Bad batch

My soap experiments have been pretty successful so far, as far as I can tell. I won’t know for sure until everything’s cured and I can actually lather up, but the various concoctions I’ve mixed up so far look and feel the way I’d expect them to–until this one. It was extremely hard, bright white, and almost crumbly, in stark contrast to the soft, easily sliced, ecru-to-greenish beige bars I’ve been making.

It used the same oils I’ve been working with so far (coconut, olive, avocado, sunflower, and castor). I’ve been playing around with the proportions of each, but not to such a degree that I’d expect a radically different result. I suspect that the problem is that the oils were too warm. With soapmaking, you’re separately mixing up lye and oil mixtures that need to be roughly the same temperature when they’re combined. When the dry lye hits the water, it gets super hot (I’ve never measured the temperature right at the moment of combination, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s close to 200F) and then has to cool down to somewhere in the neighborhood of 100-110F. Meanwhile, the oils are at room temperature and have to be brought UP to 100-110 in a double boiler. Generally, it’s a lot faster to heat up the oils than it is to cool down the lye, so you wouldn’t even start that until the lye is almost in your target range, but I’ve figured out that putting the Pyrex measuring cup holding the lye into a sink with a couple inches of ice water in it cools it down extremely efficiently. With the previous batch, this was such an effective move that I really had to scramble to get the oils warm enough before the lye cooled down below where it would be effective. So, yesterday, when I was making this batch, I figured I’d heat the oils first and hold them at the right temperature while I dealt with the lye. It didn’t work — the oils got really hot and then retained the heat really well, even when I stuck the bowl in the refrigerator. And even without using the ice water, the lye cooled down before the oils and I ended up adding 100F lye to 130F oils. It achieved trace in a perfectly normal amount of time and it looked fine, but it wasn’t. Maybe it would have been okay if I hadn’t insulated the mold, but maybe not.

I think it’ll probably still be usable after the curing period; it’ll be interesting to see.


Last night, I ventured into north Brooklyn (just a few blocks from where I lived a few years ago, but a bit of a trek from my current south-of-the-park neighborhood) for the release party of Jessica Pigza’s fabulous new book, BiblioCraft. Jessica is a rare-books librarian at NYPL and a life-long crafter and her book combines these interests in an innovative way, offering dozens of ideas for ways to use library holdings for inspiration.  She got a rock-star list of contributors (Natalie Chanin, Grace Bonney, Liesl Gisbon, Gretchn Hirsch…) to offer their own beautiful library-inspired crafts, but also writes a lot about using online image sources and how to effectively and efficiently deploy your local resources, library or otherwise.

I had the pleasure of visiting her at work a few months ago when I was interviewing her for Library Journal. She had pulled out some of her favorite items for us to look at. That’s a hand-drawn book of fern specimens open in front of her.

It’s a little hard to tell, but all of the motifs in the example below (a marketing tool for a man offering his penmanship services) are drawn in a single line without the pen being picked up—ideal for embroidery. Apparently I didn’t photograph them, but the NYPL has a number of books of watermarks that would make exceptional embroidery motifs since they’re necessarily so simple and graphic.

These wood-type specimen books are a treasure trove of typographical goodness.

And this wasn’t precisely craft related, but it was fun: a card game to learn semaphore, hand flag, and morse code signals.We think this spells out Klose. Many of the signals were very similar; it’s a little difficult to imagine transmitting a message this way to someone on a far-away ship.

Line drawing

I’ve just started Lisa Congdon‘s line drawing class at Creativebug and have been having a lot of fun with the homework. Lisa is one of my favorite artists and illustrators and it’s really fascinating to watch her break down her methods and techniques to the point where they’re totally accessible and fun. I’m a little behind, but I’m especially looking forward to the next class: geometrics.


My doodling is never going to be the same.

Test soap

20140312-081941.jpgWith work, freelance projects, a houseguest, and the rassin’ frassin’ time change, I haven’t made much of anything in the last week or so, save a really good pizza I forgot to photograph and another test batch of soap. This was my first time using cocoa butter, which I like in theory, but it took ages to melt and much longer to reach trace, so I don’t know that I’ll be going out of my way for it in future batches. Unless this batch turns out to be AMAZING, of course. But I won’t know for sure for another four weeks. It was very soft when I sliced it the next day, but seems to be hardening nicely as it cures.

I’m so glad I’ve been playing around with this again–it’s like being both a mad scientist and a magician. I just ordered a bunch of oils to try out that I haven’t used before and am thinking that I need to find something around here to use as a mold for test batches. This makes four pounds of soap, which is fine, but if I’m trying out a lot of different formulations, I’d rather make smaller amounts first.

FO: Alpaca/silk tunic


I have some freelance projects coming up that will be pretty time-consuming (one knitting, one editing) and I’ve known for the last couple of weeks that I won’t have a huge amount of time for my own knitting projects in the next month or so. So I’ve been making a concerted effort to work on a couple of things whose finish lines were within reach.

I did manage to knock one out this week, the handspun alpaca/silk tunic.

It’s basically exactly what I was aiming for: an easy-to-wear, slightly oversized seed stitch tunic. I managed to block one of the sleeves a couple of inches longer than the other, which is a little annoying, but since they’re cuffed anyway, it’s not the end of the world. I can try to fix it the next time I wash it.

Here’s a close up of the fabric. Allover seed stitch isn’t the fastest or least annoying pattern to do, but damn, it looks fine.

I didn’t quite manage to finish my ombre sweater, but it’s close: another inch or so of stockinette, then some garter stitch to wind things up. I may sneak in some time on it in the next week or so; I’d hate to miss out on wearing it this winter.


Late winter supper: spicy pork and mustard greens soup

This is an easy and tasty one that’s perfect for these waning days of winter: still warming and spicy and filling, but packed with the kind of flavorful, nutrient-dense greens that will be shooting up soon.

Other than not grinding the spices myself, I followed Bon Appetit’s recipe more or less to the letter. It’s fast, tasty, and a perfect balance between indulgent and healthful. It’s a keeper.

Soap making redux

I’ve always maintained that a little bit of jealousy is instructive. Properly managed, those little twinges can provide a direct and easily traveled pathway to the back corners of the mind where interests and desires you didn’t even know you had yet are stirring. So, when I recognized that I was envying my friend Kim Instagramming and writing about learning to make soap, it was a helpful nudge that I wanted to be doing it myself.

I first got into soap making five or six years ago (or maybe longer) and really enjoyed it but then I moved into a tiny apartment with no ventilation in the kitchen and a  cat who didn’t belong to me and I stopped doing it. But now I have space to work near a window. I even had a lot of the supplies socked away in a corner of a difficult-to-reach cabinet, which now that I think about it, I must have moved with me two or possibly even three times. The only thing I didn’t have was a dedicated mold, and I made do with a long, narrow wooden box I found at work. It worked, but was a little too deep and narrow to easily line neatly, so I’ll look for something else before I make the next batch.

And there *will* be a next batch. My mind is already spinning with different oil combinations I want to try out and fragrance possibilities and various ground-up things to mix in (oatmeal! orange peel! coffee grounds! pine needles?). This is a very basic soap made with roughly equal amounts of coconut (for lather) and olive (for softness) oils. Even though I didn’t add any fragrance to it, the bars have a subtle scent that doesn’t smell like coconut or olive (or lye, for that matter), but just like clean.

Wedding placemat tutorial

One of the craft projects I came up with for the wedding were these kraft paper and washi tape placemats for all of the table settings. I was really happy with how they turned out–fun and graphic and colorful, special without being fussy.


  • Something placemat-sized to trace; I used a 13″ x 19″ milk crate
  • Roll of kraft paper
  • Sharpie or other marker
  • Regular scissors
  • Assorted washi tape. I used about a dozen different tapes in black/white, gray/white, gray/black, and red or multicolored patterns for the most part.
  • Fancy-edge scissors. I can’t find the exact assortment I bought, but this is close. The one I used in yellow in this grouping, but was pink in mine.

1. Start by tracing off a few placemats and cut them out roughly, leaving plenty of room around the outline.

2. Apply the washi tape in whatever patterns you like, making sure the ends go outside the traced outline.

3. Cut just inside the outline with the fancy-edge scissors.

4. Keep going until you have as many as you need, plus a few extras, of course.


  • I found it easiest to trace off a dozen at a time, and go through the whole process on that batch before tracing more. If I’d had a standing-height work table (someday!), it might have been easier, but I found wrangling the big roll of kraft paper on the floor to be hard on my back and just plain annoying. The scrapbooking scissors were kind of rough on my hands too. Spacing out tasks out a little made everything much more pleasant.
  • The fancy-edge scissors are not essential here, but they do elevate the project that little bit.
  • I ended up developing ten “patterns” or so with the tapes that I did over and over in different variations: parallel lines evenly spaced, parallel diagonals, intersecting diagonals, plaid, etc. Not having to wait for the muse to strike for each blank mat saved a lot of time and energy. Plus, it made it easy to have a variety of patterns at each table. Did anyone but me notice? Probably not. STILL WORTH IT.

Why I suggest letting Mötley Crüe pick your honeymoon destination

Our original honeymoon plan had been Scandinavia: Sweden, most likely, with a stop in Iceland. But when we figured out that we’d be going in February, that was less appealing (for one of us, at any rate — long nights, hot saunas, and the chance to see the Northern Lights all sounded pretty good to me, but I’ll go another winter) and we started looking into tropical and Southern Hemisphere destinations. We picked Hawaii for a number of reasons: neither of us had ever been there, it’s far enough away that it’s unlikely we’d go another time,  and, as my friend Karen pointed out, no one ever comes back feeling lukewarm about Hawaii. One of Rob’s old friends, an indie musician whose tastes run pretty counter to the sort of cheesy resort experiences I wanted to avoid, had told us that he loves it so much he’d live there if he didn’t have family obligations keeping him in their hometown. Additionally, Rob had just finished rereading The Dirt when we were tossing around destination ideas, and he pointed out that the Mötley Crüe guys were always running off to Hawaii to chill out when rock-star life got to be too much. So we figured that any place beloved by people as different from each other as this indie guy, Mötley Crüe, and my Aunt Yolanda had to be a slam dunk.

And it was.

We spent a week on the Big Island with a few days in Waikiki on either side. I approached the planning with an eye to having a few different kinds of experiences: the remote-natural-splendor kind, classic-Hawaii-tourist kind, the read-a-book-a-day-while-sipping-umbrella-drinks-by-the-pool kind, and the eating-things-I-don’t-have-regular-access-to kind. We got started on the classic-Hawaii-tourist kind immediately, having beachside mai tais our first night…

Then jumped into the eating-things-I-don’t-have-regular-access-to kind the next day, taking a Hole-in-the-Wall food tour of Honolulu. It was a solid half day of being driven around town and eating things (maybe 15-20 different items, all told) from places I feel pretty confident we never would have gone to otherwise, and it was great.

It started with mana pua, which are sort of like a meat doughnut with char siu or roast pork or whatever else inside a sweetish dough. They’re baked, so they’re not greasy at all, and I think it’s insane that we don’t have them in New York. Call the place Meat Doughnut, don’t sell anything else, and you’re golden. Bonus for me: if you’re savvy about marketing, I bet you could siphon away all the cronut business from Dominique Ansel and then I could finally start getting breakfast there a couple times a week again. I miss the croissants, but not enough to wait in those lines. Man, this idea just keeps getting brillianter.

We had bakery items, like these chocolate-filled “cocoa puffs,” from Liliha Bakery:

And visited a rice noodle factory in Chinatown where everything is still done by hand and almost entirely without electricity; the lights and those fans are the only powered items, the noodles themselves are steamed.

Here, one of the guides, Bill, is handing out samples of some of the rice noodles above (plain, with bits of shrimp, and with bits of char siu), along with some pan-fried noodles and Korean bbq chicken:

A number of the items were dim sim style. These buns use the same chicken filling in both a steamed rice bun and a flaky pastry crust:

Roast pork and crispy pork belly:

Some kind of smoothie:

Spam musubi and poke (in the container). I know Spam takes a lot of flak, but I grew up eating it occasionally and don’t have an issue with it. These rice, Spam, and seaweed creations were surprisingly tasty. Later in the trip, we took Spam musubi on hiking trips a couple of times for a quick, filling, protein-rich snack. I don’t think I’ll seek it out here, but it was the right food at the right time. Poke is seasoned, cubed raw fish. It was available inexpensively almost everywhere, it ranged from great to transcendent, and I really wish it was more widespread here.

Some sweets: coconut tarts and carmelized bananas.

That night, on the advice of one of the guides, we went to a Hawaiian restaurant, since the food tour had been local foods rather than specifically Hawaiian foods and I thought we should have at least one traditional-ish meal.

I had chicken long rice, which is basically chicken soup with rice noodles, and Rob had some kalua pig. Both of the meals came with lomi salmon, which is a salmon and tomato salad; a sort of beef jerky; coconut custard; and rice or poi. I’ve had poi before (I had a native Hawaiian roommate at one point) and have never been moved to have it again; it’s not terrible, but it’s basically just a bland mush. There are plenty of other bland mushes I like better.

And now I’m 37.

We put off taking our honeymoon until now since our birthdays are only a week apart and this way we could combine occasions for one big honeymoon/both birthdays/Valentine’s extravaganza. I think today is going to be the absolute best of what’s been a string of amazing days: I’m kicking off the first day of my 37th year by waking up in a treehouse in the Hawaiian rainforest and will close it out at a chic hotel in Honolulu where there is apparently a bookcase in the lobby that leads to a secret cocktail bar. I’m feeling absurdly lucky and extraordinarily well positioned to give some thought to what I want the rest of the year to hold.

First though, I’m going to go have my coffee out here: