Thursday, December 8, 2016

It's The Most Wonderful Time of the Year: 10 Things I Love About Christmas



 
1. Bad Hallmark movies on Netflix. All the bad Hallmark movies.

They all seem to involve secret princes and princesses from made-up countries like Montsaurai ('Once Upon a Holiday') and Cordinia ('A Royal Christmas'), but they're perfect for putting on in the background while decorating the tree or wrapping presents.

2. Buying a Christmas tree.

In my head, there's something incredibly romantic about picking out a tree and carrying it home with a significant other - one of you at the front end and the other in the back, wearing mittens and wool hats, as snow begins to fall and everything looks like a scene out of Stars Hollow (Gilmore Girls reference there for those of you who don't watch the show).

In reality, John and I argued about which tree's needles looked "droopier", while I expressed concern that the squat little variations available in London were so wide around the bottom, they resembled a boat before shouting across the garden center parking lot, "Fine. Just pay. Just pay!" And then we took about 5 breaks during our 7-minute walk home with the tree, while John sang, "Chestnuts roasting on the open fire / black frost nipping at your nose," and I had to correct him by explaining that it was "Jack Frost. Not black frost. Black frost sounds like something out of the Mighty Boosh and probably means you'd lose your nose, if black frost got to it."

It was still romantic.

3. Decorating the Christmas tree. 

This also involves arguing about color scheme ("The pink is too close to the red; what is WRONG with you?") and placement of the lights ("The bottom of the tree looks like a blackout." "Well, why don't you fix it, then? I told you we needed longer lights."), but when it's done and the presents are placed under the tree, it looks so, so good.

4. A wreath on the door. 

A wreath on the door signifies, "Hello! Joy here!" or "Hello and welcome to my humble abode of ULTIMATE FESTIVE CHEER!" No Christmas is complete without a fresh wreath on the door - ours is due to arrive tomorrow, and I can't wait.


5. Sequinned party wear.

FYI, I have zero parties to attend this year (besides a work Christmas party, of course) but I am still immediately attracted to anything that's remotely shimmery or bejewelled or decked out with sequins. Sequinned trousers, sequinned tops, sequinned blazers ... throw it at me, and I'll wear it. Promise. Christmas is basically the only time where it's semi-socially acceptable to dress like a giant piece of tinsel and no one will blink an eye (sort of).

6. Christmas songs.

On full-blast from 1 December onwards. From Bing to Mariah to S Club 7 ... if it's on Spotify, we'll play it in our house. Last year, I woke up on Christmas morning and snuck into the room where my brother was sleeping and snuck a bluetooth speaker under his bed before blasting him with "Last Christmas" at the highest decibel-level possible for a mini JBL portable speaker. My parents were in the next room and were so confused: "What was all that noise this morning?" my dad asked at the breakfast table, seriously concerned. Siblings will be siblings, dad.

7. Christmas markets.

This year, I'm heading to Amsterdam (with a day trip to Cologne in between) with John and my parents and I'm super excited to see both cities in all their Christmas-sy glory - particularly Cologne, since it's known for its Christmas markets. There are seven. Seven. I think we'll get to three, if we walk quickly. I'm keeping an eye out for a suitable tree topper, since we don't have one.

8. Christmas decorations.

London is pretty magical at this time of year. Some of my favorite places to visit for Christmas decorations include the Duke of York Square, St. Christopher's Place, Covent Garden, and, of course, Oxford Street and Regent Street.



9. Christmas morning.

All the fanfare leading up to Christmas Day is almost more enjoyable than the day itself. Almost. As an American, I love all the British traditions: pulling Christmas crackers open and reading the jokes inside, wearing the paper crowns, dousing the Christmas pudding with alcohol and lighting it on fire (yep), putting on a pair of wellies and having a post-Christmas lunch country walk ... it all feels so festive.

10. Family time.

If I haven't mentioned it about a gazillion times already, my parents are arriving on Saturday and I'm so terrified excited. I act like an over-excited puppy when they're here, jumping from parent to parent, demanding attention and love while simultaneously worrying about whether they're sufficiently entertained, warm, and fed. Unfortunately, my brother isn't able to join us this year, but I will somehow get "Last Christmas" blasting in his ear from afar ...

What are your favorite things about this time of the year? It doesn't have to be Christmas-related, if you're more of the bah-humbug type! Let me know in the comments below.
 
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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Become a Master of Dim Sum @ Chinese Cricket Club



When I was little, I'd watch my parents make wontons on weekends. Methodically, quickly, and deftly, they'd smear a dollop of pork and prawn filling onto a wonton wrapper, dip their finger into the small bowl of water on the table, and fold it into a little parcel - placing them into rows on a wax paper-lined tray. I'd peer over the edge of the table at the neat little parcels, lined up like pilgrims waiting to enter a church to pray, with their peaked "hats" folded into corners at the top and tied like a kerchief under their chins. Occasionally, my mom or dad would help me make one and I'd inevitably use too much filling, or not enough water, causing the sides to gape and burst. So, I kind of left them to it.

I had a vivid flashback of time spent watching my parents make these wontons when, mesmerized, I stood at the helm of Chef Ken Wang's table at Chinese Cricket Club Restaurant, watching as he and dim sum chef Mai Lan effortlessly rolled, tucked, and folded wrappers into place to make perfect examples of egg rolls, siu mai and other popular dim sum dumplings.

My egg roll didn't fare too badly, and I smugly dropped it into the bamboo basket to be steamed, but my siu mai was rather lacking in flair and when I sent a screenshot to my mom, she exclaimed, "Ai ya! You overstuffed!" Typical.




Previously, I'd popped those bad boys (i.e. har gao, siu mai, and other favorites) into my mouth at our favorite Chinese restaurants in Seattle, Vancouver, and Hong Kong without the slightest thought at the effort that went into making them. I left Chinese Cricket Club that evening red-faced and sheepish, much more appreciative of the skill it takes to be a dim sum chef. If you want to have a go at becoming a dim sum master, you totally can - Chinese Cricket Club is running masterclasses which can be booked here.

After feeling suitably embarrassed at my lack of dim sum-making skills, I sat down with a table full of foodies to sample Chinese Cricket Club's Sichuan cuisine - their speciality.

Since my family's originally from Hong Kong, I've always leaned toward Cantonese flavors and styles of cooking. Sichuan cuisine, known for its seven "key flavours" (hot, spicy, sweet, sour, savoury, bitter, and aromatic - which to me, just translates to spicy, spicy, spicy, spicy, spicy, spicy and um, spicy), is something I don't eat that often.

So, what to order? Well, standout dishes at Chinese Cricket Club included the slow-braised pork belly (cooked for five hours and served with rice and gravy), which was all sorts of melt-in-your-mouth good. Of course, the popular crispy duck with pancakes was a favorite across the table and even I tucked into seconds. And thirds. (And maybe a fourth.)



The spicy sea bass (which is part of Chef Ken Wang's Tasting Menu) tested my spicy pain threshold, but it was surprisingly bearable and - dare I admit - incredibly addictive and delicious.

My parents arrive in London on Saturday and I'm curious to see what they think of Chef Ken Wang's impressive menu - I struggle to find a good Chinese restaurant in London, so I was thrilled to discover the proper Sichuan cuisine at Chinese Cricket Club.

I was a guest of Chinese Cricket Club, Crowne Plaza London – The City, 19 New Bridge Street, London, EC4V 6DB. All opinions are my own.
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Monday, December 5, 2016

The Metropolitan Police Christmas Tree Project


Last weekend, I celebrated my birthday by buying our Christmas tree with John, decorating it with my college roommate who was visiting from the States, and wrapping presents to put under the tree (NB - totally awesome tree in the photo above is from a restaurant in Bruges last year and sadly, not the one we have in our house!). It was so much fun.

I love, love, love seeing the tree in situ - it looks like it always belongs in that corner of our living room and I remember thinking the same thing last year! It's also making me very excited for my parents' imminent arrival this weekend - I haven't seen them since May!

If you live in London, I'd encourage you to take part in the Metropolitan Police's Christmas Tree Project. It's not too widely publicized, but you can pick a borough closest to you and be matched with a child to purchase a present for this Christmas - a child that might not otherwise have any gifts to open on Christmas Day.

Last year, I was paired with a newborn girl - which was pretty heartbreaking. I chose a sweet, fleece onesie from M&S and delivered it to Islington Police Station, hoping that it would keep her warm throughout the winter months. This year, I have a 13-year-old boy and I'm totally stumped. I'm so not down with the cool kids. Any ideas?
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Thursday, November 24, 2016

Travel Talk: What's In My (Carry-On) Bag


I'm always curious to sneak a peek into other peoples' bags at airports - I want to know all their travel secrets! What are they reading? A Kindle? A paperback? A hardback? What kind of headphones to they use? Neck pillow? Snacks?

So, I decided to put a little twist on the "what's in my bag" blog post and show you what I pack when I'm about to board a long-haul flight.

Magazines

I have a little ritual before I go on vacation: pedicure, followed by a magazine purchase (or two). I always read Conde Nast Traveller when I travel. I know! It seems so counterintuitive - what weirdo would want to read about other destinations when they're already on holiday? This weirdo. I love travel writing though, and I find the articles and images so inspiring. 

Snacks

Once, I didn't bring any snacks with me on a long-haul flight and ... I pretty much inhaled breakfast when it was served and had to distract myself from hunger by watching a pretty forgettable movie beforehand. Now, unless I'm flying Business class (which is like, never, btw - okay, once or twice), I always bring a snack. For a recent trip, I brought these Kind bars, which are delicious and nutritious (see what I did there?). They're not too sweet, like some other bars (which leaves a horrible taste in your mouth when you're travelling) and they come in sweet and savoury flavors. The bars are made from whole nuts, fruits, and whole grains, so they keep you comfortably full until the next meal is served. I'm a fan of the Dark Chocolate Mocha Almond flavor, which you can buy here.

Avene Thermal Water Spray - Travel Size

I know I go on and on about this spray, but it really is a miracle product. I mist it over my face every two hours or so during the flight and it is such a relief from the dry cabin air. You can find it at Boots. I also like to slather a bit of Laneige's Water Sleeping Mask on my face as well, to keep it well-hydrated (though my mom once asked me why my face was so shiny when I disembarked, so maybe wipe it off when you land!).

Powder

I get a super attractive oily and dry face on flights, so I always carry a pressed powder compact with me so I can dab at my face before we land and carry at least a passing resemblance to my passport photo at border control. 

Fragrance

I'm totally conscious of other passengers who might be allergic to perfume, so I avoid applying any fragrance on the flight itself, but I do this just after disembarking because - unless you're flying in a cabin with a private shower (check you out!) - no one smells great when they first step off a flight. I love these roller-ball fragrances that are exclusive to Sephora US and always pick up one or two when I'm visiting the States.

Eye shade

Must. Block. Out. All. The. Light. I alternate between the pretty one you see here (made from Liberty fabric by a friend of mine) or the one I rave about in this post.

Gigantic Scarf

One that can double as a blanket or a cape or a pillow, etc. I've got a great one from & Other Stories but if I'm travelling to a colder climate, I like to use a cashmere wrap.


What are your carry-on essentials? Let me know in the comments below!

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Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Interior Inspiration: Have Yourself a Very Hygge Christmas


After visiting The Duke of York Square earlier this week and seeing all the magical, festive decorations, I started feeling really excited for Christmas - particularly as my mom and dad arrive in less than three weeks (LOLs, just kidding- I'm actually freaking out, but oh well). We're taking a short trip to Amsterdam and Cologne to visit the Christmas markets and I just placed our Christmas food order at Waitrose (we're having honey-glazed ham this year *mini fist pump*) so ... all systems are go.

Last weekend, John dug out our Christmas decorations from the attic and, well, it sounds stupid, but my heart swelled a little at having Christmas decorations that are ours to use every year. I woke up early, baked some banana bread, and it all felt very ... hygge. You know, that Danish concept of "coziness" that's been blowing up your Instagram, Twitter and Facebook feeds.


The week before, I'd been on a little Christmas shopping spree at T.K. Maxx and - you guys - I was like a kid in a candy store. I mean, seriously. I've written about how much I love T.K. Maxx before, but the hunt for the most glorious bargain is more fun than the actual item itself.

Case in point: I couldn't wait to light these beautifully-scented candles encased in simple gold and silver glass, which I found by literally getting on my hands and knees and rummaging behind rows of other candles before emerging, triumphant.


The scent of that Golden Shortbread candle combined with smell of banana bread emerging from the oven was heavenly and very hygge. The Fresh Cut Pine candle is lovely on our coffee table and creates a cozy ambience for Netflix and chill (literally chilling, folks - it's not that kind of blog!).

I also love wrapping presents and writing Christmas cards. In fact, I think I might like preparing for Christmas even more than I like the holiday itself - oops.

T.K. Maxx always has amazing surprises in the stationery department and there's always something that manages to perfectly reflect my personality. On my visit, I found these pretty cards, gift tags, wrapping paper, and ribbon:



I'm not gonna lie ... I like having creative control over Christmas decorations and pretty much ban anything that's red and green. Sorry. I'm a Grinch like that.

John hates this (in fact, he calls me a not-very-nice name, but I'll look past that as he will be solely responsible for carrying the tree home this year), but I love having a Scandi-leaning, silver/black/gold decor-scheme.

So, I was very excited to find this acorn garland, which I plan to display in our living room (and/or on our Christmas tree. Tip: don't leave it on the floor for your unsuspecting husband to step on when he wakes up for work at 5:30 in the morning. It's kind of spiky.):


Are you looking forward to Christmas? Do you have decorations that you like to put up every year? Let me know in the comments!

Products shown were provided by T.K. Maxx. All opinions are my own. Shop their stores here.
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Monday, November 21, 2016

A Taste of Christmas at The Duke York Square


The Duke of York Square is one of my favorite places in London to eat, shop, and generally hang out. The Saatchi Gallery is a must-visit for any art enthusiast and Partridges food market is somewhat of an institution for American expats in London, thanks to its plentiful supply of American products (I go there for my Lucky Charms fix).

Last week, I had the opportunity to visit the Square to experience the festive decorations, get gift ideas (I'm still not done with my Christmas shopping - I really wanted to finish it early this year!), and try the tasty new Festive Menu at Gallery Mess restaurant.

Thanksgiving is on Thursday (!), so I was super excited to sample Partridges' pumpkin and pecan pies - which did not disappoint. Pumpkin pie is by far my favorite Thanksgiving dessert and Partridges' version was delightful: the filling was rich and creamy, offset with a light and flaky crust. I'm dying to try it with a generous dollop of whipped cream on top! Luckily for me, they come in convenient personal-sized portions, so I'm definitely going back to get my own.


I also loved their Christmas-themed hampers, which I'm thinking of getting for our next door neighbors as a "thank you" for putting up with all our disruptive garden work over the summer (oops). Nothing says, "Sorry-about-the-drilling-at-7:45-a.m. like a hamper full of Christmas puddings, panettone, and champagne.


From Partridges, we stopped in for a visit to L.K. Bennett to view their seasonal gift options. I've been a long-time fan of L.K. Bennett (and even wore a pair of their beautifully-made, nude-colored heels to my wedding) and am always admiring the shoes, although their accessories are tempting as well.

I spied this chic, light grey cross-body bag in their seasonal offerings, and was instantly smitten. Inspired by the shape and design of vintage camera bags, it looks achingly cool when paired with the personalized initial stickers from L.K. Bennett's recent collaboration with Boyarde.


I immediately made a mental note to put the exact color on my Christmas/birthday wishlist (since my birthday is in December).

The luxurious wool and cashmere pom-pom hats and corresponding pom-pom bag charms also caught my eye - ideal for the sudden drop in temperature. I particularly liked the eye-catching magenta, which tempted me to step away from my usual uniform of grey and black (who am I kidding? If I had to choose, I'd probably choose black. Again.).

L.K. Bennett's new range of candles would also make great gifts for colleagues, or as a stocking stuffer. I left with a gorgeous Red Berry candle, which I've happily added to my collection of winter candles at home. Come Christmas Day, my house will be beautifully scented (which it'll have to be, to cover the inevitable burning coming from the oven)!


Reluctantly tearing myself away from the colorful pom-poms and dream handbags, we made our way to Liz Earle, a brand that has been a staple in my skincare repertoire for years. In fact, I liked it so much after I tried it, I bought it for my mom, my mother-in-law, and even ... John (he's a devotee of their men's range).

The Duke of York Square branch of Liz Earle regularly holds workshops and events; we were lucky enough to take part in a wreath-making workshop, led by Jo Woodward of Columbia Creative.


As Jo taught us how to pin, tuck, and arrange the deliciously scented pieces of our wreath, the lovely ladies at Liz Earle described how some of the very same items we were adding (for example, lavender, berries, and oranges) are also found in Liz Earle products.


Liz Earle has some fantastic gift sets and fragrances available at the moment (I personally love the limited edition hot cloth cleansers - this year's "Winter Icon" is the Sweet Orange & Clove Limited Edition cleanser and it smells divine) and it gave me great gift ideas for my girlfriends and mother-in-law.

The wreaths we made were also designed to fit a luxurious botanical candle - it would make a beautiful Christmas table centrepiece, which is how I intend to use mine.


I posted this photo of my wreath on Instagram and was inundated with questions about where to make one! Liz Earle at The Duke of York Square will be hosting more wreath-making workshops before Christmas, so head to their website and social media channels to receive updates.


After working up an appetite pinning our cinnamon sticks and coconut husk stars to our wreaths, we made our way to Gallery Mess at the Saatchi Gallery for dinner. They're currently showcasing a Festive Menu, which features dishes with a decidedly Christmas twist: Barbary duck breast with mulled red cabbage, clementine and star anise jus, stone bass with sage roasted parsnip, salsify and kale, plus a delicious veggie option of broccoli and blue cheese souffle with salt baked celeriac, shaved celery and candied walnuts.


I confess to eating my duck breast in a hurry, because I couldn't wait for dessert. But, while we're on the subject, my duck breast was beautifully cooked: tender and slightly pink in the middle. Not usually one for citrus flavors in savoury dishes, I was surprised by how much I liked the clementine wedges, each charred and finished with a delightfully smokey taste. I closed my eyes for a second and imagined wood-burning fires and warm country pubs.


Before long, my main course had disappeared and I eagerly anticipated dessert: chocolate fondant with salted caramel ice cream. Too much? Perhaps. Indulgent? Definitely.

But so worth it.


I loved slicing my fork into the middle of that chocolate fondant and seeing the molten-hot chocolate center ooze onto the plate. I admit that the addition of the salted caramel ice cream might have been a tad too sweet for the dessert, even for my sweet-tooth-inclined palette, but it's a Christmas dessert - so it's got to be a little over the top. Still, no regrets.

Also: I don't usually like Christmas pudding, but even Aftab's dessert looked enticing from across the table.


After dinner, I left the group a bit early to take another look at the Square. With the shops shut but the facades still lit and illuminated, I stopped for a moment to take in the beautiful Christmas trees and festive decorations.



Suddenly, the realization that my parents were arriving in less than three weeks' time made me super excited. And while I'd taken my mom to Cadogan Hall for a concert before (it's my favorite classical music venue in London - I performed there a couple years ago and wrote an article in TimeOut London about it!), we never had a chance to visit the Duke of York Square in all its Christmas-sy glory. So, right then and there, I added it to our itinerary.

I can't wait. Pumpkin pie and all.

I was a guest of The Duke of York Square. All opinions are my own. Special thanks to Mina, Evie, and the staff at L.K. Bennett, Liz Earle, and Gallery Mess restaurant for making our visit so very special!

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Friday, November 18, 2016

This Is The Week That ...



This is the week that ...

... I won second place in a pub quiz with friends.

Last time we came in first, and really, John and I only contributed to 5 points of this 118 point 90s-themed quiz (the rest of it was totally up to our friends, Lynne and Rachel), but to place second (well, tied-second) out of 15 teams? Not bad. Not bad at all. (Also, seriously: can you name EVERY member of the Backstreet Boys? Every time I tried to conjure up a name - besides Nick Carter - only the smiling faces of 'NSYNC would pop into my head. Lynne made the mistake of saying, "What about Nick Lachey?" and I snapped at her, "NO, HE WAS IN 98 DEGREES, DUH.")

... I asked an Etsy seller to customize a pair of embossed leather luggage tags to read, "Mrs. & Mrs." instead of "Mr. & Mrs." and he was happy to oblige. 

I mean, the fact that I felt nervous and anxious after I sent my request off to him made me feel so sad. What if his response was negative? How do my LGBTQ friends deal every day with this kind of shit? It was that realization that hit me hard. But thankfully, his response was helpful and positive. So, shout out to KarlvonArtistry's beautiful leather goods shop on Etsy.

... I had a pleasant exchange with the guy next to me on the bus.

Which never happens in London. We're in our own little bubbles and our end-goal is to get from Point A to Point B with as little human interaction as possible. Period. But I sat next to him on the top deck of the bus on Wednesday night and we had a little awkward, "Are you getting off ...? Oh, let me get out of the way if you are ..." mini-conversation, which then turned into jokes and small talk about how bad London traffic is, etc. Folks, it was the smallest thing, but it was real and it was a reminder that there is some humanity left in the world right now.

... a nice lady picked up my receipt which had my order number on it, after I dropped it during the mad pre-work rush at POD.

If you're not familiar with POD, they have this stressful (but, actually, totally smart) system of having two lines - one for ordering, one for picking up your order - and calling out your order number when it's ready. I was pre-occupied with checking my phone (obvs) and accidentally dropped my receipt, when a lady to my right noticed, swooped in, and said, "Oh! Don't lose that!" with a friendly smile and handed it back to me. Again, so small, but just - a kind gesture.

... I made a few (tough) phone calls to my Senators and Congressmen back home about my concerns.

My heart was pounding and I felt tearful, but I wrote a short script, read it aloud to the staffers who answered the phone, asked them when I could expect to receive a response, and was met with positivity on the other end of the line. If you're a US citizen, you can find your local representatives here, and if you're calling from the UK, you can use ZipCall to call for free, from your phone. If you don't know where to start, my friend linked this super helpful calling sheet, which you don't have to follow to the T, but it's a great jumping off point.

We need to be kind to each other right now, and do things that will make us feel better. Last week, I was all about staying in, lighting candles, and baking banana bread. And that's okay. I needed that. This week, I wanted to act, so I did. I have a few more calls to make.

Have a wonderful weekend. Thank you, always, for being here for me. xo
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