Caught between a rock and lukewarm oatmeal

The thing that I am wrestling with on the kitchen counter - hard, rectangular, golden brown - resembles one of the bricks from the wall behind the counter. It might, in fact, make a good replacement in time of need, with some mortar to hold it in place.

In its pristine state a few months ago - when I bought it to make spice cookies - this had been a box of brown sugar. I had used only a quarter cup then, and now I want some sugar to sprinkle over my oatmeal. I can't dislodge even a grain or two from the box.

I'm not unfamiliar with this phenomenon and its cause: exposure to air. But I'm not too sure of its cure. Besides, that's not what I had planned to do this morning.

After a month's absence, I'm back in the little apartment to which I retreat for weekends of research and writing. I am planning to focus. To that end I have removed the battery from the kitchen clock. I have enough food in stock for two days, so I don't have to go out. Part of my stock, I had assumed, was brown sugar.

After vainly chipping away at the block with just about every utensil on hand, I conclude that nothing less than a hammer and chisel - which I don't have - would make a dent. A sledge hammer on concrete might not produce a useful result either. In any case,

I am not going to get dressed and go out on a drizzly morning for brown sugar.

Since my limited potential for brute force hasn't worked, I'm waiting for inspiration as my oatmeal cools. Aha, the microwave! I've already jabbed into ruins the brown sugar's waxed-paper case, so I peel it off completely and put the block on a plate.

After setting the timer for 30 seconds on high, I go to pour my juice. I know what microwaving can do to the texture of foodstuffs, so I'm prepared for just about anything. After 30 seconds - no change. I set the microwave for one minute and put on the tea water.

The cycle completes, and I reach in to take out the plate, but it's too hot to handle. A poke with a fork registers no change in the sugar, however.

"This is not what I'm here for," I tell myself out loud.

At this point, I consider the sugar a lost cause. But I give it another two minutes on high, expecting it will harden further or turn to syrup. Then I rummage through the fridge and come up with the remainder of a jar of maple syrup for my oatmeal.

I'm ready to eat when the beep sounds, so I take another poke at the sugar. It has softened! My oatmeal is getting even cooler, and the tea kettle is summoning me.

"I'm going to eat breakfast!" I tell myself. Although my tea is comfortingly hot, my oatmeal is barely lukewarm. I eat it anyway, and the maple syrup works as well as brown sugar.

When I take my dishes back to the kitchen, I poke at the sugar. It's solid again, but the half that I had hacked ranges from little grains, to pebbles, to rocks - all potentially usable on cooked cereal. I put them in a plastic bag. But what to do with the solid half?

I could put it in the trash, but it might land on the trash collector's toe. I could run hot water on it and put it down the drain. Then I think, "Well then, add water and make syrup."

So now, an hour into my morning of research and writing, I have just removed the brown-sugar syrup to cool so I can pour it into the maple-syrup jar, realizing that in a few days the apartment's usual occupant may find a strange crystallized substance in that jar.

As I load my dishes into the dishwasher, I contemplate every cook's acquired wisdom: It is not just the ingredients you put into a recipe, but their texture that determines the outcome. If I'm going to bake my favorite spice cookies again, I'll need to buy some more brown sugar.

Thought responds more wisely: But then I'm not only going to have a bag full of pebbles and a jar of syrup (maybe), but also another partially used box of brown sugar. And keeping it from hardening requires one of those round plastic containers whose top you "burp" to remove the air. If you don't burp it, the sugar will harden.

I fix myself another cup of tea and collect my thoughts before getting down to what I really intended to do. As I return the cup to the sink, I realize I've forgotten the syrup. It has congealed into an almost solid mass in the saucepan.

I think I'll get a box of brown sugar next weekend and factor cookies into my schedule.

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