Archive for category Kitchen Alchemy

Kitchen Cosmetics: Would you care to try our house-made, artisanal deodorant?

Let’s start from the premise that deodorant is problematic.  For one thing, the kinds that really work are filled with all sorts of things that are suspect for your health: aluminum, parabens, propylyne glycol, and random perfumes, to name a few.  It got a bad rap back in 1990 when a study was published linking the aluminum in deodorant to Alzheimer’s While the research is ultimately inconclusive, it does give one pause.

So what are the alternatives?  Well, there’s the deodorant crystal – a stone made of ammonium alum – but I’ve never found it to be effective.  And there are some good non-toxic brands on the market, my favorite being Lavanilla, but at $18 tube, I feel sort of like a loser buying it – especially now that I know how easy it is to make at home.

There are a wide array of recipes out there to help you combat the persistent quandary of the stinky armpit.  Some have few ingredients, some have several – but they all include the magical element that is baking soda: the great neutralizer.  Why is sodium bicarbonate so awesome?  You can use it to leaven your bread, scour your tub, brush your teeth, deodorize your fridge and at the end of the day, you can sprinkle it in your armpits, too!

Google DIY deodorant and you will find so many recipes you will start to get the feeling you are the only one out there not making your own.  I can assure you this is not the case, but once you start down this road it is kind of addictive (see Lemon Honey Body Butter).  One of my favorite sources for homemade cosmetic ideas is Crunchy Betty and she has a few good deodorant recipes, one that you can even put in a stick or tube (although I am too lazy for that).  The truth is, you only need a few basic ingredients and then you can embellish on your own.  The formula that I find works best is:

3 T. Coconut Oil

2T. Shea Butter

3 T. Arrowroot Powder

2 T. Baking Soda

A few drops of essential oils (eucalyptus, tea tree, etc.) – optional

Melt the Coconut Oil and the Shea Butter together in a double boiler.  Once melted, stir in the arrowroot and baking soda, mixing thoroughly.  Pour into a glass jar to cool, stirring occasionally to keep the oil from separating. It takes about 5 minutes to mix together and a few hours to cool. I find that if you put it in the fridge overnight, it solidifies nicely and you don’t need to store it in the fridge after that.  It forms a thick paste that you can apply with your fingertips.

If you want a thicker paste, you could add more arrowroot.  I think 2 T. of baking soda is enough to be effective, but using more could irritate the skin.  Same with the essential oils.  They are not necessary, but can add a nice scent.  On the other hand, tea tree oil is a little intense.  You have to play around a bit to find what works best for your skin.

So why go to the trouble to make your own deodorant when you can easily find a decent brand  on every street corner?

  1. Because you know what’s in it – no ingredients you can’t pronounce (except maybe the shea butter…)
  2. Because the ingredients are inexpensive, you can spend all the cash you save by making your own deodorant on expensive mascara (which I do not recommend going DIY on).
  3. You bypass all the packaging. Yay!
  4. Because it works!  How do I  know? Because my husband even uses it and he’s, well, a man.


Kitchen Cosmetics: Honey Lemon Body Butter

It all started innocently enough… with an article about the Environmental Working Group’s study on kids and sunscreen.  As I possess both of those things, I was curious.  One thing led to another and soon I was looking up ALL our products in their extensive database, Skin Deep.  I am a big fan of the EWG and their efforts to demystify information about toxins in our environment. I’m also a big fan of databases, so Skin Deep was perfect for me.  Maybe too perfect.  Down the rabbit hole I went, tossing out shampoos, lotions, and makeup along the way.  This is not to say I went “no poo” or started wearing patchouli, but over the past year I have radically changed what we apply to our skin and hair in this house.  Thanks in part to an excellent book, No More Dirty Looks,  that outlines the history of the cosmetics industry, the primary toxins in our products, and how to avoid them, I streamlined what I actually buy and started making some things myself.

There is a wealth of information and recipes on the web for DIY cosmetics, but let’s face it – many of them are either too complicated (calling for ingredients more suited to science experiments than organic beauty products) or result in the cosmetic version of clothes you sewed yourself when you’re just not that good at sewing.  They do the job, but are a little off. Or some just don’t do the job. Like DIY mascara.

But lotion is a different story.  I had a hard time finding something I liked that rated lower than a 3 (moderate hazard) and was game to try a recipe. For awhile, I was just using coconut oil –  which I loved –  but left me feeling like a macaroon. Lotion is something you use almost every day and your skin is your biggest organ, so it seems logical to try not to slather chemicals all over it on a near constant basis. Just sayin’.  Plus, my youngest daughter has sensitive skin and I wanted to try making something she could use, too.  The answer came from Pure Natural Diva, a website devoted to non-toxic living.  This recipe uses only 5 basic ingredients and can be made in 20 minutes.  Here’s how:


STEP 1:Gather your ingredients.  You will need:

2 Tablespoons of Beeswax (You can buy cosmetic grade beeswax from Amazon – the pellets are easier to work with than the blocks).
1/2 Cup of Grapeseed Oil
1 Capsule of Vitamin E Oil
2-3 Tablespoons of Distilled Water
10 Drops of Citrus Essential Oil – or to preference

STEP 2: Combine the grapeseed oil, beeswax and vitamin E oil and heat until the beeswax has just melted.  You can either do this in a double-boiler on the stove, or in a pyrex bowl in the microwave (2 minutes).

STEP 3: Aerate!  Using a hand mixer, beat the oils on high while adding the distilled water a little bit at a time.  After a few minutes, a curious transformation will take place:

The mixture will turn from oily to milky!  You can control the thickness of your lotion by how much water you add, but the recommended amount is 2-3 Tablespoons.  Once you have achieved your desired consistency (after about 5 minutes of beating) add 10 drops of whatever essential oil you choose (I tend toward lemon).  Turn off the mixer and let the lotion sit for 15-20 minutes before putting it into the container of your choice.

It’s that easy and makes roughly 1 cup of lotion.  Although it is recommended to store the lotion in the refrigerator (which is nice in the summer), I have kept it in my bathroom for up to 2 months without it spoiling. This winter, when it is really dry, I suspect we will use up each batch in well under a month. It’s cheaper than any lotion I like and I know exactly what’s in it.

I must add that the success of this endeavor has been somewhat of a gateway drug for me.  Just last week I was boiling up flax seeds to squeeze through knee-high panty hose on my way to making a hair product that didn’t turn out so well on the first try – more on that later.  And my friend, Alexa Wilding, who has her own alchemical kitchen of potions loaned me her copy of Pratima Raichur’s book, Absolute Beauty, which is chock full of recipes made from ingredients you should have in your kitchen (if you don’t already). “Hurricane weekend” was spent mixing up powders and oils – the perfect thing to do in your kitchen when you don’t actually feel like cooking.

Lotion is easy.  Believe me, it’s the hair products that are a challenge!  Any advice?

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Leonora Carrington’s surreal kitchen

Leonora Carrington, Grandmother Moorhead's Aromatic Kitchen, 1975.

Ever since I learned that Leonora Carrington died in May, I have been thinking about her.  I first came across her work as an undergraduate art history student almost 20 years ago in a class on Surrealism.  In the context of the traditional art history canon, she is mostly known for having run off with Max Ernst in 1937, but I immediately became intrigued with her work and her extraordinary life.  She was a prolific painter and writer: her paintings are otherworldly and complex, sometimes disturbing – but in a good way.  Populated with mythical beings in dreamlike surroundings, she created a world that seems imbued with symbolic meaning, yet defies any easy deciphering.

Raised in a wealthy and conservative family in Lancashire,  England,  she was expelled from a number of finishing schools – the proverbial black sheep of her family.  She agreed to appear as a débutante at the court of George V in exchange for taking art classes at Amédée Ozenfant’s school in London.  It was through the school that she first met Max Ernst at a dinner party and suddenly she was living in Paris with the rest of the surrealists. Can you imagine? But World War II put an end to that idyll when Ernst was arrested in France.  Unable to secure his release, Carrington had to escape into Spain where she had a nervous breakdown.  Long story short, she was committed to an asylum, released into the custody of her nanny (whom her family had sent for her and who was charged with returning her to England), but then escaped her watch through a bathroom window in Lisbon  where she fled to the Mexican Embassy, happened to run into a friend, the poet and journalist Renato LeDuc, married him on the spot and set sail for America.  That kind of thing just doesn’t seem to happen anymore.  After a year or so of living in New York City, she and LeDuc moved to his hometown of Mexico City where they parted ways amicably.  Mexico was very friendly to European artists who fled the war, offering many of them citizenship and fostering a creative expatriate arts community that co-existed – not always happily – with the circle of Mexican artists surrounding Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.

She spent the rest of her life in Mexico city, eventually marrying Hungarian photographer,  Emeric Weisz,  and having two sons.  Although running off with Ernst, joining the surrealist movement and her movie-script escape from war-torn Europe is the stuff of biopics, it is her settling in Mexico that is most interesting to me.  In her early days there, she became acquainted with a fellow refugee painter, Remedios Varo – who lived a similarly remarkable life – and the two of them forged an extraordinary creative friendship, much of which was played out in the kitchen.  Both were interested in alchemy and magic – subjects popular with surrealists – but brought them into the domestic sphere.  Much of her work – both painting and writing – deals with what is magical in the everyday.

The early days in Mexico City were a struggle – money was scarce and she had few painting supplies.  But Carrington and Varo had something else that – to me –  was just as precious: time.  They spent hours in one another’s kitchens collaborating on their writing and experimenting with food.  Perhaps it is because I harbor a secret desire to run off to Mexico and paint, or perhaps it is because everything sounds better in the past (see “Midnight in Paris“), that I have completely romanticized their domestic idyll.

Remedios Varo, Still Life Reviving, 1963

Together in their kitchens, Carrington and Varo spent time concocting absurd recipes: one designed to stimulate a dream of being the King of England, another simulated caviar out of squid ink and tapioca. Yet another recipe, found penned in Varo’s hand, purports to induce erotic dreams:


  • A kilo of strong roots
  • three white hens
  • a head of garlic
  • four kilos of honey
  • a mirror
  • two calf livers
  • a brick
  • two clothespins
  • a corset with stays
  • two false moustaches
  • hats to taste

Put on the corset and make it quite tight.  Sit down in front of the mirror, relax your nervous tension, smile and try on the mustaches and hats according to taste (three-cornered, Napoleonic, Basque, Beret, etc.)… Run and pour the broth (which should be very reduced) quickly into a cup.  Quickly come back with it to in front of the mirror, smile, take a sip of broth, try on one of the mustaches, take another sip, try on a hat, drink, try on everything,  taking sips in between and do it all as quickly as you can.

Haven’t tried this recipe yet, still rounding up the hats and looking for a corset, but the broth sounds delicious, don’t you think?

To see more of Carrington’s work, click here.  And to see more of Varo’s work, click here.

Here is a fascinating interview with Leonora Carrington (in Spanish):

And a short documentary on Remedios Varo (with subtitles):


  1. Susan L. Aberth, Leonora Carrington (Lund Humphries Pub Ltd, 2010).
  2. Leonora Carrington, Leonora Carrington: The Mexican Years : 1943-1985 (La Tienda, 1992).
  3. Whitney Chadwick, Women Artists and the Surrealist Movement (Thames & Hudson, 1991).
  4. Walter Gruen, Remedios Varo. Catalogo Razonado. 4th edition, 4th ed. (Ediciones Era, 2008).
  5. Janet A. Kaplan, Remedios Varo: Unexpected Journeys (Abbeville Press, 2000).
  6. Sharon-Michi Kusunoki et al., Surreal Friends (Lund Humphries, 2010).
  7. Leonora Carrington, The Hearing Trumpet (Exact Change, 2004).

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Marc’s Spicy Pickle Chips

Here’s a question:  can you mail pickles? How about kimchi?  I suppose there is only one way to find out…  My childhood friend, Marc Strommer, who lives in Los Angeles, suggested we start a pickle /kimchi exchange and I am intrigued by the idea.  Marc is a professional musician who started experimenting with pickle-making when he couldn’t find pickle chips with enough kick.   When we got back in touch a couple of years ago, we bonded over our shared love of pickling and fermenting.  I made kimchi (posting about that soon). He made pickles. Why not exchange them?  Getting them from L.A to NYC seems complicated, though, so he agreed to share his secret recipe with Domaphile while we work out the details.

With an over-abundance of jalapeño and habañero peppers from his garden, Marc needed some way to use and preserve them. Inspired by an article about refrigerator pickles and by the Pickle Guys, he started with a 50/50 water to vinegar ratio and then experimented with the ingredients.  Regular garlic pepper spears were first, followed by hot pickle chips. The secret was adding a bit of sugar to the batch.

Spicy Pickle Chips

(makes about 3 pints.)
12 small cucumbers
3 one pint canning jars (or any glass jars with screw top lids)
White vinegar
1 1/2 tbsp Salt
30 Black peppercorns plus @1/2 tsp ground
3 cloves garlic smashed gently
3 tbsp raw sugar
Pinch of chili powder
3 habañero peppers sliced seeds and all. Scary, I know.

1. Divide dry ingredients and sliced peppers into three clean jars.

2. Cut cucumbers into 1/8 inch chips.
I like to use a cool cutter like the one shown. But, you can use a regular knife if you can’t find one.

3. Pack jars tightly, fitting as many as you can without breaking any.

4. Fill jars halfway with boiling water.

5. Fill the remaining half with white vinegar almost to the top. Watch out for spillage as you close the jars tightly. Give them a shake to distribute spices.

6. Refrigerate to seal. Enjoy! Wait a week or longer for spicier pickles.

This recipe can be adapted for garlic pickle spears. Just omit the hot stuff and sugar and add more garlic and pepper.  And cut cucumbers into spears of course.
Although I don’t have a garden full of peppers to use up, I can’t wait to make this recipe. But I am even more excited about seeing if we can send our kitchen experiments through the U.S. Mail.  Why? Because I’m sure Marc is a master pickle-maker, and he also creates these awesome labels.  Who wouldn’t want one?

Marc's Spicy Pickle Chips on Punk Domestics

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Salmon + Tequila = delicious gravlax

Who hasn’t thought about curing fish at one time or another?  Making your own gravlax is easier than you might think.  It doesn’t take much more than some salt and some time.  As in, if you want to serve it at your brunch tomorrow, you’d better get yourself to Zabars.  But if you are planning ahead for next weekend, let’s go!

Gravlax – which translates roughly as “buried salmon” – is thought to have originated in Scandinavia during the middle ages when fisherman would preserve salmon by salting it,  burying it in the sand, and leaving it to ferment into something presumably delicious.  Today, traditional gravlax is made by “burying” the salmon in a combination of salt, sugar and dill.  The moisture in the salmon combines with the dry ingredients to create a brine.  Over a few days, the brine will cure the fish into something spectacular that is best served on a bagel.  The basic cure can be altered to include items like aquavit and juniper berries to enhance the flavor.

I came across this recipe for Tequila and Lime cured Gravlax back in 1996 when I received a cookbook that quickly became a favorite:  In Julia’s Kitchen With Master Chefs, the companion volume to Julia Child’s 1990’s PBS television series where she invited various awesome chefs to hang out in her kitchen and cook (let’s take a moment to contemplate just how sublime that must have been).  The directions seemed simple enough, so I thought – why not give it a try?  The truth is, gravlax is so easy, it’s like the gateway drug for wanting to cure everything else.  The whole process takes from 3-5 days, but most of that is waiting around.

DAY 1: The Dry Cure

The first step is to purchase about 1 1/2 pounds of high quality salmon.  Bring it home.  Wash it off and run your finger over it to find any bones, which you can pull out using tweezers.

Next, take 1 1/2 cups of kosher salt and 3 cups of brown sugar and mix them together in a bowl:

That was super easy.  Now, take out a jelly roll pan and a some plastic wrap.  Line the pan with plastic wrap in both directions:

Fill the lined pan with about 2/3 of the salt-sugar mixture (leaving the remaining 1/3 for later):

Add the salmon, skin-side up:

Cover the salmon in the salt-sugar mixture:

Now. take the plastic wrap and pull it tightly over the salmon to make a little bundle:

It needs to be weighted down with about 4-5 lbs, which is a good way to use the exercise equipment you have lying around. Or you can use canned goods if you sold your dumbbells at a stoop sale because you realized you never, ever used them:

Take the whole crazy set-up and refrigerate for 24 hours.  Make sure you don’t have more than 5 lbs of weight total on the fish or it will squish down in an unpleasant way.

DAY 2: The Wet Cure:

After 24 hours has passed, take the salmon out of your fridge, unwrap it (discarding the plastic wrap and wet cure) and you will see it is well on its way to becoming gravlax:

But we’re not there yetNext up is adding the liquid cure:

In a bowl, mix:

1/2 c. tequila

1/2 c. fresh lime juice

the zest of one lemon

zest of 1 orange

2 teaspoons whole coriander seeds, crushed

3 sprigs each of fresh dill, mint, and basil, with stems and roughly chopped.

You will now need a new jelly roll pan set up with plastic wrap just like the first time. Only now you will add the liquid cure first:

Next, add the remaining dry cure set aside from the day before:

Put your fish back in, skin side up, re-wrap it and replace the weights.  Back in the fridge it goes for another 24 hours, after which you will take it out, carefully unwrap it and feel it from one end to the other.  The flesh should be firm (but not too firm) and a deep red color.  If it is too soft, put it back in the fridge for another day.  Be careful not to let it go too long, however, or you will end up with salmon jerky (I have had this happen and it’s quite depressing).  I also recommend taking the weight off the fish for the second day of the wet cure.

When you feel your gravlax is ready, take it out and slice it thinly starting at the tail end and using a very sharp knife.  This takes some practice and I am not very good at it, but I can get the job done.  Only slice as much as you plan to eat and you can store the remaining gravlax in its cure for up to 10 days in the refrigerator.

I make this a few times a year, but always at Passover.  It’s a festive appetizer and you can even get kosher-for-passover tequila (yes, they actually make that!).  It’s delicious on matzoh with a little honey mustard, but even better on a bagel or a slice of pumpernickel all year round.  With Cinco de Mayo coming up in a few days, just think of the possibilities!

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This week in Dairy: Chèvre

After yogurt and butter, Chèvre (fancy for goat cheese), is the obvious next step in the home creamery.  It’s simple and the results are impressive,  elegant and delicious.  All you need to start is a gallon (or less) of goat’s milk and an agent to transform it into cheese.  This can be done in various ways.  The most straightforward is to add lemon juice or vinegar to make it coagulate.  More complicated recipes require a culture, rennet and a mesophilic starter, for a delicious mold-ripened cheese we will explore one day soon. For this kitchen experiment,  I went middle of the road and used a culture I ordered from The New England Cheesemaking Supply Company.


Heat one gallon of goat milk to 86° F.  Sprinkle culture over the milk and let it hydrate for 1-3 minutes.  Stir.  Cover and let it sit for 6-12 hours (overnight is good).

The next morning, you will be excited to see that your goat milk has separated into curds and whey! Next, you will need to gently scoop out the curds using a slotted spoon:

And place them into a cheesecloth lined sieve:

Once you have transferred all of your curds, gather up the cheesecloth to make a little bag.

You can hang it over your sink or a soup pot, where it needs to sit for 6-12 hours depending on the consistency of cheese you are looking for.  You can also use this technique with your yogurt to thicken it into yogurt cheese. Yum.  Once your cheese reaches the desired consistency, you can either store it in a dish (if softer), shape it into balls,  or use wax paper to roll it into a log. At this point, you can get creative and add herbs and spices (crushed pepper, paprika, chives, etc.).  It will keep in the refrigerator for up to one week.

It’s that easy!  If you want to try this, but don’t want to commit to buying little packets of starter, you can experiment with using cider vinegar or lemon juice as your coagulant.  Here is a recipe from, The Complete Guide to Making Cheese, Butter and Yogurt at Home, a book I highly recommend:


1 gallon whole goat milk

Up to 1/2 cup cider vinegar or lemon juice

Heat milk to 185°, stirring the milk frequently and hold at that temperature for 10 minutes.  Remove milk from heat and allow it to cool to 100° (you can speed up this process by placing the saucepan in a cool water bath in the sink).  Once the milk has cooled, slowly stir in 1/4 cup of the vinegar or lemon juice.  The milk should begin to coagulate with the curd appearing as little balls of cottage cheese as it separates from the whey.  If this doesn’t occur, add another 1/4 cup of the vinegar (or lemon juice).  Once you have curds and whey, ladle into the cheesecloth, let it hang, and call your friends to come for cocktails.

A note about thermometers:  One cannot easily make any cheese or yogurt without the use of an accurate thermometer.  I prefer this instant read digital thermometer –  it’s  inexpensive and gets the job done. 


It’s Earth Day. Time to get your compost on.

Do you like gardening?  Do you feel like you never get enough time to dig around in the dirt here in the city?  Does it bug you when you have to throw your produce scraps in the garbage?  And then does it bug you even more when your garbage starts to smell?  All of those problems can be solved by starting your own indoor worm bin.

Gross, you say?  I get that.  Sort of.  When I was a kid, every time it rained I would pick up earthworms off the sidewalk because I think they are kind of cool.  So earthworms don’t really freak me out.  If you told me I should set up a grub bin or a maggot bin, I would excuse myself from our conversation, never to return.   But worms?  I guarantee they are totally benign.  Plus, when you toss your food scraps into a worm bin, the worms start to break them down right away, skipping the unpleasant rotting food smell you sometimes get when you open up your garbage can. Yay worms!

The thing is, 26% of the trash that goes into landfills is made up of food scraps and yard trimmings.   That, to me, is more disturbing than setting up a box full of worms and dirt in your kitchen (actually, ours is in the dining “area”).  You can easily divert your share of that to the compost in a few different ways.  If you have your own back yard, there are a variety of different bins out there that are easy to order and set up (click here for some good reviews).  If you live in an apartment building, you can band together with your neighbor to start a building-wide compost program.  Last year, I attended a workshop given by the Lower East Side Ecology Center (an amazing organization, I might add) on how to convince your co-op or condo board to approve a building-wide system and how to go about setting it up.

However, if you don’t have much in the way of outdoor space, and your building is full of cranky people who are not down with the whole Earth Day thing, you can easily  strike out on your own in the comfort of your apartment.  The fanciest way to go about doing this would be to order the NatureMill Automatic Composter from Williams-Sonoma.  It looks like a little composting robot and appears to do everything for you.  It does recommend you keep it in a garage or sheltered outdoor space, so I don’t know what that means for apartment dwellers.  If it wasn’t $400, I would buy it and report back (if you have one, I would love to know about it).

Another option is to go the Bokashi route.  Bokashi composting uses a combination of anaerobic organisms (like yeast and lactic acid bacteria) to break down food waste.  Sounds like making yogurt.  I’ve been curious about this for awhile and am planning to buy one,  especially since it claims to break down meat and fish scraps (which are a huge no-no for most compost bins).

If either of those options don’t work for you, consider an indoor worm bin.  It doesn’t take up much space and is fairly easy to maintain (as in, you don’t need a compost-sitter when you go on vacation). We have had a bin on and off for more than a decade.  I first learned about vermiculture through a workshop at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in 1997 and started it as a domestic experiment; one that really did freak people out.   Flash forward to 2011 and you have worm composting featured in a Martha Stewart publication.

While worm composting is extremely easy, you do have to keep a few things in mind.  One bin can only handle about 3 lbs of scraps per week.  We monitor the amount by freezing out scraps in a container and adding them once a week.  You do have to peek in the bin on a regular basis to make sure it isn’t too wet or dry and to make sure you have a nice ecosystem going on in there.  That is my kid’s favorite part – they have names for them.  About 3 or 4 times a year, you have to harvest the compost.

In the coming weeks, I will document the harvesting of my current bin the and setting up a new one on this blog.  If you are itching to get started right away, check out the LESEC‘s instructions, or this step-by-step guide.  It will be fun and I guarantee you will not be sorry when you see the amazing soil you are adding to your plants (or to the trees on the street for that matter).

Happy Earth Day!

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