Summer turned to fall here in Blacksburg last Saturday, with the temperature dropping 15 degrees in an afternoon. The air is crisp, like autumn apples, and I’ve heard that coffee sellers have put the pumpkin spice latte back on the cafe menu. Mmmm, pumpkin spice latte….
In celebration of the gorgeous autumn here in Appalachia (and because a loyal customer from my soap-making days requested it), I thought I’d post my recipe for the pumpkin spice soap I used to make for my soap business. It’s a soap celebrating the bounty of harvest time, and is named for Gaia, Greek goddess of the abundant earth. If you have a hankering to make your own soap, this one really is the bomb (and it makes a perfect gift for your Thanksgiving host.) Just please make sure you read up on how to make soap before trying it – the instructions here are not comprehensive enough for your first time, especially since there is swirling involved!*
Gaia Pumpkin Spice handmade essential oil soap
202 g sodium hydroxide/lye (NaOH)
19 oz distilled water
1 tsp sugar and 1.5 tsp salt dissolved in pre-lye dH2O
1 lb coconut oil
14 oz palm oil
12 oz olive oil
3 oz castor oil
6 oz sunflower oil
2 tsp pumpkin pie spice
3 oz canned pumpkin
1.5 tsp clove essential oil (EO)
2 tsp nutmeg EO
1 tsp cinnamon leaf EO
0.5 tsp cassia bark EO
1. Prep a 2 cup vinegar bath with 1 cup water and 1 cup vinegar. This is for neutralizing lye spills, utensils, etc.
2. Line soap mold. For my recipes (~4.25 lb batches) I use a wooden loaf mold my husband made. The internal measurements are 18 inches long (the width of a roll of Reynolds Freezer Paper, which is what I use to line the molds), about 3.4 inches wide (sorry I don’t know the exact measurement – the molds are still packed), and the soap ends up being approximately 2 inches tall. I cut the loaf into 15 bars.
3. Start by measuring out your additives so that you’ll have them ready when it’s time to mix them in (if you’re a foodie, you’ll recognize this as mise en place – like cooking, things can go fast in soap making, so you have to be ready). Measure essential oils (EOs) into a non-reactive, preferably glass bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and set aside. Measure spices into a separate bowl. Measure pumpkin puree into yet another bowl.
4. Measure distilled water into a large pyrex beaker. Place beaker in a well ventilated area and/or in a utility sink. Don safety goggles, apron, and gloves, then measure sodium hydroxide (NaOH) granules into a non-reactive bowl. Slowly add NaOH to the water while stirring. Stir until dissolved (I use a thick silicone spatula to stir). Do not breathe fumes (I hold my breath while I’m stirring). Rinse spatula and lye bowl in vinegar bath.
5. Melt solid fats (coconut, palm) in a stainless steel pot over medium heat.
6. While solid fats are melting, measure liquid oils into large stainless steel bowl. Pour melted fats into liquid oils and set aside.
7. When lye solution and oils are both between 90 and 105 degrees (you should be able to hold the bottom of bowl or beaker in your hands without it feeling like it’s going to burn you), add lye to oils.
8. THE NEXT THREE STEPS GO VERY QUICKLY! BE PREPARED! For the Gaia soap, which is a swirled soap, mix briefly with a stick blender until the lye and oils are just mixed. Remove a portion of the batter back into the pyrex beaker, set it aside, and add the pumpkin and essential oils to the mother batter in your big stainless bowl. Blend the mother batter quickly with a hand held stick blender to break up the lumps of pumpkin. Within seconds, it should come to what is called “trace,” which means that when you drizzle some of the batter onto itself, it will leave a trail before sinking back in. Once it’s at trace, the saponification process is underway and you must move quickly.
9. Add pumpkin spice (ground cloves, allspice, cinnamon) to the separated portion of batter, which give this batter the rich, spicy brown color that will become the swirl. This swirl batter also comes to trace quite quickly (spices and “warm” essential oils like cinnamon and clove tend to accelerate saponification).
10. Gently pour the mother batter (the orangeish batter) into your mold. Pour the spiced batter (brown batter in the pyrex beaker) in dots into the orange batter in the mold. Once you’ve poured it all, use a knife or a chopstick to swirl the dots together, starting at one corner of the mold and moving your implement side to side until you get to the opposite corner at the other end of the mold (if you’ve ever made those marbled cheesecake brownies, that’s pretty much the method I use). Then you can do one more long swoop up the center of the mold if you’d like. There are tons of ways to swirl, and I’m not super accomplished at it, but feel free to play with it. Here’s what the raw soap looks like, freshly poured and swirled, in the mold:
11. Finally, cover your mold and let it sit for about 12 to 18 hours. The chemical reaction between the lye (base) and fats (acid) creates its own heat, so with cold process soaps, you usually insulate the molds so that the majority of saponification will take place overnight in the mold. Because of the “warm” spices in the Gaia recipe, insulation is optional – this soap gets pretty hot without you having to insulate it. However, whether you insulate or not, since you do not cook the soap to completion in the cold process method, saponification will not be complete for many days. I usually cut the soaps one or two days after unmolding the loaf, and then let the sliced soaps curefor the remaining 3 or 4 weeks. The longer your soaps cure, the harder and sudsier they will become, which is an argument for slicing them within a couple of days of unmolding so that they don’t get too hard to cut. Handmade soap has a shelf-life of about 6 months, though, so keep that in mind when you decide on your cure time. Have fun!
*If you are new to soap making, I recommend The Soapmaker’s Companion for cold process soaping or Handcrafted Soap for hot process soaping. I made the Gaia pumpkin spice soap using the cold process method, but it could certainly be adapted to hot process soaping if you know what you’re doing.