Yesterday morning I was all excited about blowing things. I was making soap for a soap challenge and that can get my pulse racing.
Soap challenges are popular among soapmakers. The idea is simple: somebody comes up with a theme for a soap to make and sets the rules and then soapmakers tackle the task individually to the best of their abilities. Sometimes prizes may be involved but typically the honour and the glory are the real prizes.
But, soap challenges are not only about honour and glory and trying to outshine others. Soap challenges are rarely about creating the most sellable or profitable soap (that’s a challenge most soapmaking businesses are tackling anyways), but they present a perfect opportunity to push your own limits, try things you haven’t tried before, and learn a thing or two in the process. It’s also quite interesting to see how people tackle the same task differently and come up with a range of different solutions.
The soap challenge I was working on was an ’ice cream sundae challenge’. In addition to unspecified other ingredients the soap had to be made with ice cream, chocolate and strawberries. The participants were divided into two groups and my group was assigned a straw as a tool for making the soap. The other group got a spoon for their tool. At a quick glance a spoon seems like the easy option, but I’m not so sure how easy it is to be innovative with a spoon in soapmaking. Ladling soap into a mould and swirling colours with a spoon is not exactly uncommon.. Anyway, I had my straw to concentrate on.
Now for those special ingredients. First a couple of concerns. Fresh strawberries have a beautiful red colour as we know, but in cold process soap that intensive natural red turns into a rather disappointing brown. You could use dried strawberries to decorate the top of the soap and they would keep the colour, but dried fruit and berries contain sugar which eventually attracts moisture and turns your pretty garnish into a gooey, sticky mess. So no dried strawberries for me. You could use strawberry seeds both for an exfoliating effect and for garnish, but I didn’t have any strawberry seeds. So, since strawberries are in season right now and the strawberry farm right up the road from me has some of the most delicious berries ever, I decided to go for fresh and work the discolouration into my design.
Ice cream, chocolate and strawberries all contain sugar. By adding sugar to soap you can improve lather, but sugar can also cause the soap to overheat. Sugar burns easily and will often cause brown discolouration in soap. So, it seemed that the design would have to be at least partly brown.
The challenge rules only specified ingredients and tools but said nothing of the visual design. Personally, I’m not a big fan of the combination of red strawberries and brown chocolate.. Neither the combination of colour nor of taste does much for me and since I didn’t have colourant to make anything close to strawberry red, I was happy to leave the strawberries out of the visual design and concentrate on the chocolate instead.
Now for my special tool – the straw – and what to do with it. You could hold a straw like any stick to swirl the soap or you could thread it on a wire and use it for a hanger swirl. I’ve done that successfully in the past. A little more advanced would be to use straws the way I’ve used narrow calibre PVC pipes before, to create negative space that you then fill with soap of a contrasting colour. The effect can be stunning and I’ve seen it done many times before but I couldn’t think of a way to put my own spin on the technique and so I left it at that.
As I was thinking about my ingredients I decided to make the ice cream myself. That way I could control exactly what went into it and I could make it heavy on tempered egg yolk which is a nice conditioning ingredient in soap. And thinking about eggs it occurred to me that you can use a straw to blow out the white and yolk through a little hole in the shell. That would be a cool use for my tool, but it would be pointless unless I also used the eggshells in the project.. So, I decided to see if I could recreate an old Finnish Easter favourite in soap.
In Finland the most typical Easter egg is a solid chocolate egg, made with high quality, smooth almond-hazelnut chocolate, moulded into a real chicken eggshell. The eggshell is a perfect packaging for the chocolate; conveniently sized, recycled, completely natural and bio-degradable. Two million of these handmade, so-called ‘Mignon eggs’ are sold every year in Finland (that’s a lot because the Finns are only five million). Mignon eggs are very much part of my own Easter traditions, too. In my childhood they would be hidden in the living room for the Easter egg hunt, and sometimes my mom had to hide them several times due to loud demands from eager hunters 🙂 The loot from the hunt was always collected communally and the Mignon eggs (52g of chocolate each) were shared. The eggs were put in the fridge for a while, then the white eggshell was gently knocked off revealing smooth, brown chocolate inside.
Well, seeing that I was making chocolate soap anyways, I felt I had to try to make ’Mignon soap’, ie soap moulded in an eggshell that could be discarded once saponification was complete. A cool idea with an experimental slant that I was quite excited about, but by no means a foolproof project.
First the eggs would have to be blown out. I had never blown out eggs before but it turned out to be a fairly simple operation. Blowing gently through my straw I was able to blow out the whites first, and then the yolks for the ice cream separately. Got some pieces of eggshell in the whites so my dogs were in for a treat.
After that I rinsed out the shells carefully and let them dry. Now came the question how my soap and the eggshell would collaborate in the project. Would the raw soap somehow etch through the eggshell and leak out? If not, would I ever be able to peel the eggshell off the soap? Chocolate releases from the inside of an eggshell if it’s cold enough, but what about soap? An eggshell is lined with a protein membrane. My raw soap would, in all likelihood, dissolve that membrane – at least partly. Would that affect the look of the soap and how? Questions galore but this is what experiments are for – to see what happens.
Now I had plenty of nicely separated egg yolks and it was time to make the ice cream. In addition to my local farm fresh eggs from a friend’s chickens, I used thick Ayrshire cream and plenty of genuine Ugandan vanilla scraped out of the pods. Nothing beats ice cream like that and since only a small portion of the ice cream could go into the soap the family had a field day. Soapmaking sometimes has surprising fringe benefits.. 🙂
The soap itself would have to be poured slowly into the eggshells through very small holes. Hence it would need to stay nice and runny for quite some time. To get it to release from shell, the formula would also have to be hard. With this in mind I decided to go with bastille: essentially an olive oil soap with a little coconut and castor oil for improved lather. Olive oil takes a long time to trace but if made with a water discount the bars quickly become rock hard. Since ice cream was part of the theme I decided to use vanilla for fragrance. When vanilla soap is exposed to air it turns a deep, dark brown and for this project that was perfect; it would be a nice boost for my chocolate brown.
I made a fine puree of my fresh strawberries, strained out the seeds and added the puree to my lye water.
The melted dark chocolate and the molten home-made ice cream were added to the oils. At very light trace I filled the eggshells and added a little ribbon to each egg soap.
I put a little Presstick (Blue Tack) cuff on each ribbon to keep them from sinking in too deep – or accidentally be pulled out.
For the leftovers of my little soap batch I had planned a special project. I had already come up with one way to use my straw, but how about an additional straw technique – just for giggles?
You can suck through a straw but you can also blow through a straw. In paper marbling one technique is to blow ink rings. I wanted to explore how that would work with soap.
On the surface of the soap which was still at light trace I dropped a mixture of oil and gold mica. By blowing on the mica oil drops I managed to move the mica across the surface of the soap, creating rings. The first bar was clearly a bit of a practise specimen (although I think there is some interesting marbling potential there).
On the second bar my new ’blow swirl’ was already looking much more like a controlled effort. By adjusting the angle of the straw and the force of the airstream I could control how the mica moved over the surface of the soap. I must say I’m pretty impressed with how this little extra experiment worked out and I’ll try it on a larger surface next time.
On the third and last little bar the trace was getting rather thick, but you can make nice thin lines with this technique.
Well, the eggshells didn’t crack or leak and the soap stayed nicely where it was supposed to. So far so good, but would I be able to peel off the shells?
I placed the eggs in the freezer for a few hours to help the shells release. Just like I would with a proper chocolate Mignon egg, I tapped the back of a small knife along the ’equator’ of the eggshell and for the most part the shells peeled off quite easily. In some spots they stuck tight, but with a little bit of water I managed to ’rinse’ them off.
After a couple of hours the colour had already turned nice and dark and my soapy chocolate eggs were looking the part!
To sum it up I learnt how to blow out eggs and that it’s perfectly possible to use eggshells as soap moulds. It’s also a fairly labour-intensive process and there are far more convenient ways of making egg-shaped soap. But, if you’re looking for natural moulds, this is it.
And the blow swirl is cool; definitely something to explore further.
Now I’ll go and hang up my soap eggs in a quiet corner, They should be ready just in time for Easter.. 🙂