STORY BY SANDRA S. SORIA PHOTOGRAPHS BY JONAS JUNGBLUT
Mary Helen Leonard is a kind of healthy-living alchemist, transforming natural ingredients into DIY beauty recipes or simple, scratch meals. Her laboratory? The airy sunroom and small kitchen of the Austin home she shares with husband Scott and 3-year-old Charlie—both of whom often pitch in as helpers, tasters, and sometimes guinea pigs. What she creates here will make you a better person…and maybe already has.
For the past decade or so Mary Helen has been behind the scenes at Natural Sourcing, a wholesale company that offers up the ingredients for producers of natural and organic personal care products. For a chunk of that time, she fielded questions from both big corporations and small makers about how to transform the company’s raw ingredients into creams, cleansers, and fragrances that skip the mystery chemicals. “It was so interesting,” she says, “because at the time the bigger players in the cosmetics and beauty industry were just starting to use natural ingredients. They would call up with questions like ‘Why should I use shea butter instead of mango butter?’ or ‘What essential oil can I put in lip balm?’”
When Mary Helen didn’t know the answer she would research it, and along the way she became a passionate expert in natural beauty and homemade solutions, eventually spear-heading the company’s blog, “The Natural Beauty Workshop,” which has become one of the most popular handmade skincare links in the blogosphere. Her success there led other companies—from Whole Foods to Better Shea Butter—to seek out her expertise for their sites.
And that’s just her day job. This busy mom (she is expecting her second child this summer) also produces her own blog “Mary Makes Good,” a resource for healthy and creative living that is the repository of her recipes, homemade beauty tutorials, and easy crafts projects. She’s published one book, The Natural Beauty Solution, and has another one on-deck—The Handmade Mama.
In other words, Mary Helen is one of the lucky ones who gets paid to create. “I love being creative—I feel like I can’t be happy if I’m not creating—but the trick is to figure out how to make a living out of it. It’s been a long and winding road getting here,” she says.
The path started with a childhood that included weeks spent in the woodsy countryside near Bangor, Maine, where her mother grew up (and where Mary Helen and crew still visit as often as possible), living a natural life out of economic necessity in a family that made its own soaps, clothes and foraged meals. “It’s made me a real appreciator of nature,” says Mary Helen. “We are definitely from the school of thought that says ‘leave only footprints, take only memories.’”
Her father’s side of the family provided a different perspective. He hails from Westchester County, New York, born into a family of means thanks to success in the restaurant business.
A true adventurer that was drawn to the open waters, her dad ultimately joined the Merchant Marines. Stories he brought back from his global travels offered Mary Helen and her sisters a kind of front row seat to the world.
The yin-yang of this earthy and worldly upbringing sparked a natural curiosity in Mary Helen, leading her to culinary school and “a passion for healthy cooking, world cuisine, and gourmet ice cream.” Out of the gate, she worked as a cook, a culinary instructor, and recipe author. But when a back injury sidelined her from the physically demanding world of professional cooking, she took a temp data-entry job.
Though that position turned out to be “the most boring job in the history of jobs,” it gave her the experience to gain entry to Natural Sourcing and the natural beauty world. To Mary Helen, it was an industry that quickly sparked her interest. “I just wanted to learn and learn and learn about it,” she says. “I began to take stuff home and figure out how to make different things from these ingredients.”
When trying to decide what to blog about, she hit upon a transformative idea. “I decided I was going to spend a year replacing all of my everyday care products one by one with natural, homemade options,” she says. “During the course of that I started to realize that I was actually sensitive to synthetic fragrances and sulfates. Once I started switching stuff, my skin cleared up and my allergies subsided. And I thought my face was always red because of my Scandinavian and Scottish heritage! That’s what sold me on the naturals in a big way. Now it’s been about five years since I’ve bought a commercial product.”
She’s quick to point out, however, that just because an ingredient is a natural one, it’s not necessarily a safe one. “I learned that lesson the hard way when I was first starting to formulate and made a body wash from peppermint oil,” she says. “I hadn’t learned yet how important it was to calculate the percentage rate of various ingredients. I thought, ‘Oh what could happen; it’s just mint.’ I poured some in a bottle and sprayed it on myself in the shower. It was the worst shower ever! My body became so cold I wasn’t sure I’d ever be warm again.”
These days, her lotions, creams, and soaps are carefully sourced, measured, and created. “It’s not unlike making a successful béchamel sauce,” she laughs. Now that she’s refined the science of it, she’s worked to simplify the recipes for the same reason she’s dedicated to creating easy recipes or dreaming up doable DIY crafts and projects—to make the handmade, natural life more accessible to ordinary folks, such as busy working moms or people with realistic budgets.
It’s a topic that leads her to a different kind of soapbox. “One of the main reasons I’m so passionate about learning to make these things—and write a book about them and learn to blog about them—boils down to accessibility,” she says. “Organic products and foods are expensive. I feel like a limited budget shouldn’t mean you have to use poisonous skin care products. So one of my big goals is to make homemade products a more everyday thing. I want people to know that you could go to the grocery store and get half the ingredients you need to create healthier skin care products for the whole year. It’s extremely affordable, really, once you make the investment in a couple of key ingredients. Making your own face wash takes two minutes, and it’s cheaper than buying it at CVS. It’s absolutely possible for anybody, on any budget.”
For more on Mary Helen and her homemade life, click over to: naturalbeautyworkshop.com and marymakesgood.com.
marbled chocolate ice cream bars
“How do you take a store-bought dessert from basic to show- stopping in just a few simple steps? Dip it in marbled white chocolate. Working with light colored ice cream bars will give the white chocolate coating its best opportunity to shine. The blend of strawberry and white chocolate on my Marbled Chocolate Ice Cream Bars is delicious!” –Mary Helen
□ 8 ice cream bars
□ white chocolate melting wafers
□ 1 c refined coconut oil
□ 2 T corn syrup
□ Edible food dye
► Combine melting wafers and coconut oil in a heatproof bowl and microwave in 30-second bursts until fully melted. You can also use a double boiler for this step, if you prefer. Once the ingredients have melted, add corn syrup and stir well. Allow the coating to cool down to room temperature. If you use it while it is still hot, it could melt your ice cream! While you are waiting, place a wire cooling rack over a plate or baking sheet and set aside. Line a small tray with wax paper and place in the freezer to chill.
► Once the mixture has fully cooled, pour about 1⁄3 of the coating into a wide, shallow bowl (a pie plate is perfect).
► Drizzle lines of food dye into the bowl. We used a pink dye for one batch, and a blue one for the second.
► Use a toothpick or chopstick to swirl the lines of color into a marble pattern.
► Remove and unwrap the ice cream bars one at a time. Carefully dip each bar into the candy shell, dipping just one side of the bar each time. Let any excess coating drip off, then place on the wire rack.
► Pop the bar onto a tray and place in the freezer before taking out the next bar. Working with one bar at a time will keep them from melting too quickly.
► Repeat the last three steps with the remaining ice cream bars.
► Allow the marbled bars to chill in the freezer for at least one hour before serving. If you plan to keep them in the freezer for more than a couple of hours we suggest wrapping them in cellophane or plastic wrap.
good to know
Finish the bars with a sprinkling of edible glitter or gold foil for an extra pop of color and sprinkle of texture.
heat & eat rice bowls
“Preparing foods ahead of time that I can heat and toss over healthy grains is an excellent quick-meal strategy. That’s why I love the idea of ‘Buddha bowls.’ Precook a vegetable, protein, and grain, then warm to taste. Try a different combination of ingredients each week.” –Mary Helen
To make the “Buddha bowls,” pan roast or steam your choice of vegetables, then combine them with roasted, grilled, or sauteed meat, poultry, fish, or tofu and serve over your choice of grain. All of the ingredients can be prepared ahead of time. Experiment with various combos until you hit upon your family’s favorite. Mary Helen keeps items on hand to season the bowls, such as sour cream, Greek yogurt, Sriracha sauce, Japanese mayo, tamari and lemon juice. She also uses “flavor boosters” such as avocado, shredded cheese, sesame seeds and hummus.
Below is the basic recipe. For more info, check out Mary Helen’s new book, The Handmade Mama(Spring House Press 2018).
□ 1⁄2 c grains, cooked per package instructions
□ 1⁄4 c protein, sauteed, grilled or roasted
□ 1⁄2 c green vegetables, steamed or roasted
□ 1⁄2 c red/orange vegetables, steamed or roasted
□ 1 or 2 T flavor booster
□ 1 to 3 t sauces or seasonings
► Warm precooked grains, proteins, and veggies according to taste and place in a serving bowl.
► Top with avor boosters and sauces or seasonings to taste.
chipotle sweet potato gratin
“Sweet potatoes are one of my favorite veggies. I prefer them dressed in savory and spicy flavors instead of sweet. While I understand the allure of marshmallows and brown sugar, I can’t get enough of the smoky chipotle and creamy cheese sauce in this quick, easy casserole.” –Mary Helen
MAKES ABOUT 12 SERVINGS
□ 2 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and thin-sliced
□ 1 c heavy cream
□ 1 c Mexican crema or sour cream
□ 8 oz Monterey jack cheese, shredded
□ 7 oz can LA MORENA® Chipotle Peppers in Adobo
□ 2 T minced chives or freeze-dried chives
□ 1⁄2 t garlic powder
□ 1⁄2 t salt
□ 1⁄4 t black pepper
► Preheat oven to 400°F.
► Combine heavy cream, crema, garlic powder, salt, and pepper in small food processor or blender. Add chipotle peppers to taste (1 pepper for mild, 2-3 for medium, 3-4 for hot). Add a dollop (1 to 3 teaspoons) of sauce from the can as well. Puree until smooth.
► Place one layer of sliced sweet potatoes into casserole dish, then drizzle 1⁄4 to 1⁄2 cup of cream mixture and a handful of shredded cheese over the top. Continue making layers until all of the ingredients are used up.
► Sprinkle top layer with chives.
► Bake for 45 to 50 minutes, or until sweet potatoes are tender.
► Let sit for 5 to 10 minutes before serving.
good to know
“I like my chipotle sweet potato gratin with a nice brown crunchy top. If you prefer a softer, lighter texture, try covering the dish
as it cooks.”
► To make the following facial masks, mix up the ingredients in a small bowl. Apply masks to clean, moistened skin. Avoid sensitive areas, such as your lips, nostrils, and eyes. Allow the mask to dry for 10 -20 minutes. Rinse with warm water, then follow with your favorite toner and moisturizer.
FOR OILY SKIN:
□ 1 T sea clay
□ 1 T lavender hydrosol (a floral water that is lighter than essential oils)
□ 5 drops neem Oil
FOR DRY OR SENSITIVE SKIN:
□ 1 T White kaolin clay
□ 1 T plain yogurt
□ 1 T honey
□ 1⁄2 t apricot oil
□ 5 drops German chamomile essential oil
FOR ALL SKIN TYPES:
□ 1 T chickpea flour
□ 1 T yogurt
□ 1 T rose hydrosol
□ 1⁄4 t turmeric powder
Mary Helen’s 5 essential ingredients for DIY beauty
#1 APRICOT OIL This is your everything oil. It’s good for hair and body.
#2 KAOLIN CLAY This fine, light clay offers detox properties and natural absorbency. It’s gentle for any skin type.
#3 NEEM OIL This famously stinky oil comes from an evergreen tree, and is a potent anti-bacterial product that fights redness, and helps to prevent and treat acne scars.
#4 HONEY This is a must-have humectant that pulls moisture to the skin and boosts how well the skin retains the moisture.
#5 HOMEMADE SOAP The best are all-natural, cold-processed bars that can be used for everything from body wash to shampoo.