Birthday Brunch – Corn Hotcakes

Corn hotcakes

It was Noel’s birthday last month, and so as with all good birthdays, we made a Plan. As the birthday itself fell on a Monday, we decided to celebrate with friends the day before, and invited some people round for a roast dinner, followed by watching the Patriots lose to the Ravens (as it turned out…), and playing silly games. On the day itself, we had tickets to see the Boston Bruins (ice hockey, for my non-American friends…) – my first time at a game! A late addition to the Plan was the last-minute arrival in Boston of one of our closest friends from the UK – posted to New York for six months with 24hrs notice. The obvious way for him to start this adventure was with a weekend in Boston with us beforehand – and so the whole weekend was a big celebration.

Unbeknownst to Noel, I had formulated another part of the Plan, which was to cook him a special birthday brunch before we went to the lunchtime Bruins game. Unfortunately, the downside of cooking roast beef for 12 people and drinking a lot of wine the night before was that my kitchen and my head both resembled a bomb site come Monday morning… So I decided to reschedule.

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This recipe is a recreation of a dish I ate while visiting my parents in Johannesburg. For those of you who don’t know it Jozi, as it’s known, is an amazing city – vibrant, exciting, with loads going on. I don’t need to tell you that it’s often best known around the world as a place of troubles – as a hot-bed of tragedy and brutality during the apartheid era, and more recently as a crime-riddled city not safe for tourists. I can’t pretend there isn’t truth in this, but the focus on Johannesburg’s problems doesn’t do the city justice. For while Johannesburg, and for that matter South Africa, still has a long way to go, you have only to look at how far it’s already come to know it will get there. Johannesburg is a city of contradictions and frustrations – unthinkable wealth alongside the most abject poverty, opportunity and promise alongside lingering prejudice. But for me, the thing which stands out about the city, and the country as a whole, is an overwhelming feeling of hope, and the desire to do better.

There are things about Johannesburg which make me smile, even as I sigh in frustration – such as the fact that you have to unplug the internet when there’s a big thunder storm (of which there are many). Talk to a local about this, and you will be met with a wry smile, a shrug of the shoulders, and the reminder that, after all, ‘T.I.A’ (This is Africa)… Quite frankly, it’s a place I never thought I would visit – but even in the relatively short time I’ve known it, it’s a place I have come to love and count as a second home.

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And this is before I even begin to talk about the food. I’ve eaten some of the best meals in my life in South Africa, and any trip there is preceded, weeks before arrival, by detailed plans of what and where we are going to eat while we’re there. It is a meat-lover’s paradise – beautiful steak, for one thing, but also more unusual meats: ostrich, kudu, impala… I could go on. From fine dining to cafe eating – Johannesburg has it all.

Which brings me to this post. One of my favourite places to go in Johannesburg is 44 Stanley – a group of old industrial buildings which have been redeveloped and now house restaurants, cafes, and small boutiques. We visit regularly – for the wonderful food, shopping and people watching. When it comes to food, you are spoilt for choice – I have had wonderful meals at the Salvationcafe and the beautiful Il Giardino Degli Ulivi, to name but two. On my most recent visit, my mum and I had brunch at Vovo Telo – an artisan bakery and restaurant. I had the most amazing corn hotcakes – poached eggs on a corn hotcake, with crispy coppa ham, roasted tomatoes, rocket and pesto. It was so simple, but yet so delicious, I was desperate to try to recreate it – and Noel’s belated birthday brunch was the perfect opportunity.

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For my version, I used Bill Granger’s Sweetcorn Fritters with Avocado Salsa recipe (without the salsa) for the hotcakes – I halved the recipe and made four slightly larger cakes (rather than six smaller ones), which was fine for two of us. I used frozen sweetcorn, and substituted basil for cilantro. In terms of the original dish – I used streaky bacon rather than coppa as I had it in the fridge – I think either works equally well. Noel is not the biggest fan of roasted tomatoes, so I left those out – I don’t think the dish suffered for it. I also substituted a drizzle of this incredible truffle balsamic vinegar for the basil pesto, which was amazing!! If you don’t have pesto to hand, a small drizzle of straightforward balsamic vinegar would also be nice.

Poaching eggs is something I’ve discovered only fairly recently – I’ve always been a big fussy when it comes to eggs, but I am starting to see the light and try new ways of cooking them. There are so many different ways of poaching an egg – I used Felicity Cloake’s version, and I was happy with the results.

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Corn hotcakes with poached eggs and bacon 
Serves 2

For the hotcakes:

  • 1 1/3 cups sweetcorn
  • 1/2 small red onion, chopped
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 cup chopped basil leaves
  • 1/2 cup plain/all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • oil (for shallow frying)
  • 6 rashers streaky bacon
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 handfuls of peppery salad leaves (such as watercress or rocket)
  • Basil pesto or balsamic vinegar (to serve)

Broil or grill the bacon until it’s cooked to your liking. Once it is cooked, remove from the broiler/grill and heat the oven to 120C/250F. Put the bacon in the oven to keep warm

While the bacon is cooking, start preparing the hotcakes. Place one cup of the sweetcorn in the bowl of a food processor. Put the remaining kernels in a bowl and cover with warm water to allow them to defrost slightly. Add the onion, egg, basil, flour and baking powder to the food processor, and season with salt and pepper. Process until the mixture is combined. Transfer to a bowl and stir in the remaining whole corn kernels.

Heat 1 tbsp oil in a frying pan over a medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, drop 2 – 3 tablespoons of the mix per cake into the pan and cook in batches for one minute on each side. Drain on paper towels, and keep warm in the oven while you cook the other cakes. Once all cakes are cooked and in the oven, bring a medium pan of generously salted water to the boil. Crack the remaining eggs into a small jug, bowl or mug (you can do this two at a time). When the water is boiling, stir vigorously with a balloon whisk to create a whirlpool. Slip two eggs (one at a time) into the centre of the whirlpool. Reduce the heat to low, and cook for three minutes. Remove the eggs with a slotted spoon, and drain on kitchen paper. Repeat for the remaining two eggs.

Arrange the salad leaves on two plates, and top with the hotcakes. Place an egg on top of each hotcake, and arrange the bacon around the plate. Season with salt and pepper, and drizzle over pesto and/or balsamic vinegar.

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