Friday, 7 December 2012

Save the arts – eat cake!

Newcastle city centre looks at first glance like any other identikit British high street. Once you’ve tired of shopping at the enormous M&S or Primark or H&M, the usual suspects are ready to offer you an overpriced hot drink: Starbucks, Costa and Nero. God forbid that you go all “British” and ask for tea – it will be foul.

There is, however, good food and drink to be had at a fair price elsewhere in the city centre: in our arts venues. No Swiss tax avoidance systems here, nor a shame-faced offer to pay UK tax as if it’s some kind of charity opt-in. These are the public venues which last month were threatened with a 100 per cent cut in council funding. They offer some of the best entertainment in our city and some of the best food. Here’s a quick tour heading from north to south of the city:

The Great North Museum (free entry) boasts a planetarium, an interactive model of Hadrian's Wall, a life-size T-Rex replica skeleton, a full size model of an elephant and two mummies from Ancient Egypt that terrified me as a child. That’s all very well, but what about the cake? So tasty that I forgot to take a photo of it before I ate it. There’s also a large playroom for toddlers and a good gift shop, which as any Philistine will tell you is essential for a satisfactory museum visit.
The Great North Museum just north of Haymarket. It's nestling behind the huge Christmas tree that Bergen sends us every year. Thanks, Norwegian friends!
Northern Stage is one of the top producing-theatres in the country and also presents the best in visiting theatre. I remember seeing Little Shop of Horrors there in the 1980s when it was still called Newcastle Playhouse, and I certainly won’t forget the Byelorussian play I saw with my dad this summer that featured a naked, screaming and fully waxed woman being doused in black paint. Tim Key and his bath visited the Northern Stage last month, one of the best acts I’ve seen in a long time. Northern Stage also has a busy café serving good food that includes a large tapas menu. I like having a hot chocolate and looking out onto the university grounds. Not at the juicy young students, I would never do that. I just look at the grass…

I often think if you want a cheap lunch, follow the silver pound. Pensioners know a trick or two and they’re not going to be fooled into paying over the odds for a panini when all they want is a sandwich. This is true of the next two venues – the Laing Art Gallery (free entry)  and the Tyneside Cinema - both serve good no-nonsense food. Today at the Laing I had a fried egg stottie and a pot of tea for £4.40, then necked some chocolate tiffin.

The Laing is very central, just off the main shopping drag, and has a large playroom for toddlers adjoining the café.
So welcoming! Who needs a McWee when public venues invite you in?
Last time I ate there my old Latin teacher dragged me round the Northern Spirit exhibition which celebrates north east artists including the painter John Martin and engraver Thomas Bewick. It was like a school trip but without a cagoule or the egg sandwiches and I admit I enjoyed it.

The Tyneside Cinema is similarly central. My dad and I go there most Sundays, or Thursdays if we’re seeing one of the excellent National Theatre Live broadcasts. He loves its ruched pink curtain that is raised with a satisfying "shhhhhhhh" at the beginning of a film. He once commented that if he ever wins the lottery, he would get a curtain like that for his bedroom window (presumably my mother would be spending her half of the winnings on a divorce, citing unreasonable behaviour).

The Tyneside has a small ground floor coffee bar and upstairs are its famous coffee rooms, a local institution that’s been feeding Geordies since the 1930s. Intriguingly the menu claims previous customers include Rowan Atkinson but makes no mention of what he ate or where he sat. For under £4 you can get a burger or beans on toast – sometimes it’s all you want, isn’t it?
I imagine there was some kind of petition
I tried the Tyneside's Christmas menu this week and can highly recommend their Bakewell Blitz cake. You can become a Friend of the Tyneside which gives two free cinema tickets, a £2 reduction on each ticket and a 10% discount on food and drink.

The beautiful Grade I listed Theatre Royal, regional home to the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre, Opera North and Rambert Dance Company, celebrated its 175th birthday this year. It was where we were taken on school trips to see ballet and where my neighbour used to take me to see the Christmas pantomime, only marginally more exciting than the whole box of Milk Tray she’d take for JUST ME AND HER. It was here I first met Rowan Atkinson when as a shy 16 year old I asked for his autograph. There’s a blue plaque commemorating the event (written in biro like all the best ones). More recently it’s where me and my dad have seen King Lear, Othello and Julius Caesar and where we made a merciful pact never to see a Shakespeare comedy again. 

The Theatre Royal is home to Pasqualinos, offering stone-baked sourdough pizzas every day with a bargain two-for-one deal. This works out at about £3.50 a pizza, about what you'd pay for garlic bread in a lot of high street chains.
The theatre is also home to one of the best coffee bars in Newcastle – 9 Bar Coffee.
Hurray for independents!
In the summer you can enjoy an Italian-style lunch on the elegant Georgian-fronted Grey Street, one of the most beautiful streets in the country.

Or you could nip across the road to The Stand, Newcastle’s best comedy venue. It opened a year ago and applies the same values to the food in its cosy bistro as it does to its comedy – the best at an excellent price. Let’s just say Daniel Kitson for £3. The head chef's experience shows in the international range and quality of the menu.
Crispy Oriental tofu with hoisin & pancakes; Pad Thai with sweet potato & hot peanut sauce; Ginger sticky toffee pudding and ice cream.
The Stand offers a three course Sunday roast all day, which at £12 is ridiculously good value. It also has a large outside terrace that is lovely on a summer’s evening. 

If you head down Grey Street you reach the River Tyne. Turn left (don’t go straight on, you might drown or, worse, get to Gateshead HA HA HA) and you will reach the Live Theatre, a leading new writing theatre. I saw the excellent The Prize there during the Olympics; the Live also played host to most of Newcastle Gateshead’s comedy festival this summer. It has one of the best Italian restaurants in the city, Caffe Vivo and is next to the Broad Chare, Newcastle’s first gastropub that caters surprisingly well for vegetarians. If you go, get the cauliflower fritters with curry mayonnaise, they’re gorgeous. Both are part of 21 Hospitality Group and the partnership with the theatre sees a proportion of turnover invested back into the work of Live Theatre.

Lastly, slightly off the beaten track on the Ouseburn is Seven Stories, awarded the title National Centre for Children's Books the same week Newcastle council proposed to cut all its funding.  It has an excellent children’s bookshop and fascinating exhibitions – I’ve particularly enjoyed the Judith Kerr exhibition (nearly managed not to cry in public over the death of Mog the Cat) and the Puffin Books 70th anniversary. There’s a family friendly café and I’ll be honest – the buggy to cake ratio is far too high for me to set foot in there. Far better to go during school time when the place is empty and you have the dressing up box to yourself.

With the exception of the privately-owned Stand, all of these venues face cuts to funding. Whether or not it will be the proposed 100 per cent remains to be seen – you can have your say here. It is, however, certain that funding will be cut and these institutions need visitors – to their cafes, their galleries, their exhibitions, their plays, films and comedy. If we don’t use them we will definitely lose them. Next time you fancy lunch in town, remember that hidden behind the bright international coffee outlets there are some local cafes that could do with your help. They probably make a decent cup of tea, too.

Gingerbread lantern

A gingerbread lantern is the perfect Christmas decoration – it looks pretty AND you can it eat. What's not to like?

You will need:

For the gingerbread:

60g unsalted butter
50g dark brown sugar
1 tbsp golden syrup
125g plain flour
half teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
1 teaspoon ground ginger
4 coloured boiled sweets
For the royal icing:
1 egg white
250g icing sugar, plus extra to dust
OR a packet of royal icing (you can buy this in large supermarkets)

Gently melt the butter, sugar and syrup in a pan. Sift the flour, bicarbonate of soda and ground ginger together using a sieve, then stir in the butter mixture to make a stiff dough. If it won't quite come together, add a splash of water. Allow the dough to cool.

Heat the oven to 200C/fan 180C/gas 6.

Spread a piece of baking parchment on the work surface and roll out your dough on it. Doing this means you can lift the paper straight onto a baking sheet - otherwise if you try to pick up the pieces they'll go as twisty as your dad's face when you ask him for money

Roll the dough evenly to a thickness of about 5 mm and with a sharp knife cut four identical rectangles - I've made these each 10x6cm. Then cut out a heart shape from each rectangle. Make extra cookies with any leftover dough.

Take a boiled sweet and crush it, either with a rolling pin or by saying it is ugly and has no real friends. Put the crushed sweet inside the heart shape and bake for about 12 minutes until firm. While the biscuits are still hot, trim the edges with a sharp knife to make sure they are straight - this will help hugely when you come to stick them together. Allow the biscuits to cool completely.

You can decorate the biscuits by dusting them with icing sugar – put a spoonful of icing sugar in a sieve and tap it very gently with your finger so the sugar “snows” onto the biscuit. I made these patterns with a doily. Oh yeah, I'm the kind of cool kid who has paper doilies.

Mix your royal icing by sifting the icing sugar into the egg white and stirring, or if you have a packet of royal icing by following the instructions on the box. You should have a thick smooth icing.

Spoon some  royal icing into a piping bag, or you can use a freezer bag with the end snipped off. Pipe a thick line of icing along the edges to hold the four biscuits together. This royal icing pattern is called a snail trail (NO GIGGLING AT THE BACK)

It helps if you prop the sides in place with a jar until the icing sets. You can add more icing to the top and sides if you like.

Once it’s set, you can light up the lantern by placing it over a little candle – the room will smell of warm gingerbread. Happy Christmas!

Monday, 3 December 2012

Christmas pudding cakepops

It’s December so I can legitimately start pushing Christmas recipes at you. Here’s one that was featured in last week's Journal. If you’d like to read my life story and enjoy some photos that reduced my friends to tears of laughter, go to page 53 of this.   
Thanks to Iain Buist at Propix Photography for this image
To make 12 Christmas pudding cakepops you will need:

300g chocolate cake crumbs
about 60g chocolate buttercream (make this by beating together 20g butter, 40g icing sugar and 10g melted dark chocolate)
Chocolate for dipping e.g. Wilton candy melts, Silver Spoon chocolate buttons or Callebaut callets. If you’re using a normal off-the-shelf chocolate bar, grate it finely to help it melt. For Christmas puddings you will need about 150g of milk chocolate and 25g white chocolate.
Green and red florist paste and PME holly leaf cutter OR some ready made holly sprinkles
Cake board or other flat non-stick surface
Lollipop sticks

Start by making 24 little holly leaves and berries. Roll out the green florist paste finely and cut out a little leaf. Push the plunger to add veins on the leaf and leave this to dry. The PME holly leaf cutter is ideal and is sold in cake decorating shops. I got mine at Stangers Cookshop in Jesmond.

Roll the red florist paste into tiny little balls and leave these to dry. If you don’t have florist paste you can use marzipan or ready to roll icing and use food dye to colour it.

The other thing Stangers sell is ready-made holly sprinkles which are perfect and will save you the bother of the previous two paragraphs.

Now start making the cake pops. Mix the cake crumbs and the buttercream until the mixture forms a solid ball like pastry. Add the cake crumbs and buttercream together bit by bit so you can stop the mix from being too dry or too wet. 

Weigh out a 30g piece of the mix and roll it into a smooth ball, placing it onto the cake board. Repeat until all the mixture is used and you have a dozen little balls.

With a lollipop stick, make a hole no more than halfway into the ball. Don't push the stick right through the ball or you have hugely increased its chances of sliding off the stick.

Melt 20g of the milk chocolate. Dip the sticks into this and insert into the holes. This will help the cakepop to stay on the stick. Put the balls into the freezer for 20 minutes until firm but not frozen.

When the 20 minutes are nearly up, start melting the rest of the chocolate very gently in a small deep plastic bowl in the microwave (30% power for 30 secs at a time, stirring each time). Once the chocolate is all melted, it should be barely warm to the touch and pour in a sheet.

Remove the cakepops from the freezer. Take one and dip it into the chocolate. Turn it slowly, so that the chocolate covers a centimetre onto the stick, sealing the cake completely. The butter in the cake will fight to get out; by trapping it in completely, you will have it defeated. Tap the stick gently against the bowl so excess chocolate runs off, then leave to dry. 

Stand the cakepops to dry in a polystyrene block and don't allow them to touch each other. I find it helps to shout "NO KISSING"" at them. Try not to touch the chocolate or you'll get a big fat fingerprint on it. Instead, use a cocktail stick to burst any bubbles or cover a missed bit.

Once the milk chocolate has set, melt the white chocolate and dip the top of the cakepop into it. While the white chocolate is still tacky, carefully place two holly leaves and berries on it.

Hey, why not wrap yourself in Christmas ribbon and pose with your cakepops? Comedy gold.