Chocolate Layer Cake with Fig Jam & Mascarpone, and a Pep Talk for all Aspiring Photographers Out There

“Success is the ability to go from one failure to the other with no loss of enthusiasm.”
~ Winston Churchill

When I was in art school, I used to be amongst those regarded as the most gifted. But I was 
always scared of getting my drawings wrong, never daring to fill in that extra shadow, thinking constantly ‘what if I ruin it?’
So, in spite of being amongst the first, I ended up lagging behind the rest of those who knew that done was better than perfect. I was an eternal Leonardo Da vinci, always stepping back to admire my unfinished work, lest a sign more on the paper could ruin it.
On graduation day, my teacher looked at me with longing eyes and said:
“Valentina, you were a great student. But you only gave me 15 percent of what you could have.”
That was my wake up call.

Chocolate Layer Cake with Fig Jam & Mascarpone, and a Pep Talk for all Aspiring Photographers Out There | Hortus Natural CookingChocolate Layer Cake with Fig Jam & Mascarpone, and a Pep Talk for all Aspiring Photographers Out There | Hortus Natural Cooking

These days, Christiann Koepke and I are hosting our very first online workshop. Those who sign up all have their own struggles – truth is, no matter the level, we all do, but it always baffles me how keen every one of the attendees is to underline their challenges and difficulties, how bad and ashamed they are of the very fact that they are beginners – as to justify the lack of an ability that they can barely see in a distant horizon, but that they feel they should possess already.
But, when we become so scared to face their difficulties to the point of almost giving up, I see my art-school-time self again. I see the artist stepping back to admire their own work without going further. 

So why, why do we not improve?
Because we are afraid to fail.

As kids, we are not scared of running around and falling. And we are not because we’re not aware of the risk. Our goals shine too bright, blinding our perception of struggle.

So if you know the fall isn’t going kill us, what do we have to lose? What do we fear? What if we fail?
In the creative process, failure is needed for improvement. Failure is paramount for improvement. Failure teaches you something. In fact, every time you complain your time was wasted over pictures that did not turn outright, well, that is actually time invested. It is time invested for your own improvement, to make you understand where you went wrong and where you can do better the next time.

In the creative process, the biggest waste of time is time you used for fearing you’ll do something wrong, as doing nothing gives you nothing in return for your future – whereas failure does.

Chocolate Layer Cake with Fig Jam & Mascarpone, and a Pep Talk for all Aspiring Photographers Out There | Hortus Natural CookingChocolate Layer Cake with Fig Jam & Mascarpone, and a Pep Talk for all Aspiring Photographers Out There | Hortus Natural CookingChocolate Layer Cake with Fig Jam & Mascarpone, and a Pep Talk for all Aspiring Photographers Out There | Hortus Natural Cooking

Only now I realize how necessary those fears and failures were for my improvement. And the fact that I’ve been chosen as a teacher gives me the responsibility to teach exactly what my teacher taught me back then: that there is only so much I can teach. 90% of what we learn we learn on your own, through trial and error.

Ultimately, we can decide to give up. But deciding to give up is our responsibility, as is our responsibility to decide to push through and see where our real limits are. It is our responsibility to accept that we are not perfect, but constantly changing and constantly responsible for our own improvement.

So do go out there. Do your thing, fail and inspire the world. Be that kid who scratches his knees because it does not recognize the pain of the fall. Be that kid and play with your challenges, replacing fear with excitement.
There is a genius within you waiting to be unleashed. Let it out, and don’t be scared.
The best things you’ll learn, you’ll learn by tinkering with your failures. 

Chocolate Layer Cake with Fig Jam & Mascarpone, and a Pep Talk for all Aspiring Photographers Out There | Hortus Natural CookingChocolate Layer Cake with Fig Jam & Mascarpone, and a Pep Talk for all Aspiring Photographers Out There | Hortus Natural Cooking

When I decided that it was time to stop fearing that I might not be good enough, that chances were that a whole afternoon of work could go down the drain, and another one after that, and another; and when i decided to just embrace all the frustration and see failure as an investment for my improvement, this blog was born. And it was the best decision ever.
I still remember my first photos, with my 550D and a 50mm 1.8 bought at B&H. I still remember the name tag on the vest of the short, chubby guy who wrapped that lens I was so excited about, which read ‘Salomon’. I remember how, in a moment when I thought that my photos were a little too fancy or dark for blogging, I won the Saveur award for best new voice in 2014. And now we are at it again.
I am a finalist for this year’s Saveur awards in the photography category!
So if you like my work, and are curious to see how it will develop and want to support me, head over to the Saveur site and cast a vote here (and head over to Betty’s blog to read about some pasta we made together, and how we got the email for the nominations at the same time!)

SO of course, some cake baking was in order.
This is my very first cake, so, just to remain on topic, there was a lot of failure involved. First, I trie to make it vegan and gluten-free. Didn’t work. Then I tried to see if I could keep it vegan. Didn’t work (even though Gena Hamshaw’s recipe for chocolate vegan cake is an absolute killer and so so good), so I just decided to do he classic thing the old fashioned way. It’s cake, after all. Some things are just meant to stay they way they are. At least, until I improve enough at this vegan/GF baking thing.

The frosting is made with merengue, because I hate buttercream with a passion and whipped cream would not have held its shape long enough to withstand the shooting. But, if you do not want to use just plain meringue, I suggest using whipped cream or whipped coconut cream.
Figs are in season and so, so pretty, and the jam is so good with chocolate cake.
A special shoutout goes to Style Sweet Ca. and Historias del Ciervos (a fellow finalist!), who definitely provided tons of inspiration and are crazy good at cakes.
And a big shoutout to Zaira, who is the best photographer I know even though she’s not in the list. Hopefully the next cake will be even better!

Thank you all for believing in me so far. I would have never done it with your support – every single one of you who stumbled on my photographs has been an absolute blessing.

Chocolate Layer Cake with Fig Jam & Mascarpone, and a Pep Talk for all Aspiring Photographers Out There
Makes a 2 layer 18 cm / 7" cake
Recipe type: Dessert
  • 5 eggs
  • 150g sugar
  • 80g butter, softened and cut into pieces
  • 150g cake flour
  • 70g potato starch
  • 30g cocoa powder (I used Dutch-processed)
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 2 tablespoons rum (or milk)
  • 50g dark chocolate, melted
  • 4 organic, pasteurized egg whites
  • 200g powdered sugar
  • (NOTE: if you do not want to use meringue, use 1 cup whipped cream instead)
  • 250g mascarpone cheese
  • 1 cup fig jam
  • 7-8 fresh figs
  1. To make the cake base, start by separating the yolks from the whites. Add the whites to a glass or steel bowl and set aside, and add the yolks to a large bowl. Add the sugar, and start beating them until pale and frothy. Beat in the butter until creamy.
  2. Sift in the flour, starch, and cocoa powder, folding them in with a spatula. Add the baking powder and rum or milk, along with the melted chocolate. mix everything well.
  3. Lastly, beat the egg whites until stiff peaks form, and fold them into the batter with a downward-upward circling motion.
  4. Preheat the oven to 350 F˚ / 180 C˚.
  5. Grease and flour two 7 inch springform pans, and divide the batter among them evenly. Bake for 5 minutes, then turn down the oven to 340 F˚ / 170 C˚. Bake for further 40 - 45 minutes, depending on your oven. Check the cake with a skewer to make sure it is cooked through. Let cool completely, then very carefully cut each cake in half.
  6. The cakes will probably dome. In that case, cut the dome off.
  1. Beat the egg whites until fluffy, then start adding the sugar a heaping tablespoonful at a time, until the merengue turns glossy and forms stiff peaks that fold onto themselves.
  1. Tip the mascarpone into a bowl, add half the merengue, and beat them together with a whisk until creamy. Set the rest of the meringue in the fridge for frosting later. Slice 4 of the figs lengthwise.
  2. Position the bottom cut half of the cake on a plate, and spread two heaping tablespoonfuls of jam to cover the bottom, leaving about ¼ inch from the edge. Add ⅓ of the mascarpone cream and spread it the same way, then add some fig slices. Top with the top half, and repeat until you finish all the layers.
  3. Ice the cake with the remaining merengue, using a spatula (I decided to keep it rustic). Decorate the cake with the remaining figs and some pretty flowers.

Chocolate Layer Cake with Fig Jam & Mascarpone, and a Pep Talk for all Aspiring Photographers Out There | Hortus Natural Cooking

  1. Loved reading this post. You are absolutely right, being able to finish something and put yourself out there is a skill as much as the talent itself.

    My mum, from a young age, taught me to always just finish, not worry if it was good, not to procrastinate over the little details, just get it done, learn from it and hand it in. I was a perfectionist as a little girl but i quickly forgot this and although I wish I was a bit more of a perfectionist now, I have never, ever, once been embarrassed about my work. And I had reason to, LOOK AT THESE PHOTOS I POSTED ON THE INTERNET Was I crazy? I knew they were bad, and they ARE bad, but I didn’t care anyway. I think it’s kind of funny now. Art, creativity and photography etc does not come naturally to me, I was gifted with intelligence of a different type, I was one of the youngest females to finish a construction management degree and I have done really well in that field and although I do enjoy it, I enjoy photography more.

    I am still harsh on my work but I am never afraid to fail and although I will never be you or Zaira (you are both artists after all), I can be very very good because I practice every single day and I will not stop until I am the absolute best photographer I can be.

    I love the cake, I have experimented SO MUCH with gluten, sugar free and vegan baking and it can be so tough to master, some things are best left as they should be. You don’t eat cake every day anyway… unless you’re a food blogger of course hahaha. The photos are just stunning, the light, florals, composition – everything is perfect. I can’t believe you turned those flowers into this beautiful arrangement here. Amazing! My favourite is the aftermath photo – the beauty is in the messiness. You have almost inspired me to get up early to go to the farmers market to get flowers for the cake I am doing for a special post of SEPTEMBER ONE.


    • Anisa, thank you so much for sharing your story and the link to your rice pudding, ha! But just to be clear, your blog is GREAT. You’re seriously so good. And I am totally looking forward to that September 1st post… :D

  2. I always finish my work, even if I’m not happy with it at all – hi, debut cookbook, I think you’re awful and I would like to burn you….
    But I also think that I’m going to hate every day something I created a few weeks ago. I browse my blog, I look at the shots of 3 posts ago and I think “whaaaat?”. I have a difficult taste for food photography and I try to achieve that goal, even if I don’t have the means right now, as props, boards and so on for instance. But I take the risk. And I think that hating what I’ve done one month ago it’s only a good sign.
    Finger crossed for the Saveur, you and Betty both deserve the win <3

    • Ahahahah you’re already at the phase where you hate it?! Your work keeps getting better and better, I can see it clearly, so try not to hate it too much ;)

    • Unfortunately I get bored easily. And when I get bored of something, I start hating it – see weird dyed hair, blog graphic, etc etc… :P By the way, I’m sure that the work on the book is helping me a lot with the blog now. Without it I won’t surely be at this point ^_^

  3. I wholeheartedly agree with what you wrote. My sister and I have been fiddling with photography going on a couple years now, but have just recently started putting our work out there. She does self portraiture and I, food. She’s always telling me the same thing, how we should embrace our failures as being something that helps improve ourselves and our technique. I’m also always having to remind myself I am where I am, even when I don’t necessarily like where I’m at. But, I will continue to strive to be where I want to be and beyond, while failing miserably on the way. It’s a never ending journey!
    The cake looks beautiful! I just bought figs today and was planning on baking a chocolate cake to go with them.
    And that’s such great news about the nomination! You certainly deserve it. I’ve always admired and enjoyed your work!

    • Hello Emily, thank you so much for the compliments and for your comment. I didn’t know your blog, but wow, girl! Makes me want to stuff my face with everything. That bourbon ice cream – damn!
      But yes, I think that those who eventually do the best job are the ones who never gave up even when they felt their work was total crap.
      Keep up the good work!

  4. Thank you so much for this pep talk. I’ve not been blogging much, and it’s so intimidating sometimes to see people such as yourself and their absolutely beautiful photography. It’s so useful to hear this advice from people whose work I admire, that there’s only one way to get better and that’s to keep going.

    Congrats so much on the Saveur nod, you absolutely deserve it.

    • Thank you so much! The truth is that all of us, independently of how good we are, are intimidated by someone we think is better, I think. Personally, I get inspired by those I admire, but I only compare myself with myself. You do you :)

  5. Dear Valentina, thank you for these beautiful, beautiful photos and encouraging words that all of us food bloggers/photographers need to hear from time to time! I am very critical of my own work and need to remind myself often that everybody started somewhere and that improvement takes time. It is hard sometimes when you have a clear vision in your head of what you want to create but at the same time there are no shortcuts, you need that time, that work, those failures to get where you eventually want to be…
    Your work is amazing and congratulations on this great achievement of becoming a Saveur awards finalist, I will be voting for you!

    • Hey Lili! Well, I think that having a vision is already a bigger accomplishment than most might thing. Being critical of our work is just our way to improve :) Thank you so much for your sweet comments and for your vote!

  6. Ciao, Valentina! I just wrote you a message so I don’t want to repeat myself. If you don’t see it here it’s because I mistakenly put it on Zaira’s blog :-( She’ll probably get a chuckle out of it. Just let me say that your post comes at just the right time and I feel like it was meant for me. Congratulations! I did submit your name initially and I know other fans did too. Buona giornata!!

    • Ciao Marisa! Actually I received no message from you…I want to know what it was! Post it again if you like :) Thank you so, so much for your constant support!

  7. Oh dear Valentina, you constantly inspire me and amaze me. This is such a great post, and encouraging for all the photographers out there – not just budding photographers! I identify with this so much – when I took painting courses, I used to use the tiniest brush, and try to get every detail correct. One day, my art professor came up to me and he took my brushes away. He squeezed huge blogs of paint onto my palette, and he gave me a rectangle chunk of cardboard. Today, he said, use this, and only this. so I painted. I found myself more drawn to the light, to the shapes and colors than being hung up on getting every detail right. And that was my life changing moment. Hopefully see you soon!

    • Aw Betty! Thank you for sharing this!! I’m actually super happy to know you had a ‘aha’ moment too. I can tell that your photography gets a lot of inspiration from painting :)
      See you soon for sure <3

  8. I love, LOVE that your photography is like a chiaroscuro painting, it makes it seem like it’s something that has timelessness to it, and the attention to detail is incredible.

    And into this combo of fig and chocolate, you don’t see those paired quite often but I suspect it would be lovely!

  9. WOW!!!! I don’t know what is more beautiful – these images or your words? This post really resonated with me, especially after having a day where nothing seems to go right and my photos were looking tired and boring. I need to push myself, and this post has really inspired me! Lovely cake, too. Thank you for the shout-out xoxo

  10. Ah, Dear Valentina,

    You could definitely be writing about me there! It’s something that I’ve been finding out out this year, that my quest for perfectionism (I had never even realised that I was a perfectionist until I did some career coaching a few weeks ago and it came out of that, what a revelation. And I apply it across ALL aspects of my life – it’s quite exhausting and, of course, I never achieve it.) is stopping me from doing things – from finishing things and even from starting things. But it’s odd because alongside that I do push myself and I do try things and I do things I am not comfortable with and my friends laugh at me because of the sheer breadth of things I try. But you’re right, the desire to get it ‘right’ and the fear of not doing that are actually crippling and get in the way of greatness but even more than that, they get in the way of enjoyment. I just sent you another photo and, unlike all the others where the ‘journey’ was just painful, I worried not about the result and concentrated instead on the doing and I actually ended up with a shot that I’m really happy with. It’s always good to read about what it has taken those that you admire to get to where they are.

    Anyway, I adore your photographs and your blog – it is a pure pleasure to spend time immersed in it. I’m super happy that you’re up for an award again and will be voting several times for you.

    Thank you for taking the time and care to share these thoughts with us.

  11. Oh yeh, and fingers crossed that you do another Gradara workshop like the one you did earlier this year that I couldn’t make coz I’ll be there in a flash! It will be so wonderful to soak up some of your amazing grace, elegance, and thoughfulness in person. And to eat great food, bien sur.

  12. You’re pictures are always so inspiring!!! I wish I had your kind of skills, lady. I think today was the day I needed a photo pep-talk. So much self doubt the last few nights. Congrats on the nomination, I’m routing for you <3

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  14. Huge congratulations Valentina! Your photography is stunning – I especially love the photo of the bowl of dripping, melted dark chocolate, whisked propped up. Have also loved seeing all the photographs of your Italy workshop over at Betty’s blog this morning – so so gorgeous, and it looked like it was a huge success.
    I recently listened to a TED radio hour podcast called ‘ Failure is an option’ – thought it was so true, and failure is something that is always kind of hidden away, or disguised – when really it is just room for improvement. Hope you had a lovely weekend!

  15. Congratulations Valentina on the nomination! Your photos are amazing. As a fellow blogger I also struggle with failure and perfection. After a whole day of shooting I always feel like I could have done better and then beat myself up for not being as good. This post could not have come at a better time for me. Thank you

  16. I made this cake today for my sons 14th birthday. It didn’t look quite like the photos, but tasted great. Also used home made mixed berry jam and decorated with berries. Thanks Valentina – this seemed like advanced baking for me, but great recipe and easy enough to follow!