Everyone in our family likes lefse. We also seem to like to disagree about it. You may ask how anyone can disagree about something so good, bland and Norwegian. The disagreements have been about what to put on it.
I think every ethnic group has its breads. The Norwegian Americans have lefse. It’s a soft flat bread made from mashed potatoes and flour. In my experience, which is limited to Wisconsin, people spread butter on it, or butter and sugar, and roll it up. I have been told that people fill it with other things, especially in a legendary restaurant in Osseo, Wisconsin. I also learned that commercially produced lefse has been marketed as something to eat like a tortilla. Well, other than its shape, it’s nothing like a tortilla. I have never seen tortillas marketed as lefse.
The argument started right after our wedding. I had always eaten lefse with butter spread on it and rolled up. Rick was amazed that anyone would eat it that way. He insisted that it had to have sugar sprinkled over the butter. That’s the way his mother served it. And so the argument began and remained in the family for about half a century. As life went on, Rick was louder than I was, so the kids voted for sugar along with him. And I continued to protest that butter without sugar was best. It remained a friendly argument.
Sometime early in the marriage, I learned to make lefse. It was one of those foods that one didn’t find in most grocery stores, so if we wanted to eat it, I had to make it. Cookbooks don’t often dwell on it, although some country church cookbooks tell how to make it. I didn’t have country cookbooks then. So I decided that lefse would be easy to make.
To begin with, I didn’t have the equipment, namely a lefse rolling pin, which is die cut and a requirement. I substituted a quart fruit jar. Big mistake. Instead of lefse, I had created crackers. As it happens, the first try at lefse making is likely to make crackers even with the correct rolling pin. Lefse is all about technique. In my favor, I had a ten-inch cast iron frying pan, and it worked. Originally, I was told, the cook needed the top of an old fashioned wood stove. My mother-in-law used her wood stove. It made big pieces of lefse that would not begin to fit into my frying pan.
I bought the first lefse rolling pin that I could find, and the rest is history. With a few modifications, including size of the pieces, I learned to make tolerable lefse. It seemed to please the family and gave us all something to argue about. Eventually two of my daughters tried to make lefse when they were teenagers, and they had the same crackers result that I had had. They hid the disaster and didn’t tell me about it until much later. Then when Rick’s aunt died, I inherited her electric lefse griddle. I didn’t know they existed, and I still prefer the frying pan. Now my daughters help me and sometimes we make it together when they visit me.
Recipes for lefse are hard to find because the manufacture of it is hard to describe. Exact measurements don’t seem to work well. Some people, including commercial lefse makers, make it with dehydrated potatoes. I think lefse tastes much better and less like cardboard when we make it with natural unprocessed potatoes. I also think that it is easier to make a batch with about two potatoes in order to figure out the technique.
One of my recipes from a church cookbook says to begin with forty pounds of potatoes and twenty pounds of flour. That would make a lot of lefse for a smorgasbord, but would send me right out of the kitchen promising never to try to make lefse again. Another book says to use six cups of mashed potatoes and two cups of flour. The proportions of potatoes and flour seem to be the same. It’s all a question of how much of the stuff you want to make. Flexibility is needed.
Here is a general idea for how to make lefse for a few people. You will need a lefse rolling pin, a cast iron pan or griddle, and a spatula to turn the pieces.
Cook a few potatoes and mash them as you would for dinner, with milk, butter and salt. Go easy with the butter and the shaker because lefse is not supposed to taste salty. Like much Norwegian food, it is bland. Mash them or use the electric mixer to get out the lumps.
Mix the potatoes with all-purpose flour, about half as much as potato. You will need enough to make the resulting dough not sticky, but holding together. Use as little flour as possible, and handle the dough quickly and lightly. Shape the dough into little balls, and then roll them into flat circles with a lefse rolling pin. The circles must be as thin as possible, and more flour may be needed for rolling. The size of the circles will be determined by the pan you use. My ten-inch cast iron pan holds circles of dough that are six to eight inches in diameter. My (unused) lefse griddle makes circles that are twice that size. An old fashioned wood stove top makes even bigger ones.
Heat the pan or griddle until it is hot. The temperature should be about hot enough to cook pancakes. You may need to adjust the heat as you go along, if the pieces burn quickly or take too long to cook. This is the intuitive part. This is where you will end with lefse or crackers. Do not grease the pan; the pieces are baking, not frying. Place circles of dough on the griddle, one at a time. Turn them with your spatula when they barely begin to brown, a couple of minutes into the process, and cook on the other side a short time until the dough is cooked but not crisp. My mother-in-law used a long thin stick from a window shade as a turning spatula, as did Rick’s aunt. I use long pancake turners.
Stack the pieces on a plate to cool. Large pieces are cut into quarters. My smaller ones are eaten without being cut. When you are ready to eat, spread the pieces with butter. If you are so inclined, sprinkle them with sugar. Then roll them up. As I said above, I am in the no-sugar faction.
I have tried commercially made lefse and think it is inferior to the home made kind. One brand was critiqued by my daughter Mary several years ago, when she changed (in her mind) the brand name from Aunt Julia’s to Aunt Julio’s. It isn’t very good. I found another brand, called something like Jolly Troll that rises a little above mediocrity. It really is worth it to make lefse yourself.