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Soap for Soldiers {a casual soap-making tutorial}

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Several weeks ago, this appeared near the entrance of my work facility:

I donated some requested items, but I got to thinking about what I would crave most if I were away from home, fighting every day to survive.  Besides a good, home cooked meal, my second biggest comfort and indulgence is a luxurious bath with lovely scented soaps, body scrubs, etc.  But what I’d want most of all is love and appreciation.

The military can’t accept homemade food from people they don’t know personally, but I really wanted to make something to make the gift more personal, so that the soldiers that received it would know that love was poured into it, not just money.

Soap wasn’t listed as a requested item, but I got the idea in my head to donate some homemade soap, and I called my sister, who is an old hand at making it by now (she has been making it for six years and selling it in her own shop for the last four), to see if she’d be game to help me do it.  I knew she would love the idea, and I was right!  She agreed to help me make it for only the cost of the supplies, and we met in the back room of her shop to get our soap-making party started.

Dennis came along to photograph the process so you can learn how to make soap along with me.  Thank you, honey! <3

This is Danielle’s basic soap recipe, which we tripled to fill two log soap molds.  All measurements are in ounces and all but the last two ingredients are oils & butters.  To make goat’s milk soap, she just subs goat’s milk for the water, but we went with water this time.

You can click here for a printable recipe with step-by-step instructions, or click here for one that includes a photo of the finished product.

Danielle ate her dinner while I measured the oils using an electronic kitchen scale.

Coconut oil

“I only use the best Mountain Rose Herb organic cocoa butter in my homemade soap!”

Castor oil.  Apparently soap-making has already driven me to drink.

Safflower Oil

Sunflower oil.  Allow me to deflect the attention away from my sister’s hilarious expression and onto my shirt with the flipped hem.  It is this way in every. single. photo.  And Dennis didn’t tell me.  He also lets me go shopping with chocolate on my forehead.  But I love him anyway.  :)

Palm kernel oil. This stuff is firm like cocoa butter and has to be hacked out with a knife or spoon.

Once all the oils are measured, it’s time to melt them together.  Some people do this on the stove, but Danielle just does it in her microwave.

“I LOVE MAKING SOAP SO MUCH I COULD DIIIIIE!!!!!”

While the microwave was doing its thing, Danielle measured her water into a glass bowl in preparation for making her lye-water mixture.

It is very important to add lye to water, meaning putting the water in your bowl first and adding the lye second, and not the other way around, or it will explode and burn your skin.  I know that sounds like something I’d usually say as a joke, since I like to exaggerate, but I’m not exaggerating here. Please be careful with lye!

You can find lye at any hardware store by the other drain cleaners in the plumbing section.  Make sure it says “100% lye” on the label.  And don’t’ be scared that you are putting it in something that will be used on your skin.  The process of making soap, combining the lye with water and fat and then curing the mixture, makes it completely safe for your skin.  All soap you’ve ever used contains lye–it is a necessary ingredient.

Danielle microwaved her oil mixture in bursts, stirring in between to help it melt evenly without heating it too much.  Here she’s preparing to put it in for about the third time before she adds lye to the water.

“And now, Pinky, we add the lye to the water and TAKE OVER THE WORLD!”

Combining the lye with water causes a chemical reaction which heats the water and puts off fumes that will make you choke and can burn your skin, so as soon as your lye is measured, take the bowl outside and start stirring to keep the mixture from solidifying.  You should wear a glove on the hand you stir with, as the vapors could burn you if you have sensitive skin.  Danielle has been doing this long enough to know she doesn’t need a glove, but she recommends you use one to be on the safe side.  Danielle also says to make sure you’re situated so that the wind is blowing the fumes away from you.

Stir for about a minute or so to allow the fumes to dissipate.  The mixture will be quite cloudy when you first start stirring, and will get more clear as you stir.  Danielle held the bowl up so I could feel how hot it got.

It reaches 200F, so be careful when handling the bowl not to burn yourself, either from the heat or the corrosive mixture inside it.  Again, gloves are a good idea.

Once inside, Danielle set the lye mixture aside to cool a bit while she finished melting the oil.  At this point it was melted except for a few cocoa butter and palm kernel oil chunks, so she removed them to a separate container to melt completely so that she wouldn’t have to heat the whole batch too much to get them melted.  You want both your oil and lye mixtures to be about 110F when you combine them.

Once the oil was ready, we combined them because the lye mixture had time to cool off and the oil wasn’t too hot either.  Danielle doesn’t use a thermometer, but you probably should until you get comfortable with the process.

Danielle likes to stir while pouring the lye water into the oil, but she says it’s not necessary.  You can just dump it in and then start your stirring.

You’re going to stir, stir, stir, until the mixture is thickened.  This can take a very long time, but an immersion blender makes the process much faster and it will be ready in a matter of a minute or two.

You will know it’s ready when it starts to trace.  To test it, lift a spoonful and drizzle it over the surface.  If you can see a line for a second or two before it disappears (leaves a trace), your soap is ready to pour into molds.  Here it was just barely tracing, but we stopped at this point because we were going to be adding more stuff and stirring a lot more.

Now’s the time to add the scent and extras you desire.  I chose lemongrass because it is a nice unisex smell.

For a batch this big, we needed two (1 ounce) bottles of lemongrass oil.

I wanted to do sort of a camouflage swirl so we divided the batch into thirds to turn each a different color with natural additions.

We added chamomile powder to the large bowl to give it a golden color, French green clay powder to the bottom bowl for a green color, and vanilla bean seeds and black clay powder to the top bowl for a brown color.  You can also put in herbs or oats into your soap at this point–all additions like this will make your soap more firm and it will last longer.  We just poured our additions in until we liked the colors.  Then we mixed, mixed, and mixed some more.

We made sure the soap traced before we stopped mixing.  This isn’t a great photo, but you can see the lines of soap that fell from the spoon.  It’s ready!

We poured the smaller batches of soap into the large bowl in random patterns to help the swirl effect.

Danielle gave the whole batch one swoop of the spoon for a swirl effect.  Don’t do more than this or your soap will become one color–it’s very easy to over mix.  One circular swoop from top to bottom is plenty.

Pour the soap into molds.  She uses silicone molds, which you do not have to line.

You can texturize the top with a spoon or spatula.

Allow the soap to set up in the molds overnight before removing.  Danielle took the soap out of the molds and cut them when I wasn’t there so I don’t have any photographs of that part, but I’m sure you can figure it out. :)

You can use the soap after a week, but it is generally recommended to let it cure for 4-6 weeks before using it, especially if you have sensitive skin.  The longer you let it cure, the harder it gets and the longer it lasts because it won’t “melt” so easily in the shower.

We got 19 bars out of this batch.  Pack it up…

…and share the love!

Hope you guys enjoyed this.  I know I enjoyed making soap for the first time and giving it to the soldiers, and I hope it helps boost 19 spirits.  If you’d like to send a letter or goodies to a soldier, you can get the name and address of an actual soldier serving now at this website.

Thank you, Danielle, for helping a sister and some soldiers out!  You’re the bomb-diggity!  And thank you to the Haus (that’s what I call Dennis if I never told you before-pronounced Hoss, like “boss”), who not only provided most of the photos here, but helped me with some of the captions.  You’re also the bomb-diggity.  And thank you to my readers for reading and (hopefully) enjoying my antics.  You’re all sorts of bomb-diggitiness. <3

And for those of you still recoiling from the mess in Danielle’s supply room, her excuse is the same as mine…

Creativity is Messy and I am Very Creative!-

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Cake for Dummies: How to Create an Attractive Layer Cake

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Photographed: THE Mocha Crunch Cake

A layer cake is just about the prettiest dessert there is, don’t you think?  Stacked high and impressive with a smooth buttercream finish and a few embellishments, a layer cake, properly done, is almost enough to take one’s breath away.

I am passionate about cake and I believe there should be at least one person in every family who can create an attractive cake, with or without decorating skills.  Cake is used to celebrate so many special occasions, and unfortunately many of those celebratory cakes come from Walmart or other sub-par bakeries. Making your own cake is not only more economical than purchasing one, but it tastes better, and is more special.  The cake you create will be remembered (not to mention crazy delicious), whereas that nasty Walmart cake will be forgotten within five minutes, even if it did have your child’s favorite cartoon character on it.

Therefore, I’m embarking upon a quest to give anyone interested the tools they need to create an attractive layer cake at home.  My husband recorded me while I constructed a cake for a friend last month, and I used the footage to create a four-part video tutorial series which I will share every day through Friday.  (Thankful Thursdays will be cancelled this week so I can get this series done, but will resume next week.)

You don’t need any sort of decorating skills to create a gorgeous layer cake, you only need a little know-how.  I promise.  You can do this.  Let’s get started!

Click here to find out more about Magi-Cake Strips.

Click here for the Miracle Pan Release recipe.

Cake shown at the beginning: Dark Chocolate Raspberry Cake

I hope you enjoyed this and maybe learned a trick or two.  I’ll see you back tomorrow with the next video in the series: levelling!

How To Henna Your Hair

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Being raised in a whole-foods home, it only makes sense that my mother also chose all-natural hair and body products.  I started breaking into her stash of henna hair color when I was in middle school, so I have more than 15 years experience with it by now.

You may have heard of henna tattoos, popularized by the Indian culture, which are temporary and slowly fade over time.  You may not have been aware that you can use henna to color your hair as well, but it has been done since at least 400 AD.


Henna is a tall bush or small tree, and the leaves, once dried, are powdered and can be mixed with hot water or an acidic liquid to dye skin, hair, and nails.  The benefit of using henna on hair is that it  seals in oils and tightens the cuticle, resulting in a rich, healthy shine.  It contains no ammonia, peroxide, or other chemicals that are damaging to hair.  Unlike other hair dyes, it fades slowly over time (usually it lasts 4-6 weeks) so there are no tell-tale roots as your hair grows out.

Things you should know about henna:

1) It can only make your hair darker.  It bonds with the protein in your hair, adding color to it (unless you use the neutral henna, which only conditions without adding color); you can’t use it to lighten your hair.

2) If you get any color besides “neutral” or “black,” you will get red highlights in your hair.  In my case, I buy “light brown” and I get a medium brunette color with pretty red highlights.  You can get many tones of red, such as strawberry blonde, auburn, copper, etc, but all of these will only add color to what you already have so don’t expect your black hair to turn strawberry blonde if you choose that color.  It may give some warmth to your color, but will not lighten.

3)  In my experience, henna will not take your hair too far from the color you start with, so if you buy black and have light brown hair, you will become a darker brunette.

4) It is quite goopy and messy and can stain anything it touches.

5) It can react with chemicals in your hair, such as chlorine, or those used in coloring or perming.  In the picture below, taken before a homecoming dance my freshman year of high school,  you can see I turned the ends of my hair green when I tried using black henna after an entire summer of swimming daily in a public pool.  The photo was taken two months after the application, so you can see that green really hung on!  If you want to use henna after your hair has been exposed to chemicals, I highly recommend doing a strand test first.

 photo scan0031.jpg

6) You can add things to the henna mixture to enhance the conditioning and coloring properties, and adjust the amount of water used accordingly.  For deeper conditioning, add an egg or two tablespoons of yogurt.  To bring out golden highlights in already light hair, replace heated water with half warm water and half warm lemon juice or chamomile tea brewed with three tea bags.  To create rich golden or copper highlights add three tablespoons vinegar or fresh lemon juice.  To enrich browns or reds, add one teaspoon ginger, allspice, nutmeg or paprika.  To enhance brown tones, replaced heated water with day-old, black, very warm coffee (not instant).

7) Henna has a distinct herbal smell, which is quite pleasant compared to some of the harsh chemical dyes, but it can be off-putting to some.  It reminds me of a blend of powdered algae, herbal tea, and marijuana.  I sort of feel like a hippie when I’m applying it. :)

8) You can not use any metal during henna preparation or application, as it will react to it and make your hair a funky color.  Which could be fun, but if you’re hoping for a natural color, steer clear of the metal and use a glass, ceramic, or plastic bowl and stir with a wooden or plastic spoon.  I used a small silicone scraper this time.  They also recommend you use distilled water, but I just use purified water and this has never been a problem for me.

There are many henna products for hair and I have tried a few brands, but the one my Mom used is Light Mountain Natural, and after trying other brands, it continues to be my preferred henna product to this day.  Light Mountain Natural is a pure, natural product made from 100% organic powdered botanicals of three species of herbs: Red (Lawsonia inermis), Neutral (Cassia auriculata), and Black (Indigoferae tinctoria).  These powdered botanicals are blended for a rich medly of color.   Botanical color may vary from crop to crop and season to season, but their blending process helps compensate for these variations.

The instructions I’m giving are according to my experience with the Light Mountain Natural henna, and may not work with other henna products.  I use light brown, which I buy at a local health food store that has nothing to do with the Whole Foods chain.  In the box, you will get a bag of henna, instructions, plastic gloves, and a plastic cap.

The day before, please do an allergy and strand test according to the package directions.  I never do, but it is in your best interest, especially if you’ve never used henna before.

To start, empty your henna into a glass or plastic bowl. Add enough water, stirring with a non-metal utensil, that you get a consistency similar to yogurt.  I like to go a little thin, using two or more cups of water, because it thickens a bit upon standing, and it’s easier to apply if it’s not too thick.

Let mixture sit for 1-3 hours to cure.  I usually just wait an hour.  Curing cuts down on the time you will have to leave it on your hair, but you can use it as soon as ten minutes after mixing if you like.  The mixture will thicken and get darker on top. Stir to check the consistency and add more hot water if necessary.

They tell you to get your hair wet, and I went ahead and did it this time, but usually I apply the henna to my dry hair and I noticed no difference in the final outcome, except my grays didn’t seem to be covered as well.  Whether you get it wet or not, it’s now time to don your “henna shirt,” i.e. any shirt that you don’t mind ruining.  I have a shirt designated for henna application and it has been used many times.

Apply a cream or Vaseline around your hairline to protect your skin from getting stained.  I used a sunscreen stick.  Whatever works. :)

It helps to pretend you have no teeth while you apply it.

“Back in my day, we didn’t have these fanshy schmancy sunshreen shticks, but they sure are handy!”

Apply the henna from roots to tips whichever way you please.  With a comb…

Or my preferred barbarian method–slapping it on and rubbing it in with my hands.

I think I make this same face when I apply mascara.  Perhaps the synapses in my brain were misfiring and telling my face that doing any beauty regimen requires wide eyes and an open mouth.  Apparently I channel the elderly quite a lot during this process as well…

“What’s that, shonny?  I can’t hear you, shpeak up!”

As I apply the henna downward, I like to pile my hair up on top of my head to keep it out of the way.  You can see what I meant when I said it gets messy.  I always put cream or Vaseline on my ears and all the way around my hairline because it never fails to get on my skin.

I just keep applying it until the entire bowl is on my head.  My hair is fine and I don’t really need that much, but at least I know every inch is covered.  If you have very long or thick hair, you might need two boxes of henna, but as you saw, one bag makes quite a bit.  If you’re spreading it further, be sure to massage it into your hair before covering with a cap.

When you’re finished applying the henna, the first thing you should do is clean up.  Discard your gloves and clean up all the henna that dropped on your sink and floor.  Use damp paper towels or a damp washcloth to wipe away any henna that is on your face, ears, and neck.  Next, don your plastic cap.

The one that comes with the kit (right) is square and after fitting it to your head, you have to close the gap at your nape with a hair tie, so I usually use a handy-dandy shower cap instead (left).

It is now time to apply heat, which activates the henna and bonds it to your hair.  My Mom used to have a retro hair dryer that came down over her head, which was uber fabulous for this part, but at my house, I apply heat with a handheld blow dryer.

Move the dryer around constantly so you don’t melt the cap, and maybe take this time to practice your lip curls and strengthen your forehead with eyebrow lifts.   I also like to use my other hand to press down on the cap while I’m heating my hair, so that the henna disperses even better while the color is setting.  The directions say to heat intermittently to maintain constant warmth, but I use the blow dryer for fifteen minutes straight, then, depending on  my mood, I will either go online until my hair gets cold, or go straight into the shower.  This time I went straight into the shower, which could be why my grays weren’t covered as well as they usually are–not enough time with the henna on.  Depending on your hair type (mine is super thin), the process usually takes 45-minutes of off-and-on heat application.

Get thee to the shower and rinse the henna out of your hair with warm water.  It is gritty, so it will take some time. Once you get as much of the henna out as you can, fill your hand with a huge pile of conditioner and work it through your hair from roots to tips.  Use a wide-tooth comb or your fingers to comb through it so that your hair is saturated with conditioner and tangle-free.  This will help get the remaining henna out as you rinse it again.  Do not use shampoo.  Ideally, you shouldn’t use shampoo on your henna’ed hair for 24 hours, but I usually do my first shampoo after 12 or so.

Style your hair as usual.  I usually just comb my hair and let it air dry, but after applying henna, I usually at least blow dry it because I’m eager to see what color it is.  Plus, I imagine that the heat helps set the color even more.

Here’s my hair about 6 weeks after the last henna treatment, and the day before this one:

And here it is after this henna treatment:

Another note: there is a specific Light Mountain Natural henna treatment for gray hair, but I haven’t tried it yet, as it is a two-step system and I’m not terribly patient, plus buying it would confirm my suspicion that I’m getting old.  The gray hairs are bad enough without having to buy a special gray hair treatment for them, you know what I mean?

Disclaimer: Light Mountain Natural doesn’t know I exist and did not compensate me in any way for this tutorial or for my opinion of their products.  I just included it here because it is the best henna product I know of and wanted to share the best with you. Check out their website here.

I gathered my information about henna and the henna hair color process from knowledge passed on to me from my mother, from Wikipedia, and from the Light Mountain Natural instructions.  I nabbed the first two pictures off the sites given on the actual pictures themselves.

Making a Lattice Top Crust {Step-by-Step Tutorial}

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Today is my 11th wedding anniversary and Dennis and I are gallavanting around Wichita during the annual River Festival to celebrate, but thanks to the magic of prescheduled blogging, I am able to instruct you on how to make a lattice top crust for a pie despite my absence!  This would be even cooler if I could preschedule my hair to get cut and dyed at the same time, but I’ll take what I can get.

OK, I know I promised a pie recipe next, but since the recipe instructs you to make a lattice top crust, I thought it was high time I broke out my ancient step-by-step lattice top crust photos to explain how to do it.

Making the nifty woven lattice top crust only seems complicated but the process is quite simple.  See for yourself!

Step 1: Lay 5-7 strips of pie dough on top of pie in one direction.

Step 2: Lift every other strip and pull back half-way.

Step 3: Lay a strip down across the middle in the opposite direction.

Step 4: pull folded strips back down over the horizontal strip.

Step 5: pull back the strips that weren’t folded back the first time.

Step 6: lay down another horizontal strip.

Step 7: lay the folded strips back down over the horizontal piece.

Repeat, repeat, repeat, alternating the strips you lift, and then spinning the pie plate around when you finish the first side to do the other.

Looking dandy!  Time to give her a spin and repeat on the other side.

Like so.

Until…

Voilà! Your lattice top crust is complete.

‘Tis a thing of beauty, my friend.

Now.  I must tell you, I do not have pictures of how to properly do the fluted edge for a pie with a lattice top crust.  On this particular one, which happens to be a Razzcherry Pie, I didn’t leave an overhang on the bottom crust so I chose to simply tuck the lattice pieces underneath the scant edge that remained.  Which is perfectly fine and much easier than making a fluted edge.  However, if you want a fluted edge, such as I have here on this cherry pie:

…this is what you do: leave a 3/4″ overhang on the bottom crust.  After finishing the lattice strips, trim them just beyond the inner edge of the pie, then fold the overhang over the strips and press to seal.  Then you can flute the edges using the technique I demonstrated in this video, and you’ll have a gorgeous pie!  I will update this post with pictures to accompany these instructions on finishing the edge when I make my next lattice top crust, but for now, I hope the instructions alone will suffice.

Happy pie making, my lovlies!

Working with Pie Dough {Video Tutorial}

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Photos by me, made into a collage by Laura Flowers.

Although pies certainly have their place in the fall and winter, I find myself making more of them during the warmer months, when fruit is plentiful, and my family begins to favor it over cake.  I’m getting ready to post another summer pie recipe, but thought I’d first share a video tutorial on working with pie dough that I made last summer for The Cooking Photographer and never got around to sharing on my own blog.

I  can hardly claim to be a pie master, but with as many pies as my family demands, I do feel pretty comfortable by now when working with pie dough.  I realize pie dough scares some people the way yeast bread used to scare me, and I hope that this video might help you with whatever difficulty you have had in the past.  This is just the way I do it, and it works for me, but once you try it you will realize in time what works for you.  If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!

I used this recipe for the pie dough in this video.  It is my favorite and the one I use if I have time to make my dough from scratch, otherwise I go for Pillsbury!

Cake Pops

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**Update 5/12/11: If you are here looking for answers to cake pop questions, please check my Cake Pops FAQ and Troubleshooting Guide before leaving a comment.  I also have a recipe for making cake pops or balls with leftover or broken cake here, a recipe for Vegan Dark Chocolate Cake Pops, and a recipe for Cupcake Bites (cake balls that look like little cupcakes–the easier version of cake balls).  For my full pops index, click here.**

These pops are essentially cake truffles on a stick and are very simple to prepare: Bake a cake, mush it up with frosting, roll it into balls, insert a stick, and dip it in chocolate! These things really are a hit with kids because they are so fun, but adults seem to enjoy the delicious truffle-like confections equally well.

Want to make some? Here are step-by-step instructions, complete with videos.

Cake Pops
Makes 40-50 pops
Printable Recipe

What you will need:
1 (14.25 oz) box cake mix, any flavor
1 (16 oz) tub frosting, any flavor (you will not need all of it)
or 1/3-3/4 cup homemade frosting (I use my Cream Cheese Wedding Frosting)
1 (24 oz) package of almond bark/candy coating (white or chocolate)
Sprinkles
Lollipop sticks
3″x4″ cello bags
Curling ribbon

Bake the cake mix according to package directions. Once it’s cool, crumble the cake into a large bowl. I prefer to process mine in the food processor to fine crumbs. Place in a large bowl and stir in half of the frosting container or 1/3 cup of your homemade frosting. Mix with your hands until thoroughly combined and thick like a truffle center. Mix in additional frosting if necessary.  You just want enough to get the crumbs to stick together when you roll them into balls.  Do not add so much that the mixture becomes soft and mushy!

Roll mixture into 1″ balls and place on a cookie sheet. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for an hour or overnight. I usually do this step the day before and then dip them the following day.  Do not freeze them before dipping or it may cause the chocolate to crack after they are dipped.

Melt chocolate in the microwave per directions on package. Dip the tip of your lollipop stick in a little of the melted candy coating and insert into the flat end of the cake balls. (Bakerella says to insert a little less than halfway, but I go more than halfway b/c I imagine they stay put a little better when dipping.)

The cake balls will have a flat bottom from resting on the cookie sheet. Insert the stick into this end so the top will be round.

Carefully insert the cake ball into the candy coating by holding the lollipop stick and rotating until covered. Once covered, remove and softly tap and rotate until the excess chocolate falls off. Don’t tap too hard or the cake ball will fall off, too. Immediately cover with sprinkles before the chocolate has a chance to set, then insert in a styrofoam block to harden.

You want the chocolate to come over the platform you created when inserting the chocolate-dipped stick, but you don’t have to cover it all the way to the stick.

Tap off the excess chocolate.

Add sprinkles before the chocolate has a chance to set.

I wrap my styrofoam board in plastic wrap to keep it clean so I can reuse it.

See the two hiding in the corner?

I ran out of sticks so I just made these two into cake truffles. To do this, drop one ball at a time into the chocolate and lift out with a fork, tapping off the excess chocolate. Place on wax paper to set.

This video illustrates the dipping process. Forgive my PJ’s–I made these first thing in the morning. OK, it was afternoon. I’m lazy on Saturdays. And every other day. Once the chocolate has set, put a cello bag over the top and tie the neck with some curling string and tie into a bow or curl.

I found these at Wal-Mart in the cake decorating section near the wedding supplies

Recipe Source: based on Bakerella’s recipe & instructions

*Update 1/19/12: I have disabled comments on this post, since there are over 400 and many of them are the same questions asked and answered over and over again. If you have a question, please refer to the FAQ. Thank you!*

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