September 8, 2008 at 10:53AM
by Alexandra Zissu
We recently returned from a longer than usual summer vacation. We spent a few weeks away from our New York City apartment, alternating between sets of grandparents. It was great for all of us to be outside most of the time, visiting relatives, being able to do things like pick and eat cherry tomatoes off the vine. The babe played and played, and I (thanks to ample family babysitting) got a lot of writing done. But at some point during the second week my daughter started saying she missed her home, her "little" bed, her toys. This shocked me. First, she's only two and a half so the idea that she would be homesick was surprising. Second, she was nestled so firmly in the bosom(s) of her family, with all sorts of new grandparent-gifted toys, not to mention cousins to play with, how could home even compare? But she insisted she missed New York. So I asked her what she missed the most. Her answer? Play dough.
At home, she has Mary's Softdough
, which is quite non-toxic and made by Mary herself in Oregon. I've met Mary and like the product. I have, of course, received countless emails over the years saying that nothing could be easier than making your own play dough out of water, flour, salt, cream of tartar and a little oil. But even though I'd prefer a dye-free version (Mary's is colored), or at least one made with natural instead of synthetic dyes, I've just never felt like I have the time to make my own. This is an unusual reaction from me because I make just about everything else, especially anything that can be made in a kitchen. So although I was sad my daughter was missing anything, I was excited by her response. I could solve her dilemma of being on vacation with no Mary's Softdough -- I was on vacation with some time on my hands and all of the ingredients necessary. I informed her I'd make her some - she looked at me very suspiciously - and quickly got to work.
With my daughter watching my every move, I Googled a few DIY recipes, compared the ingredients and proportions and presto change-o, a few minutes later she was happily playing with (still warm) dough. And I felt like a savior/magician. She doesn't eat her toys anymore (phew) but if she had, no problem. This stuff is edible. I even used organic flour and oil. Those emails from readers were true -- it couldn't have been simpler. I didn't add dye to it because I didn't have any. But the next time I boil beets or carrots or even spinach, I'm going to use the resulting colored water to dye a new batch of dough. (I see online there are places to buy natural food dyes http://www.naturesflavors.com/default.php?cPath=166 and http://www.seelecttea.com/index.php?cPath=41 but they're pretty expensive.) This first batch is several weeks old at this point and holding up very well - moist, pliable, and quite soft. Actually it's quite a bit more malleable than the store bought version. My only dislike is that it's salty and dries my already dry hands. Next time, I'll use a little less salt.
The recipe below is for a small batch. You can obviously double, triple or quadruple the recipe to make a lot more. There are plenty of other recipes out there, some use more tartar. It doesn't have to be too exact.
* 1 cup flour
* 1 cup water
* 1 tablespoon oil
* 1/4 cup salt
* 1 tablespoon cream of tartar
Mix all ingredients in a pot. Cook and stir over low/medium heat until dough is formed and no longer sticking (too much) to the side of the pan. Allow to cool and when it's not too hot for you to touch, knead it until you have a smooth dough. This is the time to add coloring if you're going to use it. Knead until color is distributed throughout. Store in an airtight container. It's supposed to last 6 months but I have friends who have some that has lasted a year. Toss - or make into beads to dry and thread - when it's no longer good for use.
This process really appealed to me. What could be better than making a toy from non-toxic ingredients I already have in the house, and can store in a reuseable glass canning jar? There will be no plastic packaging for me to throw out when the dough dries up or gets dirty. And it's inherently anti-consumerism. I'm already starting to look into DIY finger paints and other projects. I invite you to send suggestions of what else I must try at home now that I've caught the make-my-own non-toxic/green craft bug. I promise to heed your advice sooner rather than later this time around.