It's that time of year again! Time to brave the crowds at the malls, max out your credit cards, and buy the latest gadgets for all your friends and relatives... no, scratch that. How about some simple homemade gifts instead? Here are a few ideas. (And if you decide to make these and keep them to yourself, I won't tell!)
Here's an easy one: custom-made scented soaps. For example, here are some "orange marmelade" soaps that I made as a gift for a friend.
They're made with glycerine soap, scented with orange oil, and with tiny orange peel shavings visible inside. Pretty fancy looking, no? But they only took me about fifteen minutes to make.
Here's the basic process: melt the soap in your microwave oven, add scented oil and food coloring, and pour it into a mold. That's it!
You can buy a two-pound block of meltable soap at a local craft store (Michael's, Hobby Lobby and Jo Ann Fabrics usually carry this) or from Amazon. You can get clear glycerine soap—my favorite, 'cause I think it's pretty—or coconut oil, shea butter, or other varieties.
The soap is scored, and is easy to cut with a knife. Cut off a couple of cubes for each bar you intend to make.
Of course, how many depends on what you use for a mold. You can buy soap molds at those same craft stores. Or you can use molds that are sold in the supermarket for making Jell-O snacks. But what I like to do is use vacuum-formed packaging, the kind used for "blister packs" or for fancy cookies or crackers. These things are meant to be thrown away, but many of them have interesting shapes and even patterns molded in. Here's a good example from a package of cookies:
That one made three very elegant-looking bars of soap, which I flavored with cinnamon oil. My favorites are cinnamon, raspberry, orange, clove and ginger. You can't find commercial soaps with these scents, but it's easy to make your own. Essential oils can be found at most health food stores, or at Amazon. (Don't try to use extracts—they're mostly alcohol, and alcohol doesn't allow soap to harden into a bar.)
Of course you can make your own molds if you want to get fancy. I used artist's latex to make a mold that yielded trilobite-shaped soaps for my father, a paleontologist.
Now, here are a few tips. First, you'll probably want to melt the soap in a disposable plastic cup, because it's hard to clean out of a regular cup. (It just keeps sudsing and sudsing and sudsing... it takes a whole lot of water to get it all out!) BUT the heat required to melt the soap will likely cause the plastic cup to soften and collapse, which can spill melted soap inside your microwave oven. So I've learned to put the disposable plastic cup inside a sturdier cup that will support it.
(Don't try to do this with paper cups, by the way! The heat will melt the adhesive that holds their seams together, and then you'll have a mess.)
When melting the soap, use multiple ten-second bursts of heat—fifteen seconds tops, if you have a low-powered microwave. Any more than that, and the soap is apt to foam up and spill over the edge of the cup, making a mess. So use very short bursts of heat, and check after each burst. It doesn't take long to melt this soap!
When the soap is melted, add five or ten drops of scented oil and a drop of food coloring; then pour it into your mold. You can refrigerate the mold to firm up the soap more quickly. One nice thing about the vacuum-molded food trays is that they're so flimsy, it's easy to get the soap out when it's cooled. You may only get a few bars of soap from a mold before it cracks, but so what? It didn't cost you anything, and now you have a good excuse to go buy another package of fancy cookies.
I like to wrap my soaps in Saran Wrap to preserve them until I need them. If you want them to look really classy, heat the wrapped soap briefly with a hair dryer to shrink the wrap tight.
Here's another melt-and-pour project for you. Tired of paying several bucks apiece for lip balm? How does fifty cents strike you? You can easily make your own lip balm for very little money, and make it in any scent or flavor you like.
Here's all you need:
eight or nine ¼-oz lip balm tubes
(You can buy these brand new for about 30¢ apiece, but I save my old ones, clean them out and reuse them)
15 grams (½ oz) beeswax
3 T. olive oil (the "extra light" variety is preferable)
10-15 drops scented oil (your choice)
Coarsely chop or grate the beeswax (or better still, buy beeswax pellets) and place in a disposable plastic cup; add the olive oil (but not the scented oil).
Microwave on high for 10 seconds, then inspect and stir. Repeat in 10-second increments until all ingredients are melted. Add essential oils and stir. Pour into ¼-oz lip balm tubes; place in freezer to quickly cool. Remove after 15 minutes and cap.
I'm sure I needn't tell you to pour slowly and carefully!
All you really need to make lip balm is beeswax and olive oil, but you can add small quantities of cocoa butter, jojoba oil, shea butter or whatever suits your fancy. One ounce of beeswax will make 16-18 tubes of lip balm, so the ingredients go a long way. Then again, if you live in the dry Southwest as I do, you probably go through a lot of lip balm! I make a batch of ten every year or two.
Note: unlike petrolatum-based commercial lip balms, these can become rancid eventually, since they're made with olive oil. To prevent that, store unused tubes in the refrigerator.
Start saving your empty tubes now, so you can refill them! Or you can buy new tubes for about 30¢ each.
I used to make custom cookie cutters by cutting a 1" section off the end of a cleaned-out tin can and then bending it to shape with pliers. But that approach has its limitations. Well, here's something really cool I just discovered: you can make plastic cookie cutters in any shape you want, using easy web-based services. All you need is a silhouette of the shape you want. In my case I chose a ukulele (surprise!).
Here's how it works: the CookieCaster website turns your silhouette into a 3D cookie cutter CAD file... and the Shapeways website prints it out for you in plastic in your choice of colors. CookieCaster is free, and the cost to print out my cookie cutter at Shapeways was a very reasonable $13.98 (plus shipping).
I started by doing a Google image search for a ukulele silhouette, and came up with this:
I uploaded the JPEG file to Cookiecaster and autotraced it. The website generated this 3D model, which I downloaded:
(CookieCaster doesn't actually show it to you that way, but I used a free 3D viewer to take a look at the file Cookiecaster had generated.)
Next I uploaded the file to Shapeways. They have a jillion choices—I could have made a gold-plated brass cookie cutter if I wanted to spend the money!—but I chose their inexpensive "Strong & Flexible Polished" material (basically nylon) in coral red, and that turned out to be just right. Two weeks later I had my ukulele cookie cutter!
It worked perfectly, too. (I used the cap of a Sanford Sharpie pen to make the sound hole.) I made a batch using my favorite spice cookie recipe.
I had to be very careful transferring the cookies to the baking sheet... that long, skinny neck is fragile!
And even more fragile after baking, of course. I was glad I had used silicone baking sheets, so the cookies didn't stick and I could flex the sheets to remove them without damage... well, most of them.
That brings up some points about the limitations of this process. First, CookieCaster can only handle silhouettes. You can't have anything with a hole inside it, such as my ukulele shape, or the letter "P." The hole will just be ignored, as it was in my case.
Second, your shape has to be practical as a cookie. Simplest is best. Complicated shapes, especially ones with long, skinny parts, are likely to break. My ukulele was on the borderline, and required very careful handling.
Here are a couple of shapes from the CookieCaster gallery. (Yes, my ukulele is in there too, if you want to make your own ukulele cookie cutter. For the record, I used a 4" size, 0.65" height, and 1.5mm thickness.) It's pretty obvious which one of these designs will work and which one won't.
The horse just ain't gonna work as a cookie. Oh, Shapeways would make you a cookie cutter in that shape... but when you tried to use it, the legs and tail would break off before you even got the cookie onto the cookie pan. The dog is a more practical design. Simple shapes such as an apple, or the outline of your home state, will work best. A side view of a motorhome or trailer would be eminently doable, especially if you add a few details in icing after baking.
Stick to simple shapes with no holes in 'em (unless you punch out your own), and you can do just about anything you want. And as a bonus, when your friends ask you where you got the Winnebago-shaped cookie cutter, you can casually say, "Oh, I had it 3D printed," and sound really hip!
P.S.—I just created another cookie cutter—this one in the shape of my first Lazy Daze motorhome, Gertie. (But the shape could pass for most small class C motorhomes.) It's here on the Cookiecaster site, and you can download my 3D file from CookieCaster and upload it to Shapeways to have your own made. The cost in blue "Strong & Flexible Polished" material was $15.73 plus shipping. Shapeways says I should have it in about three weeks. Happy trails, happy holidays, and happy baking!