Tuesday, June 17

My five top tips for when you get to New York City (including some extra Christmas shopping tips)

I have so much to tell you about New York and Christmas in New York it's really quite overwhelming, so I'm trying to 'chunk it' a bit so you I both don't overwhelm you with detail and so I can focus and give you as much information as I can in a useful way!

This post follows the how to prepare for your trip before you go post, this one it's what to do to get yourself organised when you arrive... you can do some of this ahead of time too if you like to be super-organised!

1.  Don't think you're going to see everything
New York offers so much to so many, whatever your interests, and depending on the time of year.  For me it was all about Broadway, Shopping, Architecture, Food.  But I didn't in my opinion do enough of any of that and I didn't see any shows like Saturday Night Live, see the ballet at Lincoln Center or go to Brooklyn.  I've accepted I will need to go back possibly even on my own to do these things.   What we did was write down our list collectively of what was important to us and we compromised on some things and had a basic plan of what we were going to do on what day.  It's important not to overplan though - you do need rest days.  If you have a lot of things planned that include admission prices - check out the New York Pass to save some money overall.

2.  Get your mobile phone sorted and make sure you have a Skype account
We used WorldSim because we doing a round-the-world trip but USA only plans can be much cheaper.  T-Mobile has some great deals as do TelAway.  Organise this a few months before you go - then you can add your US phone number to your itinerary to family and friends before you go.

Skype, sign up for a free account then you can do video calls where you have wifi whilst you are away!

3.  Get a weekly subway ticket 
Even if you just do a few stops a day, you'll get  your money's worth - they are about $30 each.

4.  You don't need cash to catch a taxi
All yellow taxis now have a swipe option, which we found really useful.

5. Christmas specific tips:
Shopping for Kids
We bought our gifts when we got there - and we didn't buy much to be honest (just stocking fillers) because we gave the girls iPads (for our sanity) for the flight over for Christmas in advance.  (Good investment!)

Toys R Us Times Square is open 24 hours a day the week leading up to Christmas.  The lines can get long though - I did a line up at 11:00pm on Christmas Eve and queued 45 minutes.  There's also boxes EVERYWHERE.

FAO Schwarz is awesome, but it is super-dooper crowded too.  A friend of ours paid $90 for their giftwrapping and delivery before 9pm Christmas Eve, it arrived 10pm and unwrapped - you can imagine the stress that prevailed! They did get a refund though.

If you have girls - the American Girl Store is a must even if your girls aren't into dolls anymore (but if they are - they are worth the $120 a doll - you can get them to look like your child!) - the books there I think are really age appropriate and not to 'baby-ish'  Things like the 'smart girls guide to the internet' and 'the smart girls guide to liking yourself' are fantastic.   I will be blogging about our visits soon!

Buy your wrapping paper at Paper Source or at Macy's  - Paper Source are scattered all through New York City.

Shopping for Adults and friends at home
Check out the Christmas Markets either in Bryant Park or Columbus Circle, you can get personalised New York themed Christmas decorations, hand-made good, great artwork and hot chocolate and food!

Macy's DOES NOT have a toy department.  That was my rookie mistake.  You can buy fabulous homewares (I got some fabulous Martha Stewart things) and they are open 24 hours a day in the days leading up to Christmas.  If you are buying for friends at home or Christmas stuff at Macy's wait until after Christmas for their sales.  I again, stocked up on Martha Stewart Christmas decorations for 90% off.

Also, buy your luggage from Macy's in the post-Christmas sales - because I am telling you - you will bring things home!  We arrived with 6 bags and left with 8.  One of those was just Christmas decorations, so I don't think we did too badly!

Don't forget - you can shop ahead online! Have it delivered to your apartment or hotel - think Amazon, GAP, Old Navy, Macy's, Sephora (for perfume, cosmetics!) !

Last minute lollies, novelties you can get at the chemist/drug store - Duane Reade - they are everywhere!!

Monday, June 16

Bookmark and share this: Common cooking substitutes

You'd be lying if you said you never got motivated to cook something and then realised: 'Oh #*^%, I don't have X'!  I also find that some recipes call for ingredients that are hard to get where I live, and I just don't want to throw away good recipes because I can't get one ingredient.

And, even though I meal plan, even though I'm absolutely anal for detail, I forget things off my shopping list,or someone 'conveniently' uses something you had bookmarked for something else.  Sound familiar? 

Here's some common substitutes that may have you being creative instead of stressed when you don't have that certain something..... bookmark it and share, so you don't lose it!

1.  Make self raising flour - just add two teaspoons of baking powder (substitute below for that too if you don't have any!) per cup of plain flour.

2.  Substitute eggs when baking for banana - about 1/2 cup mashed banana per egg.  If you're making pastry I'm told that Xanthum gum (available from the supermarket, I know Coles has it)  is the-go-to substitute.

3.  Buttermilk is easier than you think.. and most people know this these days but a about 5ml lemon/lime juice or white vinegar in a cup of milk and leave it to sit for about 5 minutes will produce a great substitute for buttermilk.

4.  You can skip the corn syrup if you find it hard to get some (in Australia that is the case) by substituting it with 3 parts glucose syrup and 1 part water.

5. Make a substitute for baking powder by putting together 2 parts of cream of tartar with 1 part bicarb soda. That one comes in handy when you bake a lot!

6. Did you know you can substitute butter when you are baking for 1 cup of butter for 1 cup of apple sauce or 3/4 cup of oil? Sometimes I go 1 small banana and 1/2 cup oil, depending what I have on hand..

7. You can cut your sugar but substituting 1 cup of it for 3/4 cup of honey or maple syrup - or 1 cup of apple sauce - or 1 teaspoon of stevia - this seems expensive in the shops but when you look at the conversion it's quite reasonable!

8. If you're like me and never seem to have cream on hand when you need it then you can substitute cream in a cooking sense (not for whipping of course) by using for every cup needed 3/4 cup of milk with 1/4 cup melted butter.

9. Now I never keep sherry in the house but some recipes call for it, depending on the recipe - I just use red or white wine.  If it's for baking, I use vanilla.

10.  Golden syrup - not available everywhere in the world and I get asked about this one a lot - so substitute golden syrup for say half-half molasses to honey.  I know it's not the same flavour, but its a similar consistency and it's probably the closest you're going to get!

Can you share any others or additions to these?

Saturday, June 14

A weekend in Tokyo

Finally I'm getting around to documenting some of my travels - travelling is one of those things that if you do it a lot as part of your job - it loses it's glamour very quickly.   You get tired of queues, taxis, airports, packing, converting currency in your head and you really, really miss your bed.  Of course you really, really miss your loved ones too!  But when your travels overlap a weekend you find yourself either trying just to catch up on sleep from those timezone changes and early/late flights or trying to see some sights and experience some of the local stuff.  I generally find myself doing both.

So one weekend in February I found myself in Tokyo.  I had never been to Japan before which is quite astounding as in my line of work I frequently travel to Asia and spend a lot of time there.  I didn't quite know what to expect - apart from it being cold, and hopefully I would find some great sushi.

First of all, I was a bit amazed at how spread out it was, and there didn't seem to be a 'CBD'.  There are several really.  Also, the airport is quite a distance from the city - so my transfers were a bit on the pricey side (around $200 each way).

My accommodation in comparison was not, and although my room was tiny - as I would have expected -  it was about $150 a night for a double bed, no wifi - only LAN cable.. the room was so small though the LAN cable from the desk could reach my computer whilst I was laying in bed.  The only other issue was there only one desk attendant at the hotel who spoke English.  When she went off duty I had trouble!  The menus at the restaurant were only in Japanese too.  Next time:  I will stay in a Western chain.  It did have a nice view from my room though:

And this is sunrise, pretty right?

So on to the fun bits!  What did I see?  Well with 2 days and 2 nights and being quite tired I decided I would tackle some shopping and some major sights only.  I had booked to go to Mount Fuji on a bullet train, but unfortunately it was snowing too hard so it was called off.  Many people catch trains about town, but for me I found it a bit of a challenge, because mainly, I was time poor.  So I took taxis.  Even that didn't get me to my office on the first day because street names/numbers are not like home:

Taxis are easy to find generally and many cab drivers do speak English which was a lovely surprise.  I did however have to rely mostly on the directions to had written in Japanese by the English-speaking desk clerk.

My shopping expeditions took me to:


Ginza is a good mixture of East meets West.  Full of high-rises and high-end stores.  I went in search of my Coach Bag I didn't buy in Paris in December on sale and regretted.   No luck but I did find the GAP sale and then walked throughout the back-streets and found some lovely shops.  This is a great way to 'get lost' you can walk around many back-streets and alleyways and find interesting places to take tea, lunch, buy shoes or clothes. There's also large department stores too.  You'll never get bored in Ginza.


Otherwise known as 'Fabric Town' the to-go place is called 'Tomato'.  FIVE floors of fabric, ranging from $1 a metre to about $40 a metre.  The Japanese cotton as you can imagine is plentiful and excellent value.  Also lots of craft supplies and patterns too.  and if you like to sew - this is your mecca.  You can literally spend all day here.  And I mean, all.day.

I got my Mum some fabric, about 5 metres of Japanese cotton and linens for about $30.  Beautiful stuff too.

I also went to Diver City which is like an outlet mall in Tokyo - if you need a taste of westernisation - that's where you go - it's like stepping into a US Mall in the middle of Tokyo

Please whatever you do, if you are there on a Sunday - head to Takeshita Street!  This is famous for the teens that dress up as anime characters and it's just a colourful place to be.

The go-to place in Takeshita Street is probably the huge Daiso.  For those who don't know Daiso - it's like a $1 shop but Japanese, and everything is about $1.20! Tourists and locals alike flock there for everything!

I picked up a tonne of washi tape and gorgeous origami papers plus some stickers/lip-gloss/gel pens for my girls..  They have started to open Daiso's here in Australia now, they are $2.40 or something an item there but I still want to check it out..

 And here's some places if you wanted to dress up like the local Takeshita Street peeps, you could buy the necessary items :)

Something tells me Prince would like to shop here..

And these crepe cones were everywhere.  They are pretty delicious though!

This is strawberry cheescake crepe-cone.  Frozen cheesecake in hot crepe with icecream, strawberries and cream. About $6.50.

Lastly on the shopping trail Tokyu Hands in Shinjuku
This is 8 floors of Japanese speciality items - divided as below

Personally I found it cute but very expensive.

 But I looooved the first floor food department.  I wish I'd taken photos but there was great sushi and cakes and just everything!  A word of note though - they sell 'ornamental fruit' in Japan, which means perfect size, perfect looking fruit and it's sold at astronomical prices - like a $100 a watermelon for example... be careful when you buy fruit! :)

OK for the sights:
The funniest thing I found about Tokyo was the 'replica sights'  The Rainbow Bridge' is exactly like the Golden Gate.  You can see in this picture that I took there's an 'Eiffel Tower' too which is actually Tokyo Tower...

Just near the spot I took that photo, there was this:  I kid you not!

And here's Tokyo Tower by day - the main observatory cost about $10 to get up and provides pretty amazing views.  The bottom floors there's plenty of places to eat and touristy things to buy.  Worth a trip if you are short of time.

Outside the tower they had this performing monkey. It was all in Japanese and a crowd was cheering but it made me feel very sad!

The views from the tower do not disappoint.  It's in the centre of the city so there's great views at every angle and it makes you realise how expansive and huge the city is.

Would I like to go back again?  Yes definitely!  I think I'd like to go back for a week or two with my family - Take in Tokyo Disney Sea, Go see Mount Fuji, take a side trip to Osaka.. so much to do and see!

Have you been to Tokyo or Japan or are you planning to go?
Would love to hear your tips on your must-sees in Tokyo and Japan?  Any good tips you can share?   

Tuesday, June 10

My top 7 tips for preparing to spend Christmas in New York

Almost 11 years ago, a newly married couple who were planning to embark on a belated honeymoon to celebrate New Years in Times Square discovered they had an unexpected wedding gift.  Their first child. Into the first few months the newlyweds decided that their honeymoon may need to be further delayed because the mum-to-be couldn't get on a bus or a ferry without being ill.. and a flight to the other side of the world would surely not be a comfortable one, and the money that was to be used for said trip would probably be better spent on car seats, cots and a new pram.

There was our dilemma and we decided then, that at our 10th Anniversary we would plan to take the family to New York for Christmas.  It was wonderful, and I planned it over a long time so I thought having been, I would give you my tips on planning to be there and actually being there - first of all - let's start with some tips to get started..

1.   Book your accommodation early.  Airbnb is a great alternative to expensive hotels, and many worry this is illegal, but it isn't now it seems due to a new agreement that's been reached with New York State officials.  It's easy to search and book, look for places with lifts and washing facilities - you can filter this by going to filter>amenities.  I think those two things plus having somewhere close to subway is essential with kids in New York.

So I say - GO FOR IT!  Live like a New Yorker!  Get a real New York experience I say! We stayed on the upper west side just 30 metres from Central Park and where-ever you are - you won't be far from a chemist (aka Duane Reade) or a Supermarket (Whole Foods, D'Agostino).  Most supermarkets deliver for a tip - rule of thumb is about 10% of your grocery bill.

We stayed here but I believe that the owners are no longer booking the house out because they have returned to live in it... but just goes to show what wonderful places there is out there!

If you prefer a hotel lifestyle some friends I know recommend Hotel Belleeclaire, The Durmont, Hotel Beacon,

Either way, book early to widen your choices and avoid disappointment - the prices do hike up around October so best to do it sooner rather than later.

2.  Watch your exchange rates.. Now if you're based in the US - this will mean nothing to you but for everyone else you might have noticed the dollar is a bit up and down like a yo-yo.  My advice is to get cash when the exhange rate is good.  In Australia, that's anything over 93 cents to the dollar (that means you get 93 US cents to 1 aussie dollar).  Beware of fees, and try to avoid doing it at an exchange booth - go to your bank if you can and negotiate your exchange rate and fees.

 Don't try and exchange Aussie dollars in New York, there isn't a lot of exchange booths around, and the ones around that we saw didn't have favourable rates.  For us, we took about 3,500 USD in cash for our 3 weeks in the US - and we pre-paid accommodation and most of our activities.  This was enough for us.

3.  Book any shows you want to go to SOON.  I think if you're going to go to New York at Christmas time you MUST go see the Radio City Christmas Spectacular.  You can buy the tickets from here - sign up to their newsletter get discounts on tickets too! We also went and say 'A Christmas Story' at Madison Square Garden, but there's lots on - if you want to chance it, you can get tickets to shows at good discounts at TKTS booths, the most notable one at Times Square.

The Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular is fabulous and my girls just LOVED it.  It's very entertaining and gets you really in the Christmas spirit.

4.  Stock up on good boots, coats and thermals.  When our winter sales hit here in Australia - pounce!! These are not things you want to spend time shopping for when you arrive.  Water-proof boots, long coats, scarves, hats and ear-muffs are all essential.  The temperature hovers around zero during the day..    Thermals aren't so easy to get - but we got all of ours from Uniqlo - great prices, great quality and cute too!  Hubby thought I was a bit silly getting him some but let me tell you - he wore them!

5..  Don't forget your visa - for us Aussies it's quite a simple process done online and costs about $15 each from memory.  Takes about 2 weeks to come through, sometimes less - but the line does get longer closer to Christmas, so do it early and it get it out of the way.  You can apply here

6.  Pre-pay as much as you can.  Otherwise you won't enjoy your holiday because you'll be parting with so much cash.  Pay your accommodation, Airport transfers, shows - whatever you can in advance.  I'm so glad we did that - it took the sting out of it and I think also, made me more excited about the trip.  I wouldn't pre-pay the carriage ride in Central Park again though, it's cheaper to get them to walk up.  My tip would be go at 11:00am - less busy.

7.  Take your own Christmas pudding and your own Christmas Crackers.. if you want them - because I paid $25 for a Christmas pudding  and $20 for 6 Christmas crackers from a speciality British store.. and had to travel all the way downtown to get it.

We did have an awesome Christmas though - completely worth it if you can't be bothered!

Monday, June 9

The most freaking awesome cookies I've ever made (aka cake batter choc-chip funfetti cookies)

I love that kind of cookie that looks crispy on the outside and is chewy and soft on the inside.  Reminds me of Anzac biscuits served at the local David Jones food hall as a child... As we would come down the escalator and the smell of those cookies baking would summon me to whine at my mother 'Muuuuummm... can we buy a biscuit? PLEEEEEASE?????'.  I'm sure my mother would have been cursing David Jones' cunning marketing plan.

When I saw these cookies on Sally's blog it reminded me of those cookies - soft on the inside, crispy on the outside.. so I've bookmarked the recipe but then I finally took the plunge and bought her book. Well, these amazing looking biscuits are even on the cover!

I mean it's A SIGN.  They look so fun and delicious and definitely not something I'd make every week or anything but every now and again you just have to make something a little bit naughty.

So then I made them.  I just can't explain.  I have eaten waay too many.  I still have some in the pantry but I want to make them again! They are just the perfect cookie.  Please believe me here - they are awesome!  The perfection of crispy on the outside, chewy-soft on the inside.  The cake batter gives them a really fab flavour - it's like having a really good piece of birthday cake in a cookie.  Perfect.

180g butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup caster sugar
1 egg
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
190g butter cake mix
190g plain flour
1 tsp bicarb soda
1/2 cup white choc chips
1/2 cup milk choc chips
1/2 cup funfetti/sprinkles


In a mixer, combine the butter and brown and caster sugar together until it becomes a creamy consistency.  About 1 1/2 minutes on speed 2 if you have a kitchenaid..

Then add your egg and vanilla and mix again for about 30 seconds.

Sift in the cake mix, flour and bicarb soda.  The original recipe calls for these ingredients in cup size but when I weighed them out they were different to the weights provided, so I thought it best to go with the weights, given that cake mixes can be different from mix-to-mix.  I used homebrand butter cake mix.

Mix again, it will become silky-smooth.

Now take off the mixer and with a spatula or spoon, mix in the choc-chips and funfetti/sprinkles.

As Sally says: 'Don't overmix'

Then you need to torture yourself and put all the mix in a zip-lock bag in the fridge for at least 2 hours.. up to 2 days if you want to make this ahead of time.

When you're ready to bake, pre-heat your oven to 175 degrees c and line your baking trays with baking paper or silicone mats.

Take the mix out of the fridge and let it slightly warm (about 10 minutes) and then spoon out into roughly the diameter of a 50c piece.  I used a small icecream scoop to help me get them even..

Roll them up and place on the baking tray with room to spread.  I could fit 9 cookies on a cookie sheet.

Bake for 10-12 minutes until slightly browned, but still 'blonde'.  Take out of the oven and cool for about 10 minutes before placing on cooling rack.

Have one at this stage, you won't regret it, and you might not be able to stop at one either.

When I gave one to my hubby his exact words were 'You are not allowed to make these EVER again - they are sooo good!!'.  Something tells me I'll not only be allowed, but I will be requested to make these again!   These would be great gifts too!

Friday, June 6

Simple and delicious chicken biryani

Those who love a good Indian and even those who may not be as adventurous, this is one for you.  A great introduction to Indian - this is like an Indian risotto, but much, much lighter.  Biriyani is one of those dishes you can pull together very quickly.  It's great in cooler weather, it's like a warm hug.  Not too spicy either, it doesn't have the 'hot-ness' of a curry but it has enough spice to make it aromatic and delicious... even to the smallest people at your table.

I adapted this recipe from the lovely Rachel Allen - I omitted the masses of garlic she has in her original recipe - I just don't think it needs it - but if you're feeling poorly and need the garlic, throw some more in!

Now you are going to need some herbs and spices.  If you don't have all of these, I suggest you grab them because you are not going to make this dish just the once I'm quite sure.  Secondly, these herbs and spices feature a lot in many other recipes and curries, so you will use them again guaranteed, in more than one dish!

My spice container labels have seen better days haven't they?

300gr basmati rice
5 cardamom pods
1/2 tsp tumeric
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp cummin
1 large clove garlic, chopped
1 tsp root ginger peeled and grated (or I use 1 tsp of minced ginger from a jar)
2 tb butter
1 large or two small onions, diced
6 chicken thighs, roughly diced
4 cups (800ml) chicken stock
1 bay leaf
1 cinnamon stick
1/4 cup raisins
2 tb chopped fresh coriander
1/4 cup flaked almonds

First thing you do in pour your rice into a jug or bowl.  Recipe calls for 300g, and I pour it to the 300ml mark in my jug and then cover it with water.  Set aside.

Then, split your cardmom seeds and sprinkle the lovely cardamom into your mortar and pestle.  Smells fantastic.

Add to this your cummin, turmeric, cayenne pepper, ginger and garlic, combine well with your mortal and pestle.

 In a pot that has a lid (a biggish one) melt your butter over medium high heat and sweat your onions.  They should be soft and translucent.  Add the contents of your mortar and pestle and allow to cook for about 1-2 minutes.

Then add the chicken and brown.  Whilst this is cooking, drain the water from your rice.

When the chicken is browned, add the rice. Stir until combined.

Add your raisins, and then your stock.

Finally, add your cinnamon stick and bayleaf (can be a dried bayleaf) and pop the lid on and turn the hob down to medium.

Come back about 20 minutes later and voila!  Your house smells wonderful and warm, and you are instantly STARVING.

Move off the hob, and give it a good stir. Remove the bayleaf and cinnamon stick.

Stir chopped coriander through the biryani

 Then serve into your bowls, sprinkling the almonds on top to serve!


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