing ever. Unfortunately, I combat soda ash pretty poorly, and am still trying to find the best solution to prevent it, so the top looked ugly. But the soap itself turned out better than I'd expected given the circumstances. In case you are wondering, I did end up rebatching it, and that in and of itself was its own disaster (tried to turn it a single color, overcooked it while mixing said color - whatever, this soap obviously wasn't meant to be). Regardless, though, it IS usable now, and has tested safe with a pH test. As long as it's safe, it can be as ugly and crumbly as it wants.
So what did I learn from this experience?
As some wise internet meme once said, "Mistakes are meant for learning, not repeating." I certainly learned a great deal from this soapy disaster, and have learned how to avoid the problems next time. I am looking very forward to that next time!
One of the things you will learn when you make soap is that there will inevitably, at some point, be a disaster. It's not really a matter of if, so much as it is a matter of when. This past Monday was my when. Sure, I've messed up before - I overcooked my first batch of hot process soap and had to shred it down, add more oil and try again. I've used accelerating fragrances and colors, and ended up with lumpy blumpies all in the middle of my soap...But those weren't really a disaster, so much as they were oopses.
Monday, though....Monday was a disaster (at least my unluckiest day so far). Could it have been worse? Yes! At least I didn't add too much sugar and end up with a caustic volcano (I am aware that I'm completely jinxing myself right now, and that at some point a caustic volcano of death will heave itself onto my kitchen counter). So what DID happen, you say? Well, pull up a seat and grab a cup of tea, I am here to tell you - And teach you what not to do to repeat my mistake should you attempt something similar!
This story begins, as many do, when I was a child. I think I was about 4 or 5 when my PopPop died and left my MawMaw behind. What does this have to do with soap? Just stay with me. Anyway, after my PopPop died, my MawMaw frequented the Senior Center in town to play cards, sing music in chorale, play board games, and generally socialize. It was there that she met Marvin - I believe while playing bridge. They fast fell for each other, and soon they were inseparable. Marvin courted MawMaw until the day she died.
Every day during that courtship, Marvin brought my MawMaw freshly cut roses from the amazing rose garden he grew in his back yard. He had all different colors, varieties, scents - you name it - Marvin had it. He loved his garden like he loved my MawMaw, and the freshly cut roses on her kitchen table every day were a beautiful reminder of that. Sadly, my MawMaw died when I was 11 years old, and Marvin was with her at the time. He was so heartbroken by it all that we never really saw him after that - it was too painful for him (Marvin was a widower himself when he met MawMaw). I imagine by now, he has passed away. I saw him once when I was 18 at a local event, but that was the last time (and it was a decade ago).
So, how does this translate into soap?
Last weekend, I was organizing my soap supplies, and was going through some of my sample fragrances (I may have ordered about a million fragrance samplers when I first started so I wouldn't have to commit to one bottle at a time) - three of which were White Rose. I'm not a big floral person, but I thought to myself - you know, a rose garden type bar of soap could be really nice for some people, and hey, it's spring time. Then it hit me - all the memories of Marvin and his garden, and I realized I wanted to make a special soap to pay homage to that childhood memory of such an amazing man who treated my grandmother so wonderfully in her last years of life.
All day Sunday, I worked on the recipe - the oils, the colors, the swirl method, the fragrances (I didn't want it to smell pungent, or like, well, a grandma), the proportions, you name it. I went back and forth with a lot of things, did a bunch of calculations, and finally came up with my recipe (props to my girls D an N, who tolerated my day-long brainstorm and added valuable input to the process). By the time I was finished, it was time to go to bed. So I vowed to myself that on Monday, I would definitely come home and make the soap! I was so excited! And it would be my first time actually executing a recipe I made on my own! Woohoo!
Monday afternoon, I got home and went to make my soap as planned. I had had a rough day at work and a scare on the way home (almost ran over some kid's dog - it was a chihuahua and it ran up the side of my car from behind to my front tire. Thankfully, I stopped and the kid was able to get the dog, but it scared the crap out of me and I felt horrible!), so I was looking forward to making something right.
For this soap, I decided on white, pink, red, and yellow as my colors, with some green mixed in (gardens are mostly green, after all) - these colors were meant to represent the colors of roses that are most common, with some earthy green elements mixed in. My fragrance blend was white rose, crisp apple rose, summer fling, apple, and black tea (everything but Summer Fling was a sample size, so I felt the need to have more fruit notes than just a half ounce sample size - hence its inclusion). A nice, grounded mixture that wasn't too flowery, wasn't too sweet, and had some nice base notes to balance it out. I won't tell you my oils recipe, because nyeh nyeh, that's something I plan to keep to myself. ;) My design method was to be a hanger swirl, and I might even be brave and try a textured top.
I set about dispersing my colorants in oil, melting my oils, and making my lye water. I had my mold standing close by, along with my notebook to make any notes. Before starting, I decided to have a look at the FOs one more time (I am paranoid about discoloring, accelerants, ricing, etc.), and found that Summer Fling can cause ricing. Shit. Okay, well - I can deal with it. I'll encounter it sooner or later, right? I knew that florals were accelerants, and was just hoping that since I was using a relatively little amount, I'd still have time to work. And that's where the mistakes started.
Stay tuned for Part 2!
Elizabeth is a new to soap making, and wishes to share her journey in learning to make cold process soap with the hope that it will help other newbies who may stumble upon this site as a resource. From swirl techniques, choosing colors, combining fragrances, embeds, toppers, and textures, she chronicles her lessons and stories here.