Wednesday 21 October 2015

Grana Padano Top Chef Blogger Competition

Image credits: Nick Hallen, reproduced with kind permission from Grana Padano

I still feel like pinching myself to make sure I haven't dreamt all about it, but it must be true. Last Saturday I was crowned the winner of the Grana Padano Top Chef Blogger Competition. And to think that I almost didn't go. Thankfully, my family and friends were very supportive and literally pushed me out of the house. Just the day before I moaned on Facebook on how terrified I was of going to London on my own. And what if I make a complete mess of my cooking. I decided that if I fail completely, I'd still take lots of photos and make a funny post on How I failed to impress the Italian chef.
It's not the first time I have been invited to an event in London, but until then I refused to go. I was also worried about how my husband would cope with our two guys without me.
I'm still a bit in a haze. It was either my nerves or prosecco that affected my memory.

To get to Venturi's Table before 10.15am, I had to get up at some ungodly hour  very early to catch a bus to Oxford and then a coach to London, but thankfully at that hour the traffic wasn't too bad, and I was the first of the participants to arrive there.
The ladies met me with lovely smiles and kind words, offered me a cup of coffee and pastries and reassured me. I was still very nervous and most likely blabbed some gibberish.

There was an amazing huge Grana Padano on the table. I haven't seen a cheese this size ever before.

Image credits: Nick Hallen, reproduced with kind permission from Grana Padano

Then the other bloggers started to arrive: Jo from Simply Being Mum, Frank from Frank About Food and Federica from Pasta Bites.
Francesco Mazzei, celebrity Italian chef, and Elisabetta Serraiotto, marketing manager for Grana Padano, were to be our judges.
We had two hours to cook one sweet and one savoury dish for the competition. Both dishes had to include Grana Padano.
All the participants received a list of ingredients available at the contest as well as the list of equipment. We were allowed to bring some extra ingredients with us, if we wanted.
While I set my mind on cooking a ricotta cake with Grana as my sweet dish, I had no idea on what I was going to cook as my savoury dish. I had a hectic day before, even managed to help my older niece with an essay, and went to bed with an ipad, trying to get some inspiration for a savoury dish. I thought if anything I'd just put all the things together in the roasting tin, grate cheese over and hope for the better.
My personal challenge was not to get lost in London and not to make a complete mess of my cooking.

What did we have?
Extra virgin olive oil, butter, Grana Padano Riserva, Grana Padano 15-18, flour, mixed herbs, onion, sugar, milk, celeriac, fennel, globe artichoke, parsnip, polenta, apple, figs, hazelnuts, chicken thighs, lamb cutlets, eggs, salt and pepper.

Ingredients at my cooking station

I brought with me my old-ish bundt cake tin, cake release spray, caster sugar for the cake, a teaspoon of baking powder, pine nuts, orange, vanilla essence and icing sugar.

I started with the ricotta cake, grating, mixing and pretending I knew what I was doing, all the time feeling like a jelly inside.
In the meantime our photographer kept taking one zillion photos of every step. It did make me feel quite self-conscious. I would never be able to go on a TV cooking show exactly for that reason.
Nick is a very nice guy, but I am not used to having my photos taken non-stop (and seeing all the images of myself with a double chin I realised I really need to go on a diet. I also should know better than to pull faces at my age, shouldn't I?! My younger son laughed his socks off on seeing some of my photos).
Once the cake tin was safely chucked into the oven, I started cooking my savoury dish. I didn't want to cook lamb, as it's not my forte. I often overcook red meat, as I don't like it rare. So, chicken it is. To make it taste more Italian, I opted for cooking it with a freshly made pesto sauce.
I whizzed some fresh pesto, covered the chicken things with it, and left some for later.
I also love roast fennel. I cook it very often, with the other vegetables or on its own, with just a bit of good olive oil and herbs. As a side dish for the chicken, I cooked roast fennel and parsnip, with lots of olive oil, grated Grana Padano and pine nuts. I added the pine nuts later. In fact, I managed to burn the first batch of pine nuts as I got distracted chatting, and when I got them out of the oven, they were verrrry brown. Thankfully, I had some more left in the pack, and having toasted them, added them to the dish once the vegetables were cooked.

Image credits: Nick Hallen, courtesy of Grana Padano

Roast fennel & parsnip with Grana + chicken with pesto sauce (image credits - Nick Hallen)

Our hosts offered us tea and coffee, as well as prosecco. When I got my glass, I added a bit to the roast vegetables when they were cooking. I do enjoy prosecco. My favourite cocktail is Bellini (prosecco + peach juice).
Francesco Mazzei was a total charmer. He showed us how to prepare a simple artichoke salad. I often buy artichokes in oil (in jars), and even once attempted to cook some from scratch, but found it a real faffle. Francesco demonstrated how to slice it in an easy and quick way.
His salad of a fresh artichoke, green apple, Grana Padano and crushed hazelnuts with a simple dressing of olive oil and lemon juice was light, pure and tasty.

What did my fellow bloggers cook? Jo decided upon an English-Italian marriage of flavours and textures. She cooked a twist on a traditional Sunday roast. She also added some cute polenta and cheese whirls and Yorkshire puddings. Give me a plateful any time!
Both Federica and Frank cooked lamb, with different side dishes. Frank's creamy celeriac gratin was melt-in-the-mouth.

Judging in progress (image credits: Nick Hallen, courtesy of Grana Padano)

Federica's dessert was a marvellous mascarpone mousse in a crispy basket with Grana. It looked great and tasted delightful. Frank's polenta cake with caramelised apples was splendid too. I did toy with an idea of baking a polenta cake as well before I opted for a ricotta cake. Glad I didn't have to compete with his polenta cake version.
Jo made a very clever twist on a crumble, with apples and figs. As she was cooking at my nearest station, I could smell all the beautiful aromas coming from her fruit. Alas, my photo of her crumble turned out to be blurred, so I am not posting it. To see it and also enter a giveaway to win some Grana Padano goodies including the best cheese grater ever, visit Simply Being Mum.

Mascarpone mousse and polenta cake

My ricotta cake with Grana Padano was basically a family recipe, passed onto me by my husband's aunt. I have adapted it for the competition, and I think the flavours worked really well.

Ricotta cake with Grana Padano: image credits - Nick Hallen
I never in a million years would have expected to win. I thought my cooking was quite simple and not Masterchefy at all.
After the judges tasted all the dishes they talked through all the recipes. When they announced the winner, I was completely speechless.
And my prize is a one to one cooking class with Francesco Mazzei, a year's supply of Grana Padano, a signed copy of Francesco's new recipe book and a selection of Grana Padano goodies.
It was an amazing experience for me. I enjoyed meeting new people and learning new things. I might not be in a hurry to repeat a trip to London any time soon, but I might be less scared to travel on my own next time.

Thank you to organisers and hosts of Grana Padano Top Chef Blogger Competition!

Image credits: Nick Hallen

Image credits: Nick Hallen


  1. Looking forward to hearing all about your cooking session now - so glad you went :)

    1. They told me it won't be until 2016, as the chef is busy with his newly opened restaurant and the launch of his new book, which is fine by me. Spring might be better for travelling anyway

  2. What a wonderful day, beautiful photos, fantastic dishes and a brilliant result. Very well done!

    1. Thank you Jane! I'm so glad I went and met everyone, a day of discoveries

  3. I am so proud of you for overcoming your fears and getting there in the first place. That was a win in itself. But to win the event was just wonderful news, made the stress worth while. Well done xxx

    1. Thank you Mary! Getting to London was a bit of a trial, I am proud of myself for travelling by myself. It was certainly worth it.

  4. A HUGE BIG FAT well done Galina! I am SO pleased for you! FAB news and you look so calm in the photos too! Karen xxxx

    1. Thank you Karen! I wasn't calm at all, my knees were almost trembling, lol

  5. So good to meet you and well done! Here's my tale of the day :)

    1. Thank you Federica! It's wonderful to read everyone's accounts, as we didn't have a chance to chat very much there, too much pressure the event

  6. Well done! It looks like you had a lovely day. So glad you went