Bethany Housewares, Betty's lefse, hardanger, lefse, lefse griddle, lefse stick, lutefisk, Norwegian Americans in Minnesota, Norwegian flatbread, Norwegian foods, Norwegian National Anthem, potato lefse, rosemaling, Syttende Mai
It has been too long since I posted a recipe. I want to introduce you to lefse, as I know it. For those of you unfamiliar with lefse (pro. LEHF-suh), it is a Norwegian flatbread which looks a little bit like a large tortilla, or a round, slightly burnt napkin. But I assure you, it tastes like neither of those. I come from a long line of lefse makers in this country. About 3/4 of my ancestors came to this country from Norway sometime between 1870 and 1895, from places such as Bergen, Gudbrandsdalen, Ringerike, and Telemark. The Norwegian emigrants, of course, brought many of their customs with them, although as might be expected, they have become somewhat diluted on this side of the ocean. Only a few years ago, I was surprised to learn when my husband gave me a lovely cookbook called The Norwegian Kitchen, (published in Norway, translated to English) that not all lefse is made using potatoes. I was astonished! I was raised on the ritual of lefse, for the major holidays and it was never called “potato lefse.” It was just “lefse” and I presumed that all lefse was made the way it was made in my hometown, the first Norwegian settlement in Minnesota.
BTW, if you are interested in experiencing the celebration of a big Norwegian holiday, Constitution Day, or Syttende Mai (Seventeenth of May) without going to Norway, you may do so by visiting Spring Grove, Minnesota during the days surrounding May 17th each year. It is a town-wide three day celebration. There is the crowning of a Syttende Mai King and Queen, a parade, music and dancing, Norwegian crafts such as rosemaling (a style of painting), and hardanger (a type of stitchery), a Lutheran church service delivered in Norwegian, and of course, a huge lutefisk (dried cod soaked in lye) dinner which naturally includes lefse on the menu, as well. When I was a child, it was not unusual to hear people of my grandparents’ age speaking Norwegian when they met on the street in Spring Grove. My mother, a third generation American, did not learn English until she attended country school. I find it sad to think that there is little Norwegian spoken spontaneously there these days, as our grandparents and great grandparents have passed on. It is still possible, however, to hear the Norwegian National Anthem being sung. In fact, my entire graduating class can sing it on a moments’ notice; this made for a rather startling class reunion for my amazed husband a few years back , but then, he’s easily astonished by a group of people who like so much white food with butter–at least that has been his observation among the Norwegian Americans that he has met. But I digress.
Of the 20 recipes for lefse in the aforementioned cookbook, only 4 of them contain potatoes. And two of those do not use the whole potato, but only potato starch! What? Who knew? I have never tried to make any of those other recipes for lefse; I enjoy the familiar, comforting taste and texture of the potato lefse of my childhood, and so I continue to make it every Christmas season. My daughter, although little interested in kitchen work, wants to help me make it each time, which seems to fertilize my Norwegian roots. She and I always enjoy eating a piece or two while they’re still warm, smeared with a little butter and brown sugar (not as much as in the picture to the right). Then, the lefse round is cut in half, or in fourths and the pieces rolled up and eaten. Mmmmmmm– heaven.
Although I could choose one of the potato recipes in The Norwegian Kitchen, I prefer to use the recipe used by my mother and her mother. It has been passed on to me from one of my older sisters, whom I would say deserves the title of “best lefse maker that I know” and for that reason, I call the recipe by her name, “Betty’s Lefse.” Not being one to call attention to herself, I imagine her reaction to this decision will be less than thrilled. But it is only fair, I think. Of the six daughters that my parents raised, she and I are the only lefse makers. Ah, the mighty pen wields such power!
Betty’s (Potato) Lefse (makes about 20 pieces ~12″ in diameter)
- 15 large potatoes (Russet or Idaho; you want a relatively dry mealy potato for lefse. I foolishly made it once using a wetter variety of potato that I had on hand at the time. Horrible experience. Horrible! My hands hurt just thinking about the effort I had to put into trying to adequately rice the wet potatoes. This is now on my list of “dumb things I’ve attempted in my life”).
- 1 1/2 sticks of soft butter (only real butter will do; don’t even think about a substitute)
- 1 pt. half & half
- 3 tsp. salt
- 3 tsp. sugar
- ~3 c. all-purpose flour
The night before you plan to make lefse, peel and boil the potatoes. When they are just cool enough to handle, put them through a ricer into a very large bowl. Remove any potato eyes, green or dark parts that don’t want to go through the ricer. While the riced potatoes are still warm, add the butter, half & half, salt and sugar and mix thoroughly by hand. If you have trouble finding a ricer, try looking at a hardware store. They’re not hard to find in the Midwest but I don’t know about the rest of the world.
Before you go to bed and when the mixture has cooled a bit, add the flour a cup at a time, again by hand. The mixture will feel soft and barely tacky. It will form into a nice big ball of dough. Cover the bowl and refrigerate overnight.
The next day, remove the dough from the refrigerator AFTER you have prepared the following items that you will need in order to bake the lefse:
A nonstick surface for rolling out the lefse. I use a large wooden plywood board. I would not use my counter top because it’s too slippery. You could use a large silicone pie crust mat that is made for that purpose or you may opt to buy a large round taut cloth covered surface that is made specifically for rolling out lefse. The nice thing about that is that when you flour the fabric surface, it really minimizes likelihood of the lefse sticking to the work surface. I have never had one of those special lefse cloths and I am happy enough with the set up that I use.
A wooden rolling pin with a cloth sock covering. Potato lefse dough is very tender. You will need to flour the sock covering the rolling pin very well. As you can see, the rolling pin has parallel grooves that extend the whole length of the roller. The grooves are very helpful in making a surface that the sock will cling to, and also help to minimize the risk of the rolling pin sticking to the soft lefse dough. A marble rolling pin is definitely too heavy. Again, these items are not hard to find in the Midwest, but I’m not sure how hard they would be to find in other parts of the U.S. I’m sure that wherever the original Norwegian emigrants settled, in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and North Dakota they can be found, certainly in hardware stores if nowhere else. Companies such as Bethany Housewares and Nordic Ware make these items and they can be ordered online.
A lefse griddle. Preheated to ~375 F. Originally, of course, lefse was made on a large iron surface over an open hearth but that would be really difficult to replicate in my house. I don’t recommend going to that extreme to be authentic about the process of baking lefse. I have heard of people who have made lefse on their stove top with a large cast iron griddle, or fry pan, but they are more courageous than I am. My lefse griddle is made by Bethany Housewares, which also makes other Scandinavian cooking and baking utensils. If a lefse griddle is not something readily available in your area of the country or world, you could use a large electric pancake griddle if available.
A lefse stick. This is a long wooden stick, somewhere around 22″ long and 1 to 1 1/2″ wide. The two long edges are beveled smoothly so that the stick can get underneath the rolled out lefse and pick it up from your work surface and transfer it to the lefse griddle. I have two sticks but you only need one. I guess I prefer the one that is a little wider. If you’ve ever made pie crust, you probably have a stick that you use to pick up the rolled pie crust.
A stack of kitchen towels. Unless you have a lot of them, you may need to raid your bath towel supply, too. I fold each towel in half or fourths, depending upon the size of the towel and have them at the ready next to the lefse griddle. I stack mine on top of a large cooling rack. The reason for the towels is that after each piece of lefse is baked, it will be removed to a towel and covered by another layer of towel. By the time you are done making lefse, you’ll have a big pile of lefse with towels layered between. The towels prevent the warm lefse from sticking to each other, and also prevent them from drying out while you finish baking the rest of the lefse.
You can see how I set up my work area. I don’t have one long counter that will accommodate the bowl of dough, the work surface, griddle and stack of towels, so they are divided between two counters opposite one another. The fact that I have to lift the rolled out lefse and transfer it over the open floor and onto the griddle opposite might give some folks the willies. I want to point out, however, that I’ve never had an accident. Just for fun, I’m including an old photograph of my mother making lefse in her farm kitchen. The year would have been circa 1968.
With the above items assembled in your work area, you are ready to remove the dough from the fridge. It’s important to have the dough remain cool while you work with it. If you think that the process is rather slow for you, or if you have doubled the recipe, I’d suggest dividing the dough in half and leaving half in the refrigerator while you work with the first portion. Keep any dough which you are not currently working with, covered to prevent moisture loss.
Flour your working surface lightly. Scoop out a ball of the dough, about the size of a baseball. Before putting it down onto the floured surface, I like to pat the ball into a thick pancake between my hands, attempting to keep a relatively round shape. When I can’t do any more with my bare hands, I lay it down on the floured surface. With a well floured rolling pin, roll the dough east and west and then north and south, alternating the direction each time. After only a few rolls of the pin, check to make sure that the dough is not sticking to the board, by running the lefse stick underneath and flipping it over. Continue to roll out the lefse on the opposite side. Re-flour the board lightly and the sock as needed, but take care not to over-flour the dough. Too much flour = tough lefse. When you are finished rolling out the lefse, it will be about the thickness of a flour tortilla.
Slide the lefse stick underneath the entire piece of lefse, making sure that it is not stuck to the board anywhere. Then with the stick positioned just off of center, lift the lefse from the work surface and lay it down on the hot griddle. If you’ve never made a pie crust from scratch, this may feel risky, but you’ll get the hang of it quickly. As you move the lefse stick over the griddle, simply turn the stick over and over and the lefse will lay itself onto the hot griddle. If the lefse ends up really crooked such that you are bothered by it, you have the first few seconds after it is on the griddle to very quickly and lightly move it with your open hand. It’ll slide easily and you won’t burn your hand because the lefse isn’t hot yet.
You will know when the lefse is ready to be flipped over when the edges of the dough look “drier”. It’ll probably take 2 – 3 minutes. It doesn’t harm anything to lift up the edge of the lefse to look at the surface next to the griddle. It should have large brown spots here and there. There may be places where the lefse will develop large bubbles, too. That’s okay. Sometimes I tap them with my lefse stick to remove the air inside just so that the other side has enough contact with the heat to bake it through, but I wouldn’t worry about that. Then, just turn the lefse over with the stick as before. The second side will bake more quickly than the first. When both sides are baked, lift the lefse off and lay atop the first towel and cover with another layer of towel. Yea! One down. About 19 to go!
When you get comfortable with the length of time it takes for the lefse to bake, you will be able to get one piece of lefse rolled out and ready to place on the griddle while the previous one is baking. The time it takes to do the rolling and the baking are nearly the same. How convenient is that?
When you are all done baking the lefse, wait until the heat has dissapated from the lefse before folding the pieces into fourths and wrapping in plastic wrap to keep in the refrigerator or freezer.
Please give yourself a break if you think that your first pieces are too thick, or too tough or baked too long. I always figure that my first piece or two is not going to be as nice as the ones to follow. It takes just a bit of practice to get just the right griddle heat, and the right thickness of the rolled lefse, and to avoid having it stick to the work surface without adding too much flour. By the third or fourth piece, you will feel like you have become pretty good at this lefse making thing. Pat yourself on the back. Or, better yet, have someone else do it, your hands will be a bit floury. Happy baking!