Birthday Card

capturing a personality


Last year, you read about our grandson’s 6th birthday celebration in “Volcano Cake.”

 A year has passed and we were amused at the changes and what did not. He makes his own clothing choices and the shark shirt reappeared, surprisingly it still fits. GMa combed his hair and he refashioned it, messy and spikey is the look as in these photographs of opening the furry birthday card (“The Grinch” was the cake theme).

I used a Canon EF 50mm f/1.2L USM lens, tilted the flash to bounce off the ceiling to gently brighten his face. For the memories we left the kitchen “as is” in the midst of cake baking, decoration.

View a larger version of each photograph by clicking twice. First to open a page, a second click on the image will yield the larger version.

Copyright 2018 All Rights Reserved Michael Stephen Wills

Leprechaun Home Invasion

Saint Patrick Day Family Humor

In a previous posting we hiked through the only European Union Leprechaun Preserve on Slieve Foy above Carlingford, County Louth, Ireland.


This home was lower on the mountain, on the way to town.

Entrance with Calla Lilies, Carlingford
Caring touches to a well tended home entrance along the Tain Way, Carlingford, County Louth, Ireland.

You will not find Calla Lilies thriving in front yards here in Ithaca, New York (43 degrees north latitude) as they do in the Temperate Oceanic Climate of Ireland, pictured in Carlingford on a June day.  At 54 degrees these Calla Lilies are growing at a latitude 800 miles north of Ithaca, in the middle of Quebec Province, Canada.

In spite of this, here in Ithaca we keep March 17th, Saint Patrick’s Day, warm.  In the home of our three grandchildren (3, 4 and 6 years old) who live in Ithaca they celebrate by playing tricks on Leprechauns.

This year, we visited Saint Patrick’s Day eve and reviewed their bag of tricks with the Leprechaun in Chief, their Mom.  In response, the Leprechauns leave them letters to make it clear the tricks did not work.  On top of this, the children have big laughs on the tricks played in return.  A favorite is finding their socks taped all over the mirror.

Mom pulled out a few of the Leprechaun letters and we read them for the children to great laughter as they remembered tricks of previous years.  Afterwards, when alone with Mom, Pam and I recalled the tradition in Chicago, to color the river green (a well as green milkshakes, etc), and suggested to the Leprechaun in Chief to put green food color in the toilet.  It was a winning idea.

The next morning Mom, on hearing the toilet flushed repeatedly, found her 4 year old daughter totally appalled.  “The Leprechauns used our toilet (and did not flush).  YUUUUKKKK.”  She then ran upstairs hoping for a “clean” bathroom up there.  Well, green milkshakes are off the menu.

Copyright 2018 Michael Stephen Wills All Rights Reserved.

Volcano Cake

a birthday adventure

Birthday celebrations are part of Pam’s special relationship with those of our twelve grandchildren who live close by.  Preparations begin with design discussions months before the event, commonly around a sibling’s earlier birthday.  Daryoush is fascinated by dinosaurs, exotic animals and….volcanoes, “Make me a volcano cake, grandmother”, he told Pam just after his fifth birthday one year ago.

We started design discussions and experimentation late September 2017 for Daryoush’s late November sixth birthday party.  Years ago, for grandson Taj, we did a Galapagos cake with a volcano powered by “pop rocks.”  It gave us a powerful, boiling eruption.  Pam called around and found it available, brought home a few packs and “pop rocks” flopped.  The formulation was changed and now fizzles.  Pam also came up empty for Galapagos themed figures, “Rain Forest” is now the thing.

On the day of his party, Daryoush’s father dropped him off three hours before the event to be part of his cake’s creation.  We started with opening his Rain Forest themed presents.

Click on an image to enlarge.

There were three wrapped gifts in jungle themed paper:

  • Palm Trees
  • Rain Forest animal figures
  • A Rain Forest book.  Luckily, many of the animal figures were featured in the book we had fun making the matches.


Daryoush organized his materials, the trees, animals, candy sharks, chocolate candy coated rocks.  He sorted the rocks into red/orange/yellow flaming boulders and the simply delicious ones.  He sampled quite a few after we washed his hands and rewashed after putting fingers in his mouth, not more than 25% of the time, enough to make the point.

Just off frame, to the right, are a yellow sheet cake, to support the rain forest tableau, and the Rice Krispy treat volcano cone.

Daryoush wore an apron, just like GMa.


Pam settled on her standby Rice Krispy treat recipe, from the box, for the volcano cone structure wrapped around two equally sized tall plastic tumblers one inside the other to form the volcanic chamber where the magic happens.  We used two green tumblers at hand, red is a better color.

Pam favors a “killer” chocolate, mocha butter cream icing.  To start she applied it with a pastry bag and smallish star tip, forming the volcano surface.  The effect was not quite right and took too much time.  She then regrouped with the largest star tip and formed parallel strips, top to bottom, with empty triangles along the bottom margin.  The triangles were then filled in with strips.

The effect is similar to the “Devils Tower” model Roy Neary made from mashed potatoes in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”


Next came dramatic red and yellow lava streams.  Pam used white chocolate “melting” discs, melting them in the microwave in 30 second bursts, stirring in between.  It took three rounds for a smooth melt.  Daryoush participated with a toothpick to make finished touches to enhance a realistic effect.  He had a habit of popping the stick in his mouth, each time I supplied him with a fresh toothpick.

One mistake we made was to tweak the melted white chocolate with food coloring.  We had orange discs, intending to make a more red we added the color.  Immediately, the melt consistency congealed into a mass.  We recovered by forming orange lava bombs for the base.

A long time favorite material for Pam are “brownie bits.”  Here Daryoush is crumbling the cakes and applying volcanic ash to the base.  The whole brownies made perfect boulders for the Rain Forest tableau.

Our cake modeled the Arenal Volcano of Costa Rica with that country’s Lake Arenal and rain forest.  To form the lake Pam outlined the form in blue buttercream icing, covered with dark blue cake decorating gel.  Here is Daryoush applying the gel.  Using a spatula, Pam formed the glistening water effect by artfully spreading the gel.

Pam finished the tableau base with green and white buttercream frosting, the white coated with a mixture of brown and palm sugars to simulate earth/sand.

Daryoush’s imagination flourished when he applied his figures and candy.  Sharks populate the fresh water lake, animals wander the rain forest.  Boulders and rock abound.

Pam also made a set of chocolate gluten free cupcakes with chocolate mocha buttercream icing.  Daryoush decorated each cupcake with a large “cherry” and smaller multicolored sprinkles.  You can see the cupcakes in the birthday party shots.

For these photographs I used a Canon EOS1 Mark  III camera body fitted with the 50mm EF 1:1.2 L USM lens, and 600EX-RT Speedlite flash.  Here I tamped the f-stop down to 1.2 for the beautiful bokh possible with this lens.  Most shots were at f5.6 to keep the shooting simple.


The effect of Daryoush arriving to greet his assembled friends with a volcano was electic. What fun. Here is the group wishing their friend a happy birthday.


Pam came up with the magic volcano eruption by visiting the business of my former coworker, Bruce Lane’s Purity Ice Cream. Bruce graciously demonstrated to Pam how to make the effect using dry ice and hot water.  I purchased two pounds of dry ice an hour before the party, transported it in a cooler and open car windows to the party and kept it in the car until just before the cake cutting/birthday song.  For the cake we only needed a handful of dry ice and some water. You can see the effect and reactions of children in the photos.

Later, Pam and I experimented with the full drama possible using the leftover dry ice and boiling water. This will NOT work for small children and an enclosed space, since dry ice is frozen carbon dioxide that sublimates to the gaseous form. The small quantity used for the party amazed the children.



A Day at Iron Kettle Farm

One Saturday of October 2012 we enjoyed this last outing with my mother Catherine Ann Wills.  She passed away June 2013 at the age of 90 years.  We miss you, Mom.

A display of large pumpkins near the entrance to the Iron Kettle Farm.

Grand Entrance Display

Enter…if you dare….Corn Mazes are popular tourist attractions and are not simply corn fields. The plantings must be made later, planted thinner and fertilized less than those used for crops.


These small, inedible squash, once dried and hollowed out, become gourds. The plant is in the Cucurbitaceae family of the genus Lagenaria. The squash on this table are too small for anything but displays and decorations, such as centerpieces. Great fun and make and enjoy.

Ornamental Squash / Gourds

These ornamental squash, also know as cucurbita are not are large enough for use as food. When dried, will last a long time.

Ornamental Squash / Gourds

Take your pick of pumpkins….

Take your pick

…the pumpkins are sorted by size and price.

If you enjoy my work….click this link for my OnLine gallery. Your support is appreciated. Thank You.

The pumpkins are sorted....
We chose small to medium sized pumpkins.

Our choice.....
Thankfully, the trees kept to their usual habits and did not talk to us today.

Thankfully, the trees....
My dear wife, Pam, was in her element.  She loves gardening.

Pam, in her element
We left the wheelchair at home and Mom enjoyed exploring the exhibits, watching people and the exercise.

Mom was up and about this day...