Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Ode To My VPN

I’m normally not much of a poet
But I feel inspired, don’t you know it
To write an ode to something
That has proved to be quite the blessing

I finally caved in a few months ago
And dropped $75 on something intangible
Virtual Private Network – VPN for short
Has proved to be my splendidly fantastic new cohort

When you leave the US, sometimes you can’t see
All of the fabulous shows on American TV
There are patents and copyrights and even trademarks
That render completely useless all your browser’s bookmarks

For those who don’t know exactly what a VPN does
It basically restores an expat’s internet buzz
Not only in China to get Googled and Facebooked
It works in Oz too so I can stay hooked
On all of my shows and favourite news sites
Which sadly won’t let me view them day or night

The VPN connects you to a server overseas
To trick your computer quicker than a sneeze
One minute all content is blocked, the next it’s available
This VPN I purchased is truly a marvel

My IP address shows different but of course I’m still in Sydney
Though my computer thinks it’s in Dallas or Miami or Philly
Today, Honolulu or tomorrow, Nebraska
I can connect to any server I want, even one in Alaska

“This video is not available in your region” Ugh! That’s so annoying
With the push of a button, it’s suddenly going
The error is gone and my video displayed
And I can watch as many times as I want in any given day

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart – gosh he’s so fine
I couldn’t watch him before but today he’s all mine
Don’t forget Glee and my favourite South Park
No longer for these shows is my viewing in the dark
I can watch them from my computer on normal websites
And not some bootleg virus-ridden one which might cause a plight

The Onion once limited content for those in other countries
But now they have no idea that I’m overseas
Articles and videos which all make me laugh
Are back at my fingertips without any gaffe

All the major networks only work in the States
The same goes for Hulu – I’m in dire straits!
But now I can watch them all when I want
And that stupid error message can no longer taunt

Clips from the Oscars and Grammys are my rewards
And now I can even watch the Country Music Awards
Don’t forget shopping – if you do it’s a sin
Now I can get the same prices as my American kin

You have to be local to buy music on
But in Australia it’s so much more for the same damn song
So turn on the network and let’s do some shopping
The savings I find online are just whopping
Macklemore’s album was 17 dollars on iTunes
Only 4 dollars on Amazon – it’s a savings monsoon!

Lonely Planet directs you to your country’s local online store
But at American prices I can totally buy more
I turn on the network and the website just changes
The little flag at the top suddenly rearranges

All of the prices are now in USD
And they’re cheaper than Australia and that brings me glee
Last but not least I must tell you a story
About a horrible week when I finally found glory

I was ordering some chocolate from my favourite company
Theo of course, and I was ordering plenty
To ship to my sister who’s coming to visit
With a big carry-on bag full of my chocolate

The website said no, the bank has declined
But I called up Chase and they said it was fine
I tried and I tried but it just wouldn’t work
I was pulling out hair, I was going berserk
I used a US address and my US credit card
And I just couldn’t figure out why this was so hard

When a little light bulb went on in my head
I tried turning on my VPN instead
I then hit submit and the order went through
I smiled and I cheered and was no longer blue

All of it was thanks to my trusty VPN
It’s saved me frustration again and again
It may be a bit slower than normal internet
But it brings me Jon Stewart, so I’m not upset

For a few minutes it sometimes needs to buffer
But life without it would certainly be tougher
So if you are an expat and you hem and you haw
About dropping some money to skirt copyright laws

Just take my advice, I’ve been there before
It’s totally worth it – I’d even pay more
To get these sites and all of this content
When you think about it, it’s a drop in the bucket
Sign up today, you surely won’t regret it
And then thank me later with the gift of Theo Chocolate

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Sydney Macaron Mania

Do you remember that one day a few years ago when all of a sudden a cupcake shop opened on the street corner in your city?  And do you remember thinking “what a novel idea!”?  And then another opened, and then another, and before we all knew it, there were nearly as many cupcake shops as there were Starbucks in major American cities.  That happened in New York and Los Angeles and Washington and San Francisco and Chicago and Seattle and everywhere else across America.

And apparently it happened in Australia too, but since we only have a handful of Starbucks here, there are actually more cupcake shops.  I can count at least six cupcake shops alone in the vicinity of my office, and I’m certain there must be at least a few more across the rest of the CBD (downtown).

But times are changing.  While the cupcake bubble hasn’t quite burst yet, it has definitely slowed down and taken a backseat to the newest dessert fad that has swept Australia:  Macarons.

Macarons are a French dessert made primarily of meringue and almond meal with a soft flavour filling in the middle.  These are not to be confused with macaroons (with the additional “o”) which are coconut-based and of Italian origin, though most commonly noted for being adopted by Jews at Passover (since it’s made of coconut instead of bread).  Macarons are rounded while macaroons sort of look like a really ugly nipple.

All around Sydney – and the other major Australian cities – macaron shops are popping up like Starbucks do in the US and many a baker are honing their skills.  Macarons are difficult to make – a delicate pastry requiring utmost skill and technique – and all that love that goes into each one means that they taste delicious.  Fucking delicious if I may.  Orgasmic really.  But macarons can go wrong – the texture may be off or they may sit out for too long and the outer shell may harden a bit.  Don’t get me wrong – they still taste really good – but it’s all that much better when the texture is just right and the macaron ever-so-slightly crumbles while still retaining a certain gooeyness about it - and feeling so soft that it’s near melting away on your tongue.  Ooooo the sensation!

Is it getting hot in here or is it just me?

So, as a means of quality control and because I’m always up to date with the latest trends (and because I’ll take any excuse to have some sweets), I’ve travelled around Sydney trying some of the major macaron players.  I present to you:  my macaron rankings!

6.  Coco Noir

Coco Noir is a cute little café located in the Westfield mall just a block from my office, which makes it an easy and convenient option for a quick sugar fix after lunch during the week.  They also used to sell them at a salad place (ironic, eh?) which I frequent fairly often in the city.  The flavours are quite good, but unfortunately, the macarons here are wholly inconsistent.  Some were quite good in both size and texture, but others were too big or too small, or a bit too hard on the outside.  It’s almost as if some of the batches sat out overnight and went a bit stale.  Shame.

Overall, these are nothing really special, but they do look really pretty in the display case!

On a positive note, these are the least expensive of the bunch (as they should be) and the café has a huge assortment of other cakes, tarts, pastries, etc. which make my mouth water.

5.  Cre Asion

Kudos to Cre Asion – a tiny little laneway macaron maker – for having the most inventive theme for their macarons:  Asian.

Cre Asion had all the standard flavours but also a huge assortment of Asian-inspired ones such as Green Tea, Kinako (roasted soybean flour), Yuzu (an East Asian citrus fruit), and Bamboo Charcoal (pictured below).

I think they had biggest selection of flavours overall, but there were two drawbacks.  First, the macarons were probably the smallest of all the ones I sampled.  Second, all of the outsides of the macarons were a bit hardened.  Again, it seemed as if these may have sat out overnight.  Either way, the eight that I had made for a tasty breakfast (oops – did I just admit that?)

One huge positive:  the staff inside (while slightly limited in their English abilities) were super friendly.  If you’re looking for something completely different, Cre Asion is worth a try.

4.  Baroque

Baroque is located in The Rocks and is a long-standing Sydney institution.

There aren’t any flaws in the macarons at Baroque, but the flavours are a bit standard – nothing outrageously inventive or adventurous like I found at my top 2 macaron shops.  These are a bit run-of-the-mill in a way, but also a great option for those seeking a more classic macaron.

Baroque’s Salted Caramel flavour – a staple of all macaron shops it seems – is by far the best of the six that I tried.  While some Salted Caramel macarons make you wonder where the salt is, this one comes out boldly and says “I’m here!  I’m perfectly salty!  Put me in your mouth!”  And I did.  And there was much taste bud rejoicing.

3.  Laduree

Laduree is the original macaron maker from Paris – being the first to serve the modern day macaron over 80 years ago.  The company has expanded globally and sells thousands upon thousands of macarons each day.  Laduree opened a shop right here in Sydney so of course I had to give it a go.  The flavours here are a bit more traditional sort of like Baroque above, but I guess traditional flavours (Chocolate, Strawberry, Pistachio, Liquorice, Coffee, etc.) are what you should expect from the inventor of the macaron.

Laduree is like the Chanel of macarons – super fancy with only the finest packaging.  Walking around with a Laduree bag is sort of like a status symbol I suppose.

For me, I felt a bit like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman when the dreadful woman in the store is like “I don’t think we have anything for you.  You’re obviously in the wrong place.  Please leave.”  The staff weren’t really friendly at all – a complete 180 from Cre Asion – and the macarons were over 30% more expensive than the others.  And do you know why?  Because they’re made in Switzerland.

Let me repeat:  the Laduree macarons are made in SWITZERLAND.

Then they are snap frozen and flown here on a plane – probably in First Class.  So, yes, these are the real deal.  And from a technical standpoint, they are probably the best macarons for consistency and texture, though it may be a bit challenging to get them at the shop at the perfect amount of time after they've been taken out of the freezer.  Also, they leave a bigger carbon footprint.  At the end of the day, they are delicious, but maybe we should keep it local?

2.  Mak Mak

Located at the far end of Newtown, Mak Mak made for a great 1 hour, 15 minute walk from my apartment (as a means to burn off the calories in advance).  Luckily, I had some company for the walk as my mate Michael decided to tag along.  The presentation of these macarons was the best:  not just plain colours like most places, but Mak Mak put designs and hearts and glittery-type things on their macarons to distinguish the flavours from each other.  Pretty!

But it was the flavours themselves that really left us stunned.  The variety of flavours was very unique.  Yes, they had one or two standards, like the Salted Caramel and the Pistachio, but the rest were surprising combinations.  There was the Peppermint & Black Tea macaron which tasted almost exactly like mint tea tastes.  How they got those flavours infused so deep into that macaron is beyond me, but it was fantastic.

There was also a Smoked Vanilla & Pecan Praline macaron – Michael’s favourite of the bunch – as well as a Peanut Butter & Belgian Milk Chocolate.  Let me repeat:  Peanut Butter & Belgian Milk Chocolate.  This was like a Reece’s Peanut Butter Cup but for classy people with impeccable taste.  Seriously amazeballs.  Other flavours from the list included Passionfruit, Orange, & Lemon Myrtle;  Blood Orange, Gin, & Tonic;  and Raspberries & Cream.

In all of the ones we tried, the flavours really stood out – we could tell exactly what we were eating – and even if we didn’t know the flavours beforehand, I bet we could have guessed the strange combinations with pretty good accuracy.  Bravo to Mak Mak!  I was really tossing up whether to rank this one # 1 or # 2.  I’m going to keep it at # 2 for now, but I will definitely go back and try them again.  Further comparison is definitely in order.

1.  Adriano Zumbo

Adriano Zumbo’s macarons are probably the most famous in Sydney.  They are so famous, in fact, that Adriano renamed his macarons.  They are now known as Zumbarons.  Adriano Zumbo has a book or two, a macaron kit for the home which you can buy at major grocery stores, and a small chain of patisseries dotted across Sydney.  He’s also a bit of a foodie icon locally and has been featured as a guest judge on Master Chef (Australia’s version of Top Chef).

Just like Mak Mak, the Zumbarons come in some pretty insane flavours, but the execution differs sharply.  Mak Mak infuses the flavours in so well that you can tell exactly what it is meant to be, but Zumbo makes his more subtle, leaving it a bit of a game to try and guess what flavour you’ve just put in your mouth.  I’ve been stumped several times and have always been extremely (and pleasantly) surprised about the flavours in each one.  There’s always that epiphany moment when I’m like “Ooooo – that’s what that flavour was!”  That may annoy some people, but I find it absolutely fun.

As for the flavours, well, who needs plain old chocolate when you can have Chocolate Doughnut or Chocolate Mint?  Replace Vanilla with Blackened Vanilla, and maybe we can draw some inspiration from the chip aisle at the supermarket:  how about a Salt & Vinegar macaron?  Zumbo takes the traditional Salted Caramel and ever so gently transforms it with a bit of butter:  Salted Butter Caramel.  Or one step further:  Salted Butter Caramel on Toast.  There’s a Peach Ice Tea Zumbaron which is great for a hot summer afternoon and a Pancake & Maple Syrup Macaron which is perfect for breakfast, right?  Just when it couldn’t get any better, there’s Caramel Banana Balsamic Zumbaron, Chocolate Pudding Zumbaron, Pecan Danish Zumbaron, and Bread & Butter Pudding Zumbaron.  But my two favourites – hands down – are the Salted Butter Popcorn Zumbaron and Malted Milkshake Zumbaron.  The popcorn one even has bits of popcorn stuck to the outside!

Technically speaking:  these are consistently top notch.  Zumbarons are slightly firm on the outside but not hard or crunchy, and soft on the inside – the perfect blend between crumbly and gooey.  The best part:  you don’t have to get them in a box.  You can get them on a conveyor belt sent directly to your table.

Zumbo has a dessert train restaurant at the Star City Casino and it’s just fantastic.  In addition to the Zumbarons, they also have an assortment of cakes and tarts, an all-you-can-eat ice cream machine, and some amazing hot chocolate.  This is why I’m going to put Zumbo at # 1.  Well, that and the Salted Butter Popcorn Zumbaron.

It’s simply heavenly.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

A Very Berry Day Trip

I had been to the quaint country town of Berry before – back about a year and a half ago with my mate Oscar (  But recently, I had been advised that the little town of Berry puts on a fabulous market on the first Sunday of each month.  I love markets.  So many foods and treats and trinkets and pretty homemade things.  With this allure, it wasn’t difficult to round up another gay to drive me down there.  Gays love pretty things.

We chose last Sunday – the first Sunday in June – to make the two hour drive south to hit up the markets.  When we awoke:  it was pouring rain.  We texted.  We deliberated.  We debated.  We decided not to let it rain (figuratively) on our parade.  We went to Berry.

My mate Michael accompanied me on the journey and brought along his trusty car, Blanche.

We arrived in Berry around midday to find the markets… had been cancelled… due to the rain.  Mother Nature may have won the battle this time, but we were determined not to let that bitch win the war.  So we stayed anyway.

Exploring the town of Berry more in depth turned out to be quite a treat.  After lunch, we walked up and down the main drag and checked out all sorts of shops.  They had antiques, clothes, homewares, and more.  We hit the jackpot at a small shop called “Haven & Space”, which was by far the closest thing to a Pier 1 Imports that I’ve found in Oz thus far.  For a tiny little store, they really crammed in the goodies.  I walked away with some colourful throw pillows and two matching picture frames all for around $85.  For the Americans, that may seem like a normal price, but this is Australia – a place where a decent looking throw pillow will normally set you back $40.

Michael saw a giant mirror – just like he had been wanting – and bubble wrapped it up and stuck it in the back of Blanche.

I also made a point to revisit the donut van:

And we strolled in and out of bakeries, chocolate shops, and candy stores.  I was super stoked to find an international candy store.  I stocked up on Altoids, random flavours of gum, and even some White Chocolate Reece’s Peanut Butter Cups.  Yummy.

On my last trip down to the South Coast, Oscar and I had stayed at a winery and ended up buying half a case of Semillon (a common varietal of Australian wine).  It was damn fantastic, so after a quick stop at another chocolate shop, we headed to Coolangatta Estate Winery where I promptly purchased another case of Semillon.  Now I just have to wait for them to age… Maybe.

As we left the Berry area, the rain started again.  She tried her best to thwart us, but Mother Nature didn’t succeed.  We hit the shopping, sweets, and wine jackpots in Berry.  And even without the markets and the grim weather, Berry was a splendid day trip and escape from Sydney.  The question is:  Where shall we go next?

Hmmm.  I think the fact that we missed the markets means we’ll need to head back to Berry.  That’s our perfect excuse for more donuts, right?