Kimberly Resnick doesn’t believe that going vegan means depriving yourself of the foods you grew up with.
Her business, Lil’ Yenta’s Vegan Bakery, is dedicated to creating classic Jewish foods from her childhood without the use of animal products. She’s especially proud of her knishes.
“When we were making them the other day, after it was all said and done we had one extra, and I took a bite,” she said. “I almost cried, just because this reminds me so much of my grandpa and going to his house.”
Resnick and her husband, Sal Ruano, are both vegan out of concern for animal rights. However, they found themselves missing foods from both their cultures — New York-style Ashkenazi favorites for her and El Salvadoran cuisine for him — after making the lifestyle change.
The Port Richmond residents decided to create vegan versions of those foods to share with friends at a holiday party, which sparked the idea for two businesses.
The couple worked together to create Lil’ Yenta’s and Chambi’s El Salvadoran Vegan Munchies, which carries vegan pupusas, tamales and other recipes from Ruano’s grandmother and aunt.
“We’re doing what we want to do without sacrificing our values or our vegan lifestyle, and that’s basically how we got started,” Ruano said.
Resnick, a hairstylist, drew inspiration for Lil’ Yenta’s from her Jewish family in Brooklyn, New York, especially her mother’s love of black and white cookies. She also has fond memories of visiting her grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, in Brighton Beach, where he would bring home bags of knishes from a local bakery.
When her parents moved to Atlantic City, Resnick was the only Jewish student at her school. She maintained her connection to Judaism through food and family visits.
The name was inspired by Resnick’s stepchild, Raevyn Ruano, who loves watching dramatic videos on YouTube.
“I talk to Kim a lot about them, and yenta is a word for busybody and gossip, and she started calling me Lil’ Yenta,” they said.
Now, Ruano helps their parents out in the kitchen by baking cookies (their favorite is the chocolate-dipped berry hamantaschen).
Resnick is not content with simply making vegan substitutes for classic foods like rugelach and kugel. She wants her versions to be just as good as the originals, or even better.
Her typical vegan swaps include using Earth Balance Original Buttery Spread rather than butter and aquafaba (the starchy liquid from cooked chickpeas) instead of eggs. In addition to baked goods like babka and challah, Lil’ Yenta’s offers tzimmes and brisket made with cranberry-glazed seitan and chopped liver made with lentils. For Thanksgiving, Resnick made knishes filled with mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and homemade seitan turkey.
Her recipes are a combination of childhood memories, research and lots of practice.
“I’m really digging deep into my taste memory to just get it as close as humanly possible without any animal products in it,” she said. “So usually I’ll look up a vegan recipe, and I’ll look up a bunch of non-vegan recipes. And then I combine it together and then add in whatever kind of makes sense to me.”
Resnick and Ruano held their first pop-up last year during Chanukah at V Marks the Shop, a vegan grocery store in South Philadelphia. Since then, the pop-ups have made several appearances throughout the city for occasions like Purim and Rosh Hashanah, and they also offer delivery. They are preparing for another Chanukah pop-up at V Marks the Shop on Dec. 13.
Their next goal is to relocate from their workspace in Bridesburg Commissary and find their own professional kitchen.
Part of it has to do with kosher certification. Although all of Resnick’s products are technically kosher, her food cannot be certified kosher as long as she uses a shared kitchen. She also said she received anti-Semitic comments from another cook at the workplace, and wants to move sooner rather than later.
She feels like Lil’ Yenta’s is the most important thing she’s ever done.
“The world is really crazy right now, and anti-Semitism is up, and I just want to bring the beauty of Jewish culture to more people who might not even know about it,” she said.
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