The Giftbox Kitchen

A friend of mine showed me a competition recently where a magazine was looking for someone to write columns. As it turned out I didn’t have time to enter, but I did spend some time thinking about what I’d like to write a column about. It occurred to me that in these difficult financial times, people are looking for ways to cut costs and that the things I do to save money probably wouldn’t occur to the average person.

When I was growing up, our kitchen was always the heart of our home. It was always the warmest part of the house and, coming from a family of amazing chefs, it was always full of the smells of cooking and there were often interesting things going on. When we wanted to spend some proper time together as a family, outside of the regular evening meal, we’d open up our Madhur Jaffrey cookbook and spend a few hours together making an Indian meal. Curries, breads, vegetables, sauces, flavoured rices…you name it, we’d make it all from scratch. I associated our kitchen with love too. It was always where our dogs lived – their bed was usually in an out of the way spot near a radiator. They never failed to leap all over us whenever we got home from boarding school. It was absolute and unconditional love of the finest kind.

When I had to start tightening the purse strings, therefore, I naturally turned to my kitchen. You’d be amazed what you can find in there that you could use to make everyday products you take for granted.

This first post is going to be about natural beauty. I used to spend a lot on moisturisers and scrubs because I have really pernickity skin. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that you can make a basic body and facial scrub with just about everything in your kitchen! As long as it has one part oil to two parts exfoliant, it’ll work.

You can use any kind of oil, sunflower, vegetable, corn etc, although I’d recommend the highest grade you have in your kitchen, which is usually olive oil for most people. I usually use extra virgin coconut oil. It has a lot of properties that make it excellent for the skin, with the extra benefit that it smells delicious. I know you’re probably thinking that it’s an expensive item to buy and we’re supposed to be saving money here. I bought a 750g jar of cold pressed extra virgin coconut oil last year at a health food store in Bristol. It has made (so far) 8 jars of body scrub and there’s still about a third of the jar left. Try and work out what 12 jars of your regular moisturiser plus 12 jars of your usual exfoliator would cost and I can guarantee the coconut oil comes out at a fraction of the price!

Coconut oil is a solid at room temperature, so I warm it gently, either on the hob or for a few seconds in the microwave, and then I stir in twice as much brown sugar. Most of the time I just leave it at that, but if I’m feeling decadent, I’ll put in some sort of fragrance. Usually that involves something from my spice rack – who doesn’t want to smell like a hot cinnamon roll all day long?? Other suggestions are ground mixed spice or even something like cardamom. Cocoa powder is another good one. You can also use a few drops of essential oil if, like me, you happen to have them lying about the house from projects long past. My other favourite (probably my second favourite after the cinnamon) is to grate the zest of a lime in and squeeze in the juice of half a lime. Best morning facial EVER. For a more manly fragrance, try something along the lines of lime and basil, or rosemary and green tea.

If you find the sugar a little too harsh on your skin, try finely milled porridge oats instead. Bran will also work. I’ve also used coffee grounds in the past, pre-soaked in just enough water to make a paste of them. That smelled pretty good, especially when I added in a little cocoa powder and brown sugar for texture. I have also tried tea leaves, but they became a little scratchy after the first use so I haven’t tried again. For a harder scrub, try using table salt. I found rock salt flakes just a little too scratchy for my skin.

Over christmas, I added a little glitz to my scrub by putting in cosmetic grade glitter. Most girls will probably have this lying around somewhere in their makeup drawer, masquerading as eye shadow. It only takes a touch and will coat your skin with a dazzling array of sparkle for an evening out.

I found that over the winter my scrub was going hard between showers. That’s because the coconut oil was solidifying. I fixed it by leaving the jar sat on the radiator for half an hour before I get in the shower so it’s always soft by the time I need it.

If you’re the kind of person that spends a lot of money on soap, you may be surprised to know that it’s an awful lot cheaper to make your own. I can’t be bothered with the whole saponification process, but there are an awful lot of places out there now that stock melt and pour soap bases at very cheap prices. You can buy enough to make about twelve bars of soap for about five pounds (sterling). There’s a wide variety of different bases, ranging from a basic translucent base to the more exotic goats milk and honey bases. For those of you who are worried about the preservatives and chemicals in your soaps, you can buy SLS free soaps at most stockists.

Making the soap really is as simple as it sounds. You melt the base over a gentle heat, chuck in whatever colouring, exfoliant and/or fragrance you want, pour into moulds and leave to set. I use my silicone cupcake moulds for making soap in because it’s easy to press out the finished bars and they clean up without any residue. For the added ingredients, you can use whatever you’ve got in your kitchen. Diluted food colouring is great to mess around with if you want coloured soaps. For exfoliant, oats work really well in soaps. Again, I found tea leaves too scratchy. For the fragrance, it’s exactly the same as for the body scrubs – herbs, spices, cocoa powder, essential oils etc. All of these can be used in small amounts.

I’ve also had some success making a wonder bar miracle soap for a friend who has eczema on her face. I made up a batch of preservative free honey soap base with green tea powder and some concentrated Rooibos tea. It smells a little peculiar but I use it frequently and I’ve not had half as many problems with acne as I used to. I also gave a bar to a guy at work who has a skin condition and he swears by it. One word of caution – if you’re going to add chamomile tea to your soap bars, test it on a small patch of skin first. Apparently a lot of people can be allergic to it.

Finally, on the subject of homemade beauty, I haven’t tried it yet but it’s on my list – homemade toothpaste. If you can get past the idea of a non-foaming toothpaste, I have it on good authority that a little (coconut or other) oil mixed into a paste with baking soda and a few drops of flavoured oil (ie peppermint) is the best toothpaste out there. It doesn’t have any of the damaging flourides in it that most regular toothpastes have, and it allows your tooth enamel to heal from the every day acidity you encounter while eating. If you can’t cope with the flavour, add any concentrated sweetener, as long as it doesn’t contain glycerin. The glycerin will coat your teeth and prevent your enamel from thickening.

If I come up with any other homemade beauty secrets, I’ll post them. Otherwise the next Giftbox Kitchen post will be about things you can give as beautiful gifts from the kitchen.

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