An Aussie Night Before Christmas


MERRY CHRISTMAS FROM DOWN UNDER!!

For this post I thought I would do a bit of show & tell – I am going to show you what Christmas looks like in Sydney & tell you the story of An Aussie Night Before Christmas (& yes, I bought a copy of this book, along with one called Christmas Wombat! ;))  So grab a cup of hot cocoa & settle in – this is going to be a good one! . . . Oh!  And be sure to warm up your voices – we might just sing a rendition of Jingle Bells (Aussie-style, of course!!) before this post is through! 😉

An Aussie Night Before Christmas by Yvonne Morrison

‘Twas the night before Christmas;

there wasn’t a sound.

Not a possum was stirring;

no-one was around.


We’d left on the table

some tucker & beer,

Hoping that Santa Claus

soon would be here;


We children were snuggled up safe in our beds,

While dreams of pavlova danced ’round in our heads;


And Mum in her nightie, & Dad in his shorts,

Had just settled down to watch TV Sports,


When outside the house

a mad ruckus arose;

Loud squeaking & banging

woke us from our doze.

We ran to the screen door,

peeked cautiously out,

Snuck onto the deck,

then let out a shout.

Guess what had woken us up

from our snooze.

But a rusty old ute

pulled by eight mighty ‘roos.

The cheerful man driving

was giggling with glee,

And we both knew at once

who this plump bloke must be.


Now I’m telling the truth – it’s all dinki-di,

Those eight kangaroos fairly soared through the sky.


Santa leaned out the window to pull at the reins,

And encouraged the ‘roos, by calling their names.


‘Now, Kylie!  Now, Kirsty!

Now, Shazza & Shane!

On, Kipper!  On, Skipper!

On, Bazza & Wayne!

Park up on that water tank,

Grab a quick drink,

I’ll scoot down the gum tree.

Be back in a wink!’


So up to the tank

those eight kangaroos flew,

With the ute full of toys,

& Santa Claus too.

He slid down the gum tree

& jumped to the ground,

Then in through the window

he sprang with a bound.


He had bright sunburned cheeks

& a milky white beard.

A jolly old joker

was how he appeared.

He wore red stubby shorts

& old thongs on his feet,

And a hat of deep crimson

as shade from the heat.

His eyes – bright as opals –

Oh! how they twinkled!

And, like a goanna,

his skin was quite wrinkled!

His shirt was stretched over

a round bulging belly

Which shook when he moved,

like a plate full of jelly.


A fat sack of prezzies

he flung from his back,

And he looked like a swaggie

unfastening his pack.

He spoke not a word,

but bent down on one knee,

To position our goodies

beneath the Yule tree.


Surfboard & footy-ball shapes

for us two.

And for dad, tongs to use

on the new barbeque.

A mysterious package

he left for our mum,

Then he turned & he winked

& he held up his thumb;

He strolled out on deck & his ‘roos came on cue;

Flung his sack in the back & prepared to shoot through.

He bellowed out loud as they swooped past the gates –


‘MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL, & GOODONYA, MATES!’

Well, now that I’ve got you in the Christmas spirit, are you ready for a little sing-a-long?!  I thought so!! 😀  Here’s a video of “Bucko & Champs” singing “Aussie Jingle Bells.”  Oh!  If you like what you hear, you may also want to search for some of their other well-known holiday hits, including such favorites as “Six White Boomers” (Careful!  You won’t recognize this tune, but you’ll be surprised how quickly it’ll get stuck in your head), “Deck the Shed With Bits of Wattle” & “Santa Has Got a New Truck” (which, sadly, I could not find a link for. :()  Totally serious, people – I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried!  You’ll see an ad for their CD at the end of the first video. 😀

MERRY CHRISTMAS EVERYONE!!  AND A HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Light Show at St. Mary's Cathedral

Christmas Window Display at David Jones Department Store

Doves at St. Mary's

Inside Sydney Opera House Concert Hall

The Madonna & Child

Nativity at Hyde Park

An Aussie Thanksgiving

My flatmates as we prepare to eat our Thanksgiving dinner - Mia, Miel & Sarah

Macaron Day (Sunday, November 27th) was also the day my flatmates & I planned to celebrate my first Thanksgiving abroad (& their first Thanksgiving ever!)  They wanted me to have a taste of home, so they graciously agreed to help me prepare a turkey feast complete with all the trimmings . . . & they were quite curious to try candied yams . . . marshmallows?  On vegetables?!  Yes, we Americans are a strange bunch. 😉

I have to admit that I was a bit nervous about the whole thing – as the only American in the bunch, I was suddenly the “expert” & was expected to know things like how to roast a turkey – never mind the fact that I’d never done this before & pretty much the only raw meat I ever touch are boneless, skinless chicken breasts – I have to pull what out of where?!  :-/  I figured the least I could do was to purchase the bird & I’d already done (well, some of) my research & found a 3.4 kilo (7.5 lb) turkey at a local supermarket, so I knew exactly what I was going to get.  This was actually a whole turkey as we weren’t able to find just the breast, but it seemed relatively small so we figured it would work for the four of us (with lots of leftover turkey sandwiches for the week to come).  I decided I would wait until Saturday night after work to pick it up – since we have limited space in both our freezer & fridge, I figured this was the smart thing to do . . . Yeah – didn’t think about the fact that a 7.5 lb turkey can take up to 48 hours to defrost . . . now what?!

Fortunately my flatmate Mia is studying to be a chef, so I figured she’d have some tricks up her sleeve . . . & I was right!  After leaving the turkey in the fridge overnight we were able to finish defrosting it in cold water in the kitchen sink.  Even though Mia had never actually cooked a turkey before, she had some great ideas about how to prepare it.  First she “trussed” the turkey (I tried to tell her it was already dead & probably wouldn’t be able to climb out of the pan on its own, so I really saw no need to tie it up, but she just wouldn’t listen).  Then she seasoned it with oil, garlic, thyme, lemon & a whole host of veggies.  She even draped strips of bacon over the top to help keep it from drying out!

Our Turkey - all dressed up & ready to go in the oven!

The next big hurdle was just waiting for the darn thing to cook!  We didn’t have a meat thermometer, so we just had to keep checking it to see if the juices were running clear.  I don’t know about Mia, but I had a really hard time figuring this out!  We kept giving it another 15 minutes . . . & then another 15 minutes . . . until finally we were satisfied that we would not all die of food poisoning if we ate it. 😉

Is it done yet?!

We were all so proud of our finished turkey!!  But like good chefs & bloggers we had to snap a few photos before we could even think about eating.  We were like food stylists, crafting the perfect backdrops & searching for the best angles from which to point our lenses.  We decided the turkey didn’t quite stand out enough on the plate, so we made it a bed of lettuce to give it a little color. 🙂

My First Turkey! OK, I guess I already admitted I had nothing to do with it - it was all Mia!!

The “tree” in the picture below does not usually sit on our kitchen table but it made a nice addition to our autumnal theme, so into the photo it went! 😉

Our Beautiful Thanksgiving Spread

In addition to the turkey, Mia made the candied yams as well as some basil mashed potatoes! (way above & beyond, Mia!)  We got a basic recipe for the yams from my mom (yeah . . . I didn’t know how to do the turkey or the sweet potatoes – perhaps I should surrender my American passport? :()  Once I saw the recipe, I realized how simple the yams actually are – cut them up & layer in a casserole with butter, brown sugar & marshmallows & bake until potatoes are soft & marshmallows are brown . . . except that when we went to check on them the marshmallows hadn’t exactly browned . . . instead they had, well, um, disappeared!!  I was just about peeing my pants at that point.  But surely if that was the only thing to go wrong then I’d say we did pretty well.  We had a few marshmallows left so we just threw them on top & left the casserole in the oven with the heat turned off for a few minutes – I think they look pretty good in the picture above & I can vouch for the fact that they tasted fabulous! 🙂

OK, so if Mia made everything I’ve described so far, then by now you’re probably wondering what the heck I actually made!  Well in comparison, not much!  I made my aunt’s broccoli stuffing & I bought a jar of cranberry sauce – that’s it!  Sarah made a salad & Miel made a pumpkin pie & by the end of the night were all stuffed! 🙂

Miel's Delicious Pumpkin Pie!

As I wrap up this post, I can’t help but contemplate the many things I have to be thankful for this year.  The opportunity to live abroad & experience another culture.  The fact that I found work (in a cupcake shop, no less!) so easily & the fact that I have been able (& will soon be able again) to leave work in order to travel.  My newfound barista & macaron-making skills.  Finding wonderful flatmates to live with during my time in Sydney as well as several other new friends during my travels.  And of course the wonderful family & friends from home that I love & miss so dearly!  Looking forward to seeing you all in 2012!

Macaron Day 2011

Lauren & I can hardly contain our excitement outside Adriano Zumbo's as we eagerly await our turn to go inside!

“Falling Nuts Postpone Macaron Day!”

Perhaps the strangest headline ever written – strange, but true!  Adriano Zumbo’s annual Macaron Day has always been held on his birthday – November 6th – until now.  Just before this year’s event was scheduled to occur, I noticed an update on his website explaining that some nuts fell into the almond meal (an essential ingredient for macarons), requiring him to push back Macaron Day 2011 several weeks to November 27th.

In case you’re unfamiliar with Zumbo’s Macaron Day, it is an annual event where he & his staff bake heaps of macarons in every flavor imaginable (think Willy Wonka, Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans from the Harry Potter series, etc.) . . . OK, so not much different than a normal day in Zumboville except that Macaron Day features about 60 flavors as compared to the usual 12.  How could I pass this up?!

Me, Christina & Lauren with our stash!

As I queued up with Lauren & Christina I couldn’t help but ponder some of this year’s choices:

VEGEMITE – ugh! (didn’t try it – didn’t have to – hahaha! ;))

REDSKIN – whaaa . . . ?  “Do you think they mean like a redskin potato?” I asked my companions.  “Or football player?!” quipped Lauren.  Thank goodness Christina finally corrected us.  “Um, guys, redskin is an Australian candy.”  OH! 🙂  Strangely enough, I happened to spot the candy in a store for the first time later that afternoon & my curiosity got the better of me – I had to try some!  Unfortunately I hadn’t purchased the corresponding macaron from Zumbo’s, but I’m sure it would have been very nice since the candy itself was quite yummy!

Willy Wonka Red Skins Candy

Red Skins Candy - chewy, sticky taffy - tastes like Cherry Starburst

Below are the 12 macaron flavors I did sample . . . & no, I did not eat 12 macarons in one day!  I actually cut off a quarter of each – just enough to get a taste – meaning that I only ate the equivalent of 3 macarons & I also left enough of each flavor for my flatmates to do the same (being the good flatmate that I am, I had promised to bring them back some). 🙂  But of course I couldn’t go straight home without first taking a few nibbles! 0:-)  So Lauren, Christina & I made our way back to Lauren’s flat, which just so happens to be around the corner from Zumbo’s Patisserie.

While Christina & I spent at least a quarter of an hour trying to identify each macaron we purchased (Is the green one Milo or Chocolate Mint?!), Brendan & Lauren wasted no time taste-testing their lot.

Before I began tasting, I wanted to figure out which macaron was which – I didn’t think it would be too hard considering there were only 12 flavors & I had chosen them all personally, but boy was I wrong!  I looked them all over carefully, smelled each one, compared notes with Christina (who spent just as long analyzing her macarons as I did – glad I’m not the only obsessive one!) & then finally (& only after giving into some taste-testing of several macarons that had evaded every other test), I was able to piece it all together. YEAH! 😀

From left to right: Fried Chicken; Vanilla Ecstasy; Toasted Marshmallow; Butterscotch Caramel; Strawberry Bubblegum

1. FRIED CHICKEN – Yes, you read that right!!  And it really did taste like chicken!  I was a bit scared to try it at first – I mean, a chicken flavored macaron?  Seriously?!  It was quite good, but I have to say it looked & tasted more like a chicken nugget than a macaron.  Perhaps Zumbo should start a line of canapes? 😉

Fried Chicken Macaron!

2. VANILLA ECSTASY – Sometimes the classics are the best.  My flatmate Sarah & I tasted this one together & after a few seconds we both smiled, nodded & said “mmmm!” at the exact same time. 🙂  Really nice vanilla bean flavor.

3. TOASTED MARSHMALLOW – Very light & airy filling on this one.  Not bad, but not a standout for me.

4. BUTTERSCOTCH CARAMEL – The caramel sauce on this one tasted a bit bitter – not sure if it was meant to be that way – perhaps it was a burnt caramel sauce (either by design or by accident) or just the influence of the butterscotch when combined with the caramel?

5. STRAWBERRY BUBBLEGUM – The only tasting note I wrote down for this one was “awesome!”  Tasted just like the real thing.  Loved it!

From left to right: Coffee; Custard Crunch; Pandan & Coconut; Maple Syrup Pancake; Milo; Peach Iced Tea; Peanut Butter & Jelly

6. COFFEE – The filling in this macaron tasted exactly like a beautifully pulled shot of espresso.  Experienced that happy feeling I get when I drink the perfect cup – more, please! 😀

7. CUSTARD CRUNCH – Decent custard flavor, but the shell was too soft (perhaps from the moisture in the custard filling?) – didn’t have that nice crisp texture I know & love!

8. PANDAN & COCONUT – Nice, but a bit on the sweet side for me.  I think I prefer the pure Pandan flavored macaron I got from Zumbo’s a while back.  By the way, pandan can be described as “fragrant Asian leaf.”  Sounds strange, but tastes good! 😉

9. MAPLE SYRUP PANCAKE – Nice maple flavor.  Brekky, anyone?

10. MILO – This was one that Christina & I had both purchased & we both struggled to identify!  Milo is an Australian Chocolate Malt Drink – you mix the chocolate powder with hot or cold milk & voila! Instant, yummy drink. 🙂  One of the things that Milo is famous for is the chocolate crunchies that form from the bits of chocolate that don’t dissolve in the milk (somewhat similar to the chocolate crunchies inside a Carvel ice cream cake – yum!)

Anyway, in our minds we were looking for a chocolate (i.e., completely brown-colored) macaron, so the green shell combined with the brown center looked to us like it could have been Chocolate Mint (but although this flavor was on the menu, I hadn’t ordered it).  We finally had to taste it & we eventually realized that the green shell symbolized the green tin that Milo is packaged in!  While this macaron had a nice chocolate taste, it was sadly missing the chocolate crunchies that are characteristic of a Milo beverage. 😦

Nestle Milo - Popular Chocolate Malt Drink & now a macaron flavor too!

11. PEACH ICED TEA – Another great flavor!  Very authentic tasting & refreshing.

12. PEANUT BUTTER & JELLY – How could I resist a PB & J macaron?!  The peanut butter flavor was quite nice, but there was such a small dab of jelly in the center, it was easy to miss.

PB & J Macaron

Macaron Day, what can I say?  You are fabulous & you will be sorely missed in 2012!  I guess next year I’ll just have to celebrate from afar by baking up some of my own Zumbo-inspired concoctions.  Anyone care to join me? 😉

Crave Sydney

Night Noodle Markets, Crave Sydney International Food Festival

It’s an ingenious name.  And not just for a food festival.  Everything about Sydney makes me crave this amazing city.  Beautiful harbours.  Incredible beaches.  And yes, of course the food!

As if there weren’t already enough food festivals in Sydney (could there be such a thing as too many food festivals?!), the entire month of October is dedicated to celebrating food around this bustling metropolis.  The Crave Sydney International Food Festival encompasses more events than one person could possibly partake in, but I gave it my best effort. 😉  On top of that, I also attended several *additional* festivals throughout October that were not officially part of the Crave Sydney calendar.  Were you expecting anything less from me? 😉

Below I take you through my experiences, in chronological order:

DARLING HARBOUR FIESTA – Saturday, October 1st & Monday, October 3rd (I enjoyed it so much, I went back a second time!)

My favorite part of Darling Harbour

Walking around the Darling Harbour Fiesta I felt as if I had come full circle: it was hard to believe that just one year before, I had been attending the very same festival while visiting Heather.  Little did I know then that I’d be back in town for the 2011 festivities! 😀

Latin dancing

Latin music & dancing are hallmarks of this event, along with food from countries such as Brazil, Mexico & Argentina.  I couldn’t resist getting some churros (Spanish-style doughnuts) for dessert – yum!

These churros were actually from a cafe called Chocolateria San Churro - so good!

Although they can be eaten plain, they really are best when served with either chocolate or dulce de leche (caramel) dipping sauce – or both! 😉

The crowds at Darling Harbour Fiesta

Darling Harbour Fiesta Parade

MasterChef LIVE! – Saturday, October 8th @ Hordern Pavilion & Royal Hall of Industries, Moore Park

After closely following season 3 of MasterChef Australia throughout the past several months, I was excited for the opportunity to see some of the top contestants in action.

George Calombaris with Contestants Dani & Alana

I planned out my schedule in advance so I wouldn’t miss anything & my day was definitely jam-packed!  Here was my itinerary:

– 10:30 – 11:15 a.m. Mystery Box with Adriano Zumbo & MasterChef Winner Kate, hosted by George Calombaris.  The title made me think Zumbo & Kate would compete in a challenge together, but it was actually George & Kate that battled it out (George won according to the taste-taster they selected from the audience to judge their dishes).  Zumbo was there too, but was given his own stage time to show us how to make the “Chocolate Breakfast” from his new cookbook. 🙂

– 11:50 a.m. – 12:10 p.m. “How to” Session with Adriano Zumbo.  The program didn’t specify what we’d be learning, but Zumbo ended up giving a brief demonstration on how to temper chocolate.

Adriano Zumbo shows us how to temper chocolate

– 1:45 – 2:15 p.m. Contestant Theatre – Pumpkin, goat cheese & spinach risotto with Contestants Dani & Alana (pictured at the beginning of this section).

– 3:30 – 4:00 p.m. Wine & Cheese Pairing.  We sampled 5 different wines & cheeses & yes, I left with a slight buzz – you all know I can’t hold my liquor! 😉

Wine & Cheese Tasting

In addition to all the demonstrations, there were heaps of exhibitors selling various food items & giving away free samples.  Overall I’d say the event was a huge success – in fact, I don’t think the organizers had anticipated just how much of a success it would be given the limited seating I encountered for the demos.  I queued up for an hour to get a seat at the mystery box theatre & the celebrity chef & contestant theatre areas were also way too small for the masses that crowded around to view them.  Maybe next year they’ll use an even bigger venue!

CRAVE SYDNEY: SUGAR HIT – Tuesday, October 11th @ Tomislav, Darlinghurst

Apple Crumble with Macadamia Sponge & Caramel Ice Cream

By far, this has got to be the best idea for an event EVER.  So what exactly is a “Sugar Hit?”  Well, just as the name suggests, it’s an excuse to indulge in something sweet (like we needed a reason?! ;))  During the month of October, various restaurants around Sydney offered wine & dessert specials starting at 9:00 p.m.  My flatmate Mia, her friend Sabrina & I chose Tomislav for both the setting (many of the other “Sugar Hits” were located in hotels) & the incredible menu.  Just look at these desserts!

Vanilla Cheesecake with Grilled Strawberries & Mulberry Sorbet

The apple crumble pictured at the beginning of this section was probably the most unique of the three desserts we ordered.  Our waiter hinted that there would be a surprise inside & sure enough when I took my first bite I felt a tingling sensation on my tongue . . . it was none other than Pop-Rocks!!  Not something I want in my apple crumble as a general rule, but the element of surprise definitely put a smile on my face & had me feeling like a little kid again. 😀

Milk Chocolate Cream Cake with Toasted Hazelnuts & Smoked Banana Ice Cream

It was a toss-up between the vanilla cheesecake & the milk chocolate cream cake as to which we liked best.  All of the desserts looked so pretty on the plate & the textures & flavors were amazing – definitely not your average, run-of-the-mill desserts!

CRAVE SYDNEY: NIGHT NOODLE MARKETSFriday, October 14th @ Hyde Park

Several people recommended that I stop by the Night Noodle Markets during its two-week-long run in mid-October & had there not been so many other foodie events occurring around the same time, I might have gone back for more!

Lanterns at the Night Noodle Markets

It’s always great to have a free, outdoor event where you can just walk around at your leisure & enjoy the fresh air, sit & people watch for a while & enjoy a nice meal.  The Night Noodle Markets featured heaps of vendors selling every variety of Asian-inspired food, but of course I opted for the cashew chicken & rice.  If there’s one thing that hasn’t changed about me after a year abroad, it’s my lack of adventure with food.  Vegemite?  I’ll give it a go.  Rocket?  No dramas.  Duck?  No thanks, mate! 😉

  

Crowds at the Night Noodle Markets

NORTON STREET ITALIAN FESTA – Sunday, October 30th in Leichhardt

The day before Halloween, the main street in my neighborhood of Leichhardt was closed to traffic for the annual Italian Festa.  While I ultimately enjoyed the festival (although I do think Buffalo does it better!), I have to say that advertisements for this event were a bit – well, confusing!  My flatmates & I received a postcard in the mail which listed the dates as Friday, October 29 – Sunday, October 31.  Great! . . . Except that those must have been last year’s dates, because when I rocked up to Norton Street on Friday, October 28th (obviously the day of the week stuck in my head & not the date), there wasn’t a vendor to be found. 😦  OK, understandable mistake on the part of the organizers as well as myself, right?  So then I looked at the banners along Norton Street which listed the dates as October 29-31, which would make the days Saturday – Monday.  Or so I thought until I walked down Norton for a second time on Saturday, October 29th only to find that once again – no pizza, no gelato . . . what the heck is going on?!

I still haven’t figured out the full story, but what I gathered from some of the locals is that apparently there are some minor events that take place on the days surrounding the main festival date, which was, alas, Sunday, October 30th . . . finally!!  It was only on Sunday that the street was closed & the vendors set up shop for the day.  When that day finally came, I enjoyed a yummy tomato, basil & mozzarella panini & some refreshing lemon granita (similar to lemon ice).  Mmmm. 🙂

Norton Street Italian Festa

Also part of Crave Sydney was the Macaron Madness! course I completed through The Essential Ingredient on October 30th & wrote about in my last blog post.

Learning to Make Macarons!

And of course October isn’t the only time you can find great festivals around Sydney.  Already this month I’ve attended the Rocks Markets by Moonlight, the Newtown Festival & Sculpture By the Sea, with plans to stop by the Glebe Street Fair this weekend!!  Sculpture By the Sea was amazing – I plan to upload those pics to my flickr account hopefully by the end of the week, so check back soon for some beautiful artwork! 🙂

Macaron Madness!

Homemade Salted Caramel & Chocolate Macarons - A bit wonky-looking, but good just the same!!

My love of baking, combined with my newfound love of macarons, could mean only one thing: I had to learn how to make these bad boys while I was still living in Oz! 😀

After researching local classes, I came across The Essential Ingredient’s cooking school calendar & on it, a Macaron Madness! course taught by Trissa Lopez.  What I liked about Trissa from the start is that she *isn’t* a professional pastry chef.  Her passion for baking (& as she says, her many failed attempts at macaron-making!) is what qualifies her to teach the class.  I figured this would enable her to better relate to someone like me who was (& perhaps still is!) a bit terrified about the prospect of making macarons.  I’ve often heard that they’re a tricky treat to master & since macarons are scarce in the States (I’m sure they’re more well-known in places like San Francisco & New York, but from what I understand there’s only one bakery in Buffalo that sells them), I figured my family & friends would largely have to rely on *me* for their macaron fix when I return home! 😉

Macarons can sense fear,” Trissa teased, to which the class erupted in laughter.  But I found out just how true that statement is when my group allowed me to begin the macaron-making process by beating some egg whites & then adding in some sugar, which was *supposed* to result in stiff peaks . . . but after mixing . . . & mixing . . . & mixing some more . . . still no peaks – not even a little fluff! . . . Macarons: 1, Niki: 0. 😦

What the heck?!  We figured it could have been a couple of things: Trissa mentioned that if there was any egg yolk or shell in with the egg whites, it just wouldn’t work.  Also, we realized we may have waited too long to add the final 50g of sugar (we used 100g total, which was to be added 50g at a time).

Anyway, with that little mishap out of the way (we just started again with a fresh batch), the rest of the class went pretty smoothly.

Freshly piped chocolate macaron shells waiting to go into the oven

We learned so many tricks & tips along the way, it would be tough for me to share them all here (& probably a bit boring, since most of my readers have never even tasted macarons – but don’t worry, that won’t be for long! ;)).  Fortunately we were given a copy of the recipes for both the Chocolate (with chocolate ganache filling) & Salted Caramel (with salted caramel filling) macarons that we made in class & of course I also took copious notes lest I forget all these little gems of information!  Also, for those who may be interested, Trissa recommends the book Secrets of Macarons by Jose Marechal, which I had purchased previously thanks to the suggestion on her blog. 🙂

A great read if you're looking to understand how macarons are made, what can go wrong & of course some great recipes!

I suppose I should explain that macaron shells are made from four ingredients:

– Almond meal

– Icing (confectioners) sugar

– Caster sugar (this is a superfine sugar – not sure if we use it in the States, but I found out that granulated sugar can be substituted)

– Egg whites

It is the shells that provide the irresistible texture of the macaron – a thin, crispy layer on the outside, with a chewy layer just underneath the surface.

Macaron shells just out of the oven - No, these are not the chocolate ones pictured above; these are for our Salted Caramel macarons

After baking, the shells must cool before you fill them.  The filling is where you can get really creative, since this is where you will find most (if not all) of the flavor (for instance, although chocolate macaron shells are made with cocoa powder, strawberry macaron shells are usually just dyed pink & the actual strawberry flavor is in the filling).  Fillings can be ganache, pastry cream, caramel, ice cream, fruit, etc. (or sometimes a combination of these!)  The sky’s the limit with this one! (Just ask Adriano Zumbo – wasabi macarons, anyone?! ;))

Upside-down macaron shells - ready to be filled

Once the baked macaron shells have cooled, it’s time to pair them up; since you may have a few different sizes in your batch, just look for shells that seem to fit well together & these become your pairs.  Trissa likened this process to finding a life partner – probably none will be perfect, but you can usually find a good match! 😉

Ooey-gooey delicious salted caramel filling

Almost done!

The only thing left to do now is to put the two halves together & take a bite!! 😉  So – how did they turn out?  The Chocolate Macaron tastes like a fudgy chocolate brownie & the Salted Caramel Macaron tastes just like it sounds – the salt really complements the sweetness of the caramel sauce – a bit like the sweet & salty mix you find in kettle corn or chocolate covered pretzels.  Mmmm . . . 🙂

All in all, the process of making macarons seemed easier than I was expecting it to be . . . but of course I haven’t yet tried to replicate it!  All I know for sure is that I left the class feeling super excited to go home & try doing it on my own & at the end of the day, what more could you want?  So for Halloween next year, I say forget the candy – let’s all feast on macarons!! 😀

Oh & one more thing – I had to try the macarons again on day 2 (purely for research purposes of course, so I could inform my readers how well they keep overnight ;)) & I am happy to report that macarons keep pretty well if you store them in an airtight container in the fridge (Trissa informed us they should last about 3-5 days).  So no worries if you can’t finish your macarons all in one sitting – they are a patient cookie! 😉

Sydney Festivals

While South Australia has earned itself the reputation of “the Festival State,” I think Sydney alone (not including the rest of New South Wales) could give SA a run for its money.  Since arriving in Sydney I’ve attended four festivals in about as many months (with many more to come!) – not bad, huh?  (Oh, & just in case you were wondering, NSW has the very creative state slogan of . . . drumroll, please! . . . “The First State.”) 😉

GOOD FOOD & WINE SHOW – July 2nd @ The Convention & Exhibition Centre in Darling Harbour

Almost more exhibitors than I could visit in one day!!

Picture endless rows of exhibitors offering heaps of delectable food samples.  Then toss in more wines than you have probably ever before seen in one location at one time (or really just *ever*).  Sprinkle generously with cooking classes & demonstrations.  Finally, add a few celebrity chefs to the mix & you have the perfect recipe for a food & wine show that I will sorely miss in 2012! 😦

Needless to say, my friend Lauren & I sampled *lots* of food – I even tasted avocado oil!  I kind of wanted to buy a bottle (or just buy *something* – heck, it was a food & wine show after all!), but for several reasons I left the event empty-handed (with the exception of half a dozen cupcakes, but more on that later).  For one thing (& this was probably the biggest reason), Lauren & I were attending a US-expat 4th of July party that evening & I didn’t want to have to lug things like a bottle of avocado oil around with me at the pub.  Also, have you ever had one of those shopping experiences where you feel like you could either buy everything in sight or just leave it all?  Well, I decided on the latter.  I know, I know, but at least some of the items are available in stores, so no worries, all is not lost. 😉

I also took two classes during the event:

Adora Hand Made Chocolate Class: Essentially we learned to make butter truffles without having to temper the chocolate (tempering is the tricky process of heating & cooling the chocolate to the correct temperatures so that your finished product has the right texture, consistency & of course taste).  We only needed 4 ingredients: chocolate, butter, condensed milk & cocoa powder.  Easy!  This is a recipe I will definitely bring home & add to my repertoire – these truffles taste like they’re so much more difficult to make than they really are, which makes ME look like a genius! . . . But now you know my secret – oops, pretend you didn’t just read that! 😦

Lollies to decorate our cupcakes

Sunbeam Academy Cupcake Decorating Class: I have to say that unfortunately this class was a bit of a disappointment.  After completing several Wilton Cake Decorating classes back home I wondered if this session might be too basic but I thought maybe I’d learn a new trick or two.  Well, what I learned was how to put “lollies” (Aussie word for “candy”) on cakes to make simple things like faces or a beach scene (blue icing on half of the cupcake & green icing on the other half with a little cocktail umbrella stuck on top).  The one cake I actually enjoyed learning how to decorate was a koala.  I have to admit – he’s pretty darn cute . . . sooo, maybe the class was worth it after all. 😉

Koala Cupcake - so cute!

Highlight of the event: Seeing George Calombaris & Gary Mehigan from one of my new favorite shows, MasterChef Australia, do a live cooking demonstration!

WINTER FESTIVAL – July 12th @ Bondi Beach & August 9th @ Hyde Park

Winter in July (on the beach!) - still not quite used to that idea!

The annual Winter Festival is held in several locations throughout Australia, including Sydney & one of its nearby suburbs, Bondi Beach.  The festival is best described through the many pictures I took:

You can't tell from this angle, but this "ski lodge" was constructed right on Bondi Beach!

Relaxing inside the lodge at the beach - LOL

Grabbing a bite to eat at the "Alpine Ski Village"

The thing that most excited me about the Bondi Winter Festival was the chance to go ice skating . . . outdoors on the beach!!

OK, so the ice was a bit melty . . . well, actually so melty that at one point they had to section off part of it so we wouldn’t drown (LOL – I mean, slip), but still, I was ice skating *on the beach* – how often do you get the chance to do that?! 😀

More ice skating - at Sydney's Winter Fesival in Hyde Park.

AROMA FESTIVAL – July 31st @ The Rocks

Aroma Fest with Sydney Harbour Bridge in the background

The area of Sydney known as “the Rocks” (named for its rocky shore) was the hub of the city’s international trade for over a century.  The Aroma Festival, held at the Rocks each year, celebrates the coffee, tea, chocolate & spices that were often imported here.

Oddly enough (especially for me), I only purchased *one* cup of coffee at the festival!  I was expecting to try several different coffees, but instead I went for a chai tea latte after beginning the day with a flat white (an Australian creation – similar to a latte, but with less foam).  Of course I also had to consume some chocolate & found my fix early on with some churros (Spanish doughnuts – if done correctly, they should be crispy on the outside & chewy on the inside, typically served with a chocolate or caramel dipping sauce – yum!) from one of the vendors in “The Latin Quarter” (the festival was divided into four sections: The Latin QuarterThe Orient, The Continent (Europe) & The Oasis (Turkey)).  Unfortunately, these particular churros were not anywhere near as good as the ones Heather & I had in Barcelona, but I guess I should have expected that.

The girls were so elegant with their movements

In addition to the plentiful food & drink, the festival also provided entertainment.  Lauren & I were fortunate to come across these dancers as we were walking around the event.  The girls were so elegant with their movements & the costumes were gorgeous.

SPRING FOOD & WINE FESTIVAL – September 24th @ The Entertainment Quarter (EQ) Showring

Vendors at the Spring Food & Wine Festival

The most recent festival I attended was the Spring Food & Wine Festival.  Not nearly as massive as the Good Food & Wine Show, but definitely worth a visit.  There were heaps of fresh fruit & veg for sale, as well as numerous stalls cooking up delicious lunchtime treats from around the world, such as the Turkish gozleme I have come to love (you can sort of think of it like a crepe, but the bread is more like pita & it is served grilled with spinach & feta inside; there are other sometimes other fillings as well).

The day was overcast, but a number of people still turned up to enjoy the event

I opted not to taste any wines, since I attended this festival solo & didn’t feel like drinking alone – LOL.  Also, I didn’t end up staying for very long as the weather was looking a bit dodgy – it began to drizzle on & off while I was there, so not the best day for an outdoor event, but I’m glad I made it.  According to the calendar listing, it looks like the second & final day of the festival ended up getting cancelled as it was raining cats & dogs!  And I thought we were done with the rainy season.  Well, it is spring in Sydney, so perhaps September showers bring October flowers?  Hmmm . . . doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. 😦

Whew!  Well if you think that’s a lot of festivals, let me just tell you, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!  October begins the Crave Sydney International Food Festival, which is basically a month-long celebration of food . . . have I mentioned what a great city this is? 😉  And that doesn’t even include the Masterchef Live event taking place from October 7-9, in which the MasterChef Australia hosts, former contestants & celebrity chefs give cooking demonstrations & masterclasses.  It looks like I am in one for one busy (& fattening!) month ahead! 😉

Melbourne

Flinders Street Station

Perhaps the best way to describe the two & a half weeks I spent in Melbourne is by highlighting some of the many wonderful things I packed into such a short visit . . .

Melbourne Beaches . . . & Cakes 😀

Before I arrived in Melbourne, I had heard about the beach at St. Kilda & (even more important) the strip of cake shops along Acland Street . . . yum!

One of the many cake shops along Acland Street in St. Kilda

Hazelnut, white chocolate & orange cake from another Acland Street cake shop, Monarch Bakery

Believe it or not, I only ate at one cake shop on Acland Street!  Had I known in the beginning how little time I would spend in Melbourne, perhaps I would have gone back a second time.  Oh well, we know there are plenty of sweets to sample around Sydney!! 😉

Ironically, I have no pictures of the beach at St. Kilda . . . I guess I was too busy drooling over all those cakes!  Quite honestly, I wasn’t all that impressed with Melbourne’s beaches (Sydney Harbour was calling to me, & both of the Sydney beaches I had been to previously – Bondi & Manly – made anything I saw in Melbourne pale in comparison, not to mention the gorgeous beaches of Western Australia).  I did have fun trying to spot the penguins at St. Kilda Pier, but seeing as how it was dusk & we were told not to use the flash on our cameras, the one picture that didn’t come out completely black is still not much to look at!

Penguin at St. Kilda - if you strain your eyes you can kinda pick him out amongst the rocks - look for the thin strip of white on his belly in the middle of the photo! (the pic is of his profile)

I also enjoyed my visit to Brighton Beach – again, not so much for the beach itself, but for the famous “Brighton Bathing Boxes.”

A colorful array of bathing boxes at Brighton Beach

I love the playfulness & peacefulness, respectively, of these two designs

Melbourne Museums

Museums aren’t usually the first thing on my holiday to-do list, but believe it or not I actually made it to two in Melbourne – the Immigration Museum as well as the Melbourne Museum to see the King Tut Exhibition.  I find ancient Egyptian culture intriguing (seriously, how did they build those pyramids?!) & couldn’t pass up an opportunity to see this.  It goes without saying that the artifacts were amazing, but I also enjoyed the video & description of archaeologist Howard Carter’s discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922.  It was pretty cool to be able to watch a part of history & imagine the emotions he must have felt upon finding such treasures.

The Immigration Museum also did not disappoint.  During my time abroad, it has been interesting to compare & contrast Australian & American culture, & immigration has been an important factor in the development & growth of both countries.  I especially enjoyed the interactive features of the museum, such as the replica ship – each room transports you to a different time period in order to offer a glimpse of the varying travel conditions experienced by immigrants from the 1840s to the 1950s.  In addition, it was quite interesting to play along with the interactive video that allows patrons to take on the role of immigration officer & decide the fate of immigrants from various backgrounds throughout different periods in Australia’s history.  I quickly learned that it would be difficult for someone like me to make the cut by today’s standards (not that I’m seriously considering the idea . . . just curious!)  So – what makes it so difficult for me to become a permanent resident of Oz?  Well, I’m not a refugee, I don’t have any job skills that are in need in Australia & I’m not married to an Australian citizen.

Many of those considered illegal immigrants in Oz include people who have overstayed their visas from the UK & the US!!

Melbourne Food

Often referred to as the culinary capital of Australia, any description of Melbourne would not be complete without mention of the food.  Lucky for us, Adam introduced Heather & I to an amazing little cafe in the suburb of Abbotsford called Three Bags Full.  I had several great meals there, but if I had to pick a favorite I’d probably go with this:

Pumpkin & sage fritters with grilled haloumi, creamed feta, crisp proscuitto, tomato & rocket

OK, I have to laugh at this, but I just googled “rocket lettuce” to try to figure out the best way to describe “rocket” to you & I learned that it is also known as arugula – why does it always take me so long to figure these things out?!  This whole time I thought Australia grew some mysterious type of lettuce that didn’t exist in the States – hahaha!  Yeah, but you have to agree that rocket sounds way cooler – I mean, try getting your 5-year-old (or me, for that matter) to eat something called arugula! 😉  Anyway, rocket is sort of like pumpkin in that you will find both on menus all over Australia!

Well, on with the food!  It just so happens that another favorite dish was a similar concoction from another Melbourne cafe I frequented on more than one occasion, Stuzzichino in Carlton, Melbourne’s Little Italy.  And look – our two most familiar ingredients are back again – pumpkin & rocket/roquette (I’ve seen both spellings & tend to jot down ingredients exactly as they’re listed on the menu.  Same goes for the spelling of feta/fetta).

Savoury pancakes filled with roast pumpkin & Greek fetta, topped with diced tomato, red onions, roquette salad & shaved parmesan

Melbourne Sports

The Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG)

Anyone who knows me knows I’m not a big sports fan, but it seemed I couldn’t truly experience Melbourne without seeing a “footy” game at The Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG).  What exactly is footy (a.k.a. Australian Rules Football, or simply Aussie Rules)? . . . Well, that’s the question, isn’t it . . . & since I never quite understood all the rules myself, I’ll let you read about the sport here.  What I can tell you is that footy is a fast-paced, crazy, anything goes kind of sport.  Well, OK, it’s not really anything goes, but it sure seemed like it to me at the time!

My first footy game!

First of all, the players use just about every part of their bodies to move the ball.  The only thing I think they’re not allowed to do is throw the ball – what sometimes looked to me like a throw was actually a “punch” (known as handballing), a bit like one might use to serve in volleyball.  Players can run with the ball, sort of like in American football, but they have to periodically bounce the ball, kind of like in basketball – you see what I mean?  Strange!  And footy is definitely a contact sport, but you won’t find any helmets here – yikes!

A Richmond player greets the crowd after the Tigers win the game

Anyway, I have to say that I enjoyed the game immensely – despite not always understanding what was going on! 0:-)  Fortunately I went with a group of people from my hostel & we had an Australian with us who did a good job of keeping us up to speed.  In the end, the Richmond (suburb of Melbourne) Tigers beat the Fremantle “Freo” (suburb of Perth) Dockers by a score of 148 to 99.  The fact that I had visited both Richmond & Fremantle previously made it difficult for me to choose one team to cheer for over the other, but our Aussie friend was a Freo fan, so we all pretty much just went with that.  You would think the Tigers would have had the homefield advantage, but not necessarily – a number of teams are based in or around Melbourne, including the Melbourne Demons, the North Melbourne Kangaroos, the St. Kilda Saints . . . I could go on, but you get the idea!

Beyond Melbourne – Sovereign Hill

On my last day in Melbourne, I booked a tour to Sovereign Hill in the city of Ballarat, about an hour’s drive away.  Sovereign Hill is a living, outdoor museum telling the story of the goldrush that took place in the state of Victoria beginning in the 1850s.

Panning for gold

One of the things I loved about Sovereign Hill is that it truly transports you back in time.  The buildings, the actors dressed in costumes, everything is as it would have been in Ballarat in the mid-19th century.

The Marching of the 'Redcoat' Soldiers

You can even walk inside various shops & see demonstrations (e.g., candle making) & make purchases (with your modern Australian cash, of course) . . . I bought a wombat-shaped cookie cutter from a tinsmith – can’t wait to make wombat-shaped cookies! 🙂

Candle Shop

They even have a program that allows middle school kids & teachers to experience what it would have been like to attend a goldfields school!

Real kids - not actors! - get a glimpse of life at a 19th century goldfields school

And finally, I had to make time for lunch before I left!  Sovereign Hill’s New York Bakery made my favorite pumpkin soup to date – it was so artfully presented, too! 🙂

Pumpkin soup with cream & chives

So that essentially wraps up my time in Melbourne.  I’m sure I’ve left out a few things & of course there are many things I didn’t get to experience, but all-in-all I’d say I did a pretty good job of exploring what Melbourne has to offer.  In the end, I suppose you know I came to the conclusion that it’s a great place to visit (really!) . . . I just didn’t want to live there.

Melbourne's Federation Square

Six Months in a Land Called Oz

A great place to pause & reflect . . .

I’ve been avoiding this particular post for some time now.  In fact as I write this I still don’t know where to begin.  I thought I would publish my first reflective post after my first month abroad, but I was busy enjoying life on the road with Heather & Adam & it was enough just to keep my notes up-to-date on all the things we were seeing & doing each day.  That’s alright, I thought – I was living in the moment, soaking it all in, there would be time for reflection later.

Heather & I enjoying a beautiful day at Perth City Beach in Western Australia

The end of my third month – a quarter of the way through my time in Australia – marked another important milestone, but at that point I was going through a bit of a transition – that from traveler to . . . well, for lack of a better word, resident! (don’t worry mom & dad I haven’t applied for permanent residency, hahaha ;))  I was in the midst of making what I would consider to be my second big decision of this journey (the first being to come to Australia at all) & that was whether I should spend the working part of my work & holiday visa in Melbourne or Sydney.

The Clocks at Flinders Street Station in Melbourne

Of course by now you know that Sydney won out & I am quite happy with that choice, as well as the initial choice to spend a year Down Under, BUT . . .

. . . six months in, what do I have to say about it all??

I suppose the best way to go about reflecting on my time in Oz thus far is to revisit the travel philosophy I wrote shortly before departing on my trip, specifically: Live in the Moment; Step Outside My Comfort Zone; Let My Heart Lead & My Mind be the Accompanist; and finally Seek Passion in all its Forms.

Let My Heart Lead & My Mind be the Accompanist

I will start here as it was this piece of my philosophy that finally enabled me to overcome my fears, rent out my house, quit my job & buy a one-way ticket to a country I had previously spent only two weeks visiting.  How did what initially seemed to be such a difficult decision suddenly become a no-brainer for me?

Goodbye Buffalo . . . Hello Australia!

It happened like this: I first came to Sydney to visit Heather in September/October 2010 while she was living here on the 12-month Work & Holiday Visa that I now also possess.  I had such a fabulous time that I (privately at first) started to flirt with the idea that maybe I could follow in her footsteps . . . but no, no, no, that was totally crazy!  Banish the thought!!  How could I just pack up & leave?  Very irresponsible indeed.  I think it seemed to some as if I was giving up the pieces of the American Dream I had worked so hard for – leaving a house, a job, family & friends to – to what, travel?  Was that a worthy enough goal?  After all, it’s not as if I hadn’t taken short-term vacations abroad before (while keeping the security of a full-time job back home) & I’d surely do so again – wasn’t that enough?  What was the point of leaving everything behind only to return to a life of uncertainty 12 months later?

I asked myself these questions & many others before I made my ultimate decision.  I searched for signs that I should take the leap so I wouldn’t have to bear the immense burden of making this choice all on my own . . . well, needless to say I started seeing signs everywhere.  I tried as hard as I could to turn anything & everything around me into a sign, but I knew in my heart that none of those occurrences were signs at all – they were mere coincidences & vague connections at best.  I only saw them as signs because I wanted them to be.

Searching the Skies for an Answer . . .

And then it hit me like a ton of bricks.  I was trying to turn everything around me into a sign!  I was trying to turn them into signs because I wanted them to be signs.  I wanted them to be signs because I wanted to go to Australia.

So I had my answer, simple as that: I wanted to go to Australia!  All along it was there, just under the surface, but I couldn’t acknowledge it, I was too blinded by fear.  Once I fully understood the strength of my heart’s desire, there was no going back.  I felt so empowered that I could make such a major life change & yet feel so relaxed, so relieved, so free!  I wanted to hold onto that feeling forever – the feeling that I am ultimately in control of my life & that I don’t have to follow a prescribed path in order to be happy or successful – I can create my own. 🙂

Sunset at Uluru - this is the life!

Now that’s not to say that the past six months living in Australia have always been easy, but if I could go back in time, would I do it all over again?  In a heartbeat.

And I’ve had at least one other opportunity to test out my philosophy on allowing my heart to rule.  Initially I had planned to live & work in Melbourne for a while, either instead of, or in addition to, Sydney.  By all accounts, Melbourne should have been my ideal city, known for its artistic vibe, culture & great cuisine.

One of the many lanes & arcades in Melbourne

But ultimately, it just didn’t feel right.  I’ve written a bit about this decision already & I will be writing about the two and a half weeks I spent visiting Melbourne soon in a separate post, so I won’t go into any more detail here.  Suffice it to say, my heart was right again – I should have trusted it all along.

Live in the Moment

Actually, one more thing about the decision above . . . I wrote in my travel philosophy how stressed I was at the thought of having to decide how & where to spend my time in Australia & that was before I had even left home!  I wish I could go back & tell the “Me” from six months ago to relax a little – I couldn’t possibly have known what to do back then because I hadn’t experienced any of it yet.  I would figure it out when the time came – in the moment. 🙂

That very idea still freaks me out though; I’m still not quite comfortable with it.  In fact, now that I’m at the halfway point of my trip (OK, who am I kidding, since before I even made the decision to come here), I’ve been wondering what I’m going to do when this adventure is over.  It’s not that I’m ready to go home yet – although I do get homesick at times & very much miss family & friends – it’s just that it’s so hard to let go & trust that things will somehow work out in the end.  I want complete security as well as unmitigated freedom but unfortunately I can’t have 100% of both.  So much can change in a year, in six months even, & I can hope & dream & plan all I want today but there’s no telling what tomorrow will bring.  So I have to let go a little & let each moment lead into the next, until finally enough moments have passed that I am ready & able to make those next big life decisions.

Living in the moment is easier when you have a view like this to remind you of how magical each day can be

Fortunately, living in the moment tends to be a bit easier on a day-to-day basis.  By that I simply mean pausing every now & then to appreciate what you have, enjoy what you’re experiencing & let the wonder of it all sink in.  It’s a bit like meditating (or as close to meditating as I’ll probably ever come!)  Whenever I eat one of Zumbo’s delectable macarons or gaze at the incredible beauty of the Opera House, or even once in a while at work when I inch ever so much closer to making the perfect cup of coffee, I feel like I am truly living in the moment . . . OK, admittedly there are also moments when I just want to scream & curse & kick the espresso machine, but I won’t mention that here. 0:-)

Mouth-watering Macarons

Step Outside My Comfort Zone

I’ve actually surprised myself with this one in ways I never would have imagined before coming on this trip . . . I mean, come on, weeing in the bush?  ME?!  Not exactly something I had on my Oz to-do list, but it sure makes for an*ahem!* interesting blog post. 😉

Forget the animals crossing, this sign should read "No Toilets Next 96 km"

And then there’s the driving.  On the other side of the road.  With *me* in the driver’s seat.  Now if that’s not scary, I don’t know what is!  But I did it.  Not entirely sure I want to do it again, but I’m also not ruling it out just yet . . . 😉

Aussies, Beware: Niki is Behind the Wheel!

I have also had (& taken advantage of) the opportunity to try a few new foods during my time here.  Now, don’t get too excited, I’m not as adventurous as Heather, what with her feasts of ‘roo & croc & emu!  But I have had a few (vegetarian) foods that are indigenous to Australia, such as quandong & lemon myrtle.

Lemon Myrtle Pancakes with Quandong Sauce & Ice Cream

And I’ve also discovered a few other incredibly exotic foods that I somehow managed to miss out on previously – for example, avocados & poached eggs (I’ve always gotten my eggs scrambled or as an omelette) – I know, I know, this is really big stuff people!! 😉

Avocado, sourdough toast, Persian feta, poached egg, rocket & lemon infused olive oil from The Book Kitchen in Surry Hills

I did NOT, however, volunteer to go up on stage with George Calombaris & Gary Mehigan at the Good Food & Wine Show when they asked for a volunteer who was squeamish around oysters – I knew where that was heading!! 😉

As for traveling solo, it has been both challenging & rewarding.  Sometimes I enjoy having time to myself, free to wander about & see where the day leads; other times I’d prefer to be in the company of friends.  Having spent six months in Oz (only three of which have been in Sydney), it hasn’t always been easy to make new friends, but fortunately Heather introduced me to some great people she had met along the way & we’ve enjoyed some fun get-togethers, with hopefully more to come! 🙂

Me, Hannah & Lauren at an American ex-pat 4th of July Celebration (in case you were wondering, those are goofy American stickers on our faces)

Seek Passion in all its Forms

Alright, so I can’t claim to have had any international romances – yet!  But I have certainly been developing my passion for food . . . well, mostly just for eating good food, hahaha.  Hey, with patisseries like Adriano Zumbo, can you really blame me?  But don’t worry, I’m incorporating food into my life in other ways, not all of which impact my waistline. :-/  MasterChef Australia has become my favorite Aussie show . . . too bad season 3 just ended on Sunday, but hopefully another season of Masterchef (or maybe even Junior MasterChef!) will start up again soon.  I’ve landed a job at Ghermez Cupcakes (OK, admittedly this is *not* so good for my waistline as one of the perks includes free cupcakes!)  And finally, I am gearing myself up to hopefully take some baking & pastry arts short courses soon!  One course will definitely involve macaron-making (surprise, surprise) & perhaps I may find one or two other topics that pique my interest (without breaking the bank!)

Koala Cupcake I decorated at the Good Food & Wine Show

So all in all, I’d say my first six months of living abroad have been a success.  Here’s to another six months continuing on my great Australian adventure! 🙂

Vivid Sydney

The Opera House was my first stop after arriving in Sydney in mid-May

If there was any doubt in my mind (which if you know me at all, you know that of course there was), it vanished the moment I laid eyes once again on the reason I first fell in love with this beautiful city: the Sydney Opera House.  My decision to leave home for a year Down Under was perhaps not as difficult as my decision of where in Australia I should choose to reside.  Before beginning this journey, Sydney was the only city I had ever visited in Oz, so of course that was the obvious choice.  On the other hand, I had been told wonderful things about Melbourne & I couldn’t wait to experience the active arts scene & thriving cafe culture of this vibrant city first-hand.

For this reason, my original plan when I came to Australia was to give living in Melbourne “a go” & see if perhaps it would also be possible to spend a significant amount of time in Sydney (after all, if you can’t eat your cake, then why bother having it, am I right? ;))  Being the worrywart that I am, I was already feeling as if the weeks & months ahead were slipping away before I even left the States!  Australia is such a vast & diverse country: How would I ever find the time (let alone the money!) to do it all?  Or if I couldn’t do it all, how would I know if I was making the right decisions about what to do & what to forego?  How can we ever know for sure?  (Do I sound a bit neurotic here?  Welcome to my world . . . it’s exhausting! ;))

Ultimately I came to understand that there was never really anything to fear – what was the worst that could happen?  I spent a couple of weeks exploring Melbourne (which I had wanted to do anyway) & finally felt I could no longer ignore the fact that as much as I tried, I just wasn’t connecting with the vibe of the city the way that I had with Sydney.

Sounds reasonable enough, but at first I couldn’t help but feel guilty.  Theoretically speaking at least, Melbourne is the ideal city for me.  I enjoy the arts: Melbourne is known for its museums, performing arts & culture.  I love food: Melbourne is the culinary capital of Australia.  It had everything I thought I wanted in a city & I just couldn’t put my finger on why I wasn’t feeling the fit.  Here was my mind battling my heart again & I felt as if I had somehow let down an entire city & all its people.  I wanted to say to them, “it’s not you, Melbourne, it’s me!!”

A cheesy cliche normally reserved for breaking up with one’s significant other, I know, but I honestly felt that way!  Reason told me I should be quite happy in Melbourne, but my heart knew that logic has no real merit in such decision-making.  I felt for Sydney what I can only describe as homesickness: I missed the wild flavors of macarons from Adriano Zumbo, the alluring beaches of Bondi & Manly (I am so, so sorry Melbourne, but St. Kilda & Brighton Beach just don’t do it for me :() & most of all I missed the harbours – Sydney Harbour with its iconic Bridge & Opera House most of all.  I couldn’t stand being so close yet so far from a scene that I will never tire of viewing.

Lighting the Sails of the Sydney Opera House

So here I am.  And if I needed further reassurance that I made the right decision, all I had to do was see “Lighting the Sails” of the Opera House during Vivid Sydney, an annual festival of light, music & ideas held here each winter.  I’m afraid my pictures don’t quite do it justice, so you’ll just have to take my word that this was an incredible light show.  You can also check out the pictures on the Vivid Sydney website to get a better idea of what I was fortunate enough to experience in person.

Heaps of people showed up to see the Opera House in lights

In addition to the Opera House, Customs House also had an amazing light show.  I took a brief video of this as I think it gives a better perspective than the still photos . . . but I can’t seem to figure out how to get said video into my blog post.  It seems I need to save it in another format & those skills are beyond me. 😦

Sydney Customs House all lit up

There were also several other light exhibits around Circular Quay, not to mention the food stalls serving up hot meals (I wish I had realized this before I ate dinner prior to attending the festival! :(), hot mulled wine (this I could not pass up . . . although I am assuming that hot mulled wine is an acquired taste as it was not much to my liking) & cannoli half-filled with the traditional ricotta & half-filled with tiramisu – yum!

Light Sculptures at Circular Quay: Children & adults alike were fascinated by these human-like light forms.

I learned after the festival that this sculpture, entitled "Jellilight," represents giant jellyfish flying away from the earth up into the universe like reverse UFOs, escaping our polluted oceans.

Even this little boat got all dolled up for the occasion!

Now just in case my storyline has left you a bit confused, I should mention that I have skipped over several weeks of my travels because I just couldn’t wait to post about Vivid Sydney!  After Heather, Adam & I finished our roadtrip I spent over a week in Adelaide, another week on a tour from Adelaide up to Alice Springs & then over two weeks in Melbourne before finally settling in Sydney over a month ago!!  I now have an apartment with three flatmates in Leichhardt, Sydney’s “Little Italy,” as well as a job at Ghermez Cupcakes!  Don’t worry, I will be sure to fill you in on the details – all in good time!

Birthday/Bon Voyage Bash: Preparing to Leave Home for a Year Down Under

Me with my very own koala!

It’s hard to believe the time has finally come to say goodbye to family & friends in the States & say “g’day” to life in Oz.  On my 31st birthday (January 30th), loved ones gathered for my birthday/bon voyage party to wish me well on my upcoming journey.  “How do you feel?” was the question of the day:

“Are you excited?”

“Absolutely!”

“Nervous?”

“Um – a little.”

“Terrified?!”

“Well, yeah . . . I guess I’d be crazy not to be!”

When I first broke the news of my wish to spend a year in the land down under, some reactions were more favorable than others.  My mom nearly had a panic attack (sorry mom, but you know it’s true!)  How could I leave my family & friends, my house (yes, I own a house!), my job?  How would I ever afford to do this?  What would I do when I came home in a year’s time, with no job, no health insurance, a mortgage to pay & a largely depleted bank account?  Why did I even think I *wanted* to do this in the first place?  Wouldn’t I be lonely?  What if I wanted to come home? (as she keeps reminding me, I don’t *have* to stay the entire year in Oz . . . I know, mom, I might need to leave Australia a little early so I have enough money to visit a few other places!)

My mom has always been the practical one in the family, with her endless to-do lists & incessant reminders of the importance of the basic necessities in life. Whenever I whine about how I can’t possibly bear to work for another 30-40+ years before I’m finally able to retire & spend my remaining days lounging around on some remote, tropical island, she always quips: “Well, you might not like to work, but you like food, clothing & shelter, don’t you????”

Touché. 😦

Don’t worry mom, I’ve got those things covered for my year abroad: I’ve got a suitcase packed with a few items of clothing, a few bucks in my bank account – so what if I have to spend countless sleepless nights in youth hostels & derive my daily sustenance from peanut butter & jelly sandwiches?  I’LL BE LIVING IN OZ!! 🙂

Of course to this she can only reply, “Just be careful not to get sick living like that!!”  *Sigh* I don’t think I’m gonna win this argument.  No matter how old I am (31, ma, did you forget I just turned 31?!), I’ll always be her baby & I have to respect that.  The good news is she has since come around in support of “whatever makes you happy, honey,” but only after securing a passport “just in case of an emergency.”  After all, someone has to be available to bring me homemade chicken soup if I catch the sniffles! 😉  Are you sure you don’t want to use that passport for anything else, mom?  Like maybe, I dunno, a vacation?!

Florida is about as far as mom likes to travel!

Dad, Me, Mom & sister Kele with puppy Monique, Thanksgiving 2006 (Florida)

My sister’s advice was more to my liking.  When I called to tell her about my visit to Sydney to see Heather in September/October 2010, I was bubbling over with excitement about how I had fallen in love with the country & the idea of living abroad long-term.  “You should go!” immediately came her reply.  So far so good.  “But, well, . . . Heather’s visa is only good until late May . . .”  “So you should go now!  Don’t you want to try to spend as much time with her as possible?”  YES!  My thoughts exactly.  Forget about the fact that Heather had planned her trip for years & I had only been seriously contemplating mine for weeks.  Forget that I hadn’t exactly saved up for this purpose.  None of that seemed to matter when the idea of setting sail on this adventure made me feel so alive.  I couldn’t turn down this opportunity.  I had to do it & do it soon.  It would be crazy NOT to.

Now that’s not to say that I don’t have any money saved up or that I haven’t thought about long-term travel abroad before, it’s just that I haven’t been setting money aside for this particular purpose – heck, I didn’t think I’d ever actually have the guts to do something like this!  After all, I’m not the hardiest of travelers – just read My Travel Philosophy & you’ll see why I’m such an unlikely candidate for this type of endeavor.  But that’s what makes it so wonderful & terrifying & exciting & nerve-wracking . . . and I can’t wait!!

So, as I prepare to depart, I leave you all with a popular Australian tune that was sung to me at my farewell party: “Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport.” I had actually never heard it before as apparently it was a big hit in the 1960s – a little before my time.  It’s a good thing I liked it because it’s quite catchy & now I can’t seem to get it out of my head!  I encourage you to check it out, but do beware as you might find yourself lying awake at night trying to recount all the verses – don’t say I didn’t warn you.

My Birthday/Bon Voyage Cake made by my friend Cheryl

Map of Australia

WA = Western Australia; NT = Northern Territory; SA = South Australia; QLD = Queensland; NSW = New South Wales; ACT = Australian Capital Territory; VIC = Victoria; TAS = Tasmania

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