When Jonathan Collins thinks of his Nana Ruthie, his memories often revolve around her in the kitchen.
Nana Ruthie wasn’t necessarily famous for her cooking. Her husband, Collins’ grandfather, owned a butchery in Ottawa, Canada, and Collins often remembers Nana Ruthie serving up dishes she called “melanges” – veal “melange,” beef “melange.”
“Everything was always a melange,” Collins says, laughing.
What Nana Ruthie was known for were a handful of family favorites, like her tuna fish sandwiches with red peppers, her homemade salad dressing and her applesauce. (The secret ingredient was the addition of plums.)
But the family treasured Nana Ruthie’s pralines above all.
“I’ve only ever known them as Nana’s cookies,” said Collins, co-owner of Bagel Bar in downtown Durham and in Chapel Hill.
Nana Ruthie died in 2000 at the age of 86, but her famous cookie recipe still lives on, in her handwriting on a stained recipe card tucked into the pages of “Second Helpings Please,” a community cookbook published by a synagogue in Ottawa.
Nana Ruthie made them for many Jewish holidays: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Hanukkah. In Collins’ interfaith Christian and Jewish family, the cookies show up for Thanksgiving and Christmas too, not to mention various family get-togethers.
“There is nothing praline about them,” Collins says, but the cookies are revered nonetheless. Collins recounts learning to cook alongside his Nana in her kitchen and continues making the cookies today as a sort of homage to those memories.
“I’ve made them countless times and still have never been able to make them like she did,” he confesses.
Collins also readily acknowledges his attempts tweaking the recipe, and failing. Nana Ruthie’s original recipe calls for Crisco, a means of keeping the cookies Kosher, Collins assumes.
“I’ve tried making them with butter, and it’s not even close,” he says.
So, Crisco it is.
Another must-have ingredient is toasted Rice Krispies, giving the cookies their crispy, crunchy feel. As for add-ins, Nana Ruthie would switch it up, sometimes including chocolate chips, sometimes using butterscotch chips.
“The butterscotch chips were always my favorite,” Collins says, with a smile.
Long after Nana Ruthie’s passing, Collins and his family (who emigrated to Chapel Hill from Canada before settling in Hillsborough) still hold tight to her cookies. Collins’ mother, Linda Leikin, regularly makes tins to give to friends and relatives, and Collins himself makes a batch or two every holiday season.
Regardless of where the Collins family finds itself in the world, and regardless of whether they are celebrating Hanukkah or Christmas, the one constant will always be Nana Ruthie’s pralines. Her handwriting on that stained index card is the link to a childhood that Collins still cherishes today.
Though, no matter what, the cookies will never be as good as when Nana Ruthie made them.
Matt Lardie is a Durham-based freelance writer. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @matt_lardie.
Nana Ruthie’s “Praline” Cookies
2 cups Rice Krispies
2 tablespoon melted margarine or butter
2/3 cup Crisco
1/2 teaspoon vanilla or maple flavoring
2/3 cup brown sugar
1 beaten egg
1 cup flour (full)
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 cup chocolate or butterscotch chips
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
Brown Rice Krispies in oven. Pour over melted margarine, set aside.
Mix together all other ingredients, except chocolate or butterscotch chips and Rice Krispies mixture. Then fold in Rice Krispies and the chips.
Drop by the teaspoonful on greased cookie sheet, leaving about 2 inches between cookies.
Bake at 325 degrees for about 8-10 minutes or until golden brown. (Note: Nana Ruthie originally called for 375 degrees, but that proved to be too much heat.)
Yield: About 2 dozen cookies