Deer Park honors student performs cupcake magic
The 2011 movie "I Don't Know How She Does It" stars Sarah Jessica Parker as a Boston-based finance executive trying to balance her work and home life, but the phrase also describes the various pursuits of Deer Park teen Nicola Ingrassia, who recently added budding entrepreneurship to her plate -- of custom cupcakes.
Ingrassia, 15, has always had an interest in baking, thanks to a long tradition on her mother's side of the family. It's something she does in addition to taking ballet and tap-dancing classes, playing for varsity and travel lacrosse teams and being an honors student and class officer at Deer Park High School.
Although she likes desserts and sweets, Ingrassia, ironically, doesn't fancy cupcakes.
"The funny thing is, I really don't like eating them," she said. "I really don't know why. I just like making them."
Relatives and friends have no problem consuming her creations and have enjoyed Ingrassia's culinary and artistic skills since she began making cupcakes in the fifth grade. Her treats reflect the special occasion or something that's a favorite of the person celebrating.
"For Easter I made Easter eggs," Ingrassia said. "My grandma likes butterflies, so I made butterfly cupcakes for her birthday." For her neighbors' wedding, she made multicolored butterflies "to show that their lives were colorful."
That was all for free, but a chance meeting last summer has allowed Ingrassia to make money from the sales of her eye-catching, professional-style creations.
Her father, Joe, a designer of window treatments, had a job installing a skylight shade in the home of Holly Gordon, a Bay Shore nature photographer. Ingrassia went along to help him.
Gordon, a former art teacher, was readying a photography exhibit with the theme of a wave patterned on "The Great Wave," a work by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai. Ingrassia noticed Gordon's photographs on the walls, said she was an artist, too, and showed Gordon pictures of her cupcakes.
She "proceeded to show me an assortment of flower, butterfly and penguin cupcakes on her iPhone," Gordon said. "I laughed and said, 'Is this a setup? You have cupcakes for all the things I photograph!' "
Having plans to visit her grandchildren, Gordon asked Ingrassia whether she took orders. "She said just for her friends," the artist recalled. "I said, 'Do you want to start a business?' "
Gordon bought 24 of Ingrassia's cupcakes for her grandchildren. She paid $40.
"My grandchildren were amazed," Gordon said. "Not only did my grandchildren go crazy, but my own kids and daughter-in-law, and my daughter-in-law's mother -- everybody was just bonkers over these adorable cupcakes."
Gordon also ordered mini cupcakes designed with a wave motif for the October opening of her exhibition in a Huntington gallery: "Holly Meets Hokusai."
That was the start of NicSnax, Ingrassia's venture. Gordon helped her create an advertising flier that shows a single cupcake, a circular display of several others and the words: "Customized Cupcakes Made with Love by Nicola! Cupcakes for every occasion. Call for a consultation customized to your liking. Guaranteed delicious."
"I think she is absolutely hot stuff," Gordon said. "She creates and presents very professionally for a youngster. And now she has a little business. I planted a seed. I wanted a skylight filter and look what came out of it."
Ingrassia said she has sold more than $350 worth of cupcakes to family friends and her gym teacher since starting NicSnax.
All in the family
Baking and artistry are traditional in Ingrassia's family. "I always had a love for baking," she said. "My aunts on my mom's side and a few of my older cousins have always been into baking. They bake a lot of cookies and pastries and cakes."
So the family wasn't surprised when Ingrassia, at 9 years old, saw a book on cupcake decorating in a bookstore and asked her mother to buy it. Leafing through it she marveled at the artistic designs it featured.
"You'd not even think you could make something like that," she said.
Ingrassia was soon shopping for boxed cake mix and other ingredients, intent on making "the best-tasting cupcakes" with artistic toppings.
For Gordon's wave-themed order, Ingrassia said, "I tried combining the idea of looking like an ocean wave and being an artist." The wave was made of melted chocolate squeezed out of a pastry bag to make the form of a wave, then hardened in the refrigerator. "I also use that method for making butterfly wings," she added.
Ingrassia's cupcakes are eye pleasing, but what makes them taste so good?
"I use heavy cream instead of some of the water, and add one extra egg to make them very fluffy, and I add a bit of extra vanilla to give them that extra vanilla taste," she said. "I do put my little twist on things, but for the most part I do use the book. I never saw anyone make cupcakes."
An early start
Besides Gordon, Ingrassia has filled orders for "friends of friends." Her cupcakes range in price from $1.50 to $33 "depending on the cost of the materials." Mini cupcakes are about 75 cents each, and regular-size ones cost $1.50 apiece. Ingrassia requires a minimum 15-cupcake order but said a typical order is 30 cupcakes. "It's a good little side job," she said.
Ingrassia gets started early in the morning. "A lot of it is done before school," she said.
Preparing a big order, such as the 130 mini cupcakes Gordon ordered for her exhibition, means Ingrassia must wake up at 5:30 a.m. There's not much time, as she leaves for school at 6:55.
"My mom helps me bake them while I get ready for school," she said. "I put them in the refrigerator, and when I come home from school, that's when I decorate them. I make them as close as I can to the event. I want them as fresh as they can be."
Her mother, Sue, controller of a spices and ingredients company in Farmingdale, is her assistant. "She's very into it," she said. "Not only are they beautiful to look at, but they taste great. . . . I have to take directions, and I clean up after her."
Whether she will be turning out cupcakes or other edible delights, a food-related career may be in Ingrassia's future.
"I would love to get into the culinary field," she said, "but that's a very hard kind of business to be in." Ingrassia is also thinking of going to medical school. Her focus would be nutrition, she said. But there's no rush.
"I'm still in 10th grade," she said. "I still have a little while to think about all of that."