Instructions for Making Caramel

by Annelies Zijderveld
Pour the sugar and water into a heavy-bottomed pan set on medium high until the sugar roils in what resembles ecstatic agony—but don’t reach for the wooden spoon to relieve it. You’ve got to let go of the need to intervene when bubbles prick the surface liquid and morph into bigger bubbles that threaten to subsume the world.

The phone might buzz in your pocket—push out those push notifications you must miss. This is not the time to tap like or type out a comment. It’s not the time to think on the life you could have lived if you’d put family or career first. Instead, keep your eyes on the writhing mass in the pan until clarity becomes copper blood.

It is an eternity of waiting. It is a fear that maybe you missed the signs and will need to start over. It can seem like agony of being able to do nothing but stare and hope that sugar and water won’t disappoint and just do their job. The anxiety can almost bubble over inside, and even though you have molten misgivings, watch the saucepan magma.

Because then, it comes quickly, tingeing a corner golden, then amber, glint of a coffer full of copper coins. This is when you move into action. Turn off the heat. But don’t stop watching, pour in a stream of cream and know it will almost scream, climbing up saucepan walls. Mad like desire or wrenching pain of cold and hot colliding. 

Peel the wax paper off the butter. Stir it in that it might emulsify what once was sugar, water, cream and now can become a thick sauce. Sprinkle in salt—every wound needs to be reminded of its purpose. As caramel cools on the counter, wait and see if you can yet make the life you think you want and the one you have coalesce. 

Annelies Zijderveld

Three Questions for Annelies

What is the significance of this work to you?

The food we are obsessed with or eat certainly speaks to what we are craving but sometimes it can be a physical representation of our internal landscape—something I wanted to explore in "Instructions." Making caramel for the first time can feel daunting—so much of it is trusting your instincts and making decisions at key moments. Like life. How one thing leads into another. There's an alchemy involved of one ingredient under the right circumstances yielding a certain result.

What is the significance of the form you chose for this work?

It started with a desire to tinker with a form that is understood and familiar like a recipe method but turn it on its head. Making it into something that finds inspiration from cookbookery writing, poetry, and the long line of prose poems embodied the mash-up for bringing this piece into being. There is an art to writing a recipe well and of course, an art to poetry. But also, given that this is called Instructions but lacks ingredients underscores something missing if it is to be interpreted under one form only. It leaves something wanting which is a theme coursing throughout the piece as well.

What was the process for creating this work?

I've written umpteen recipes for print and class. There's an art to it—how much do you say? What goes unsaid? How does thinking of the cook's skill level play into how the recipe is written (and rewritten for a different audience)? I wrote it at first as a method trying to get into the process of making caramel, but that then veered into life... and here we are. Life and food are indelibly woven together for me. Then considering numbering, which can be annoying for some recipe readers but in a lengthy recipe or one that is verbose can keep them on track in good footing. But also used because I love the double entendre of numbering as a poetic device too.

Annelies Zijderveld resides in Oakland, California where she writes about food and teaches cooking classes. The Los Angeles Times selected her book, Steeped: Recipes Infused with Tea as one of their favorite cookbooks of 2015. She holds an MFA in poetry from New England College and her poems have been published in The New Guard, Ethel Zine, Gluten-Free & More Magazine, Garbanzo Journal, and others. Follow her on Instagram @anneliesz