Lessons in lefse

  • Article by: LEE SVITAK DEAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 19, 2013 - 11:06 AM

The Norwegian flatbread finds its way onto the holiday table and into the repertoire of cooks, with the help of an experienced teacher.

Thirty pounds of potatoes. Three pounds of butter. Six cups of heavy cream. Ten pounds of flour.

The Lefse Institute was open.

Rebecca Jorgenson Sundquist slipped a pastry sleeve over a ridged rolling pin. Four griddles were heating up. Pastry boards were covered and sprinkled in flour. Chilled dough awaited on the porch.

She was ready. With ample kitchen space and enthusiasm for heritage, Sundquist had offered her 13-foot counter for lefse making.

The other church ladies of Central Lutheran of Minneapolis were ready, too (well, five of them, including me), aprons in place, in high spirits for their second year of marathon cooking. In six hours we would produce 360 pieces of lefse before collapsing, covered in a dusting of flour. The lacy flatbread would be sold at a holiday bake sale, with proceeds to be donated.

Like tortillas, injera or naan, lefse is a specialty flatbread made of an ingredient always at hand — in this case, potatoes.

In communities with Scandinavian heritage, it turns up on dinner tables from Thanksgiving to New Year’s, a kind of holiday version of the Parker House roll. Spread a little butter on the surface, sprinkle it with sugar (white, brown or blended with cinnamon), and roll it up. Then listen for the sigh that follows with the first bite.

There are variations, of course — there always are in the kitchen — since recipes differ from cook to cook, depending on what region your ancestors come from and who happens to pass along a recipe.

Sundquist works with a version from Beatrice Ojakangas, the cookbook author from Duluth, who is of Finnish heritage. It starts with a really good batch of mashed potatoes (that’s where the butter and heavy cream come in) with a bit of sugar and plenty of flour. What could possibly be better than that?

Well, there was discussion on one option: adding bacon to lefse. We never really got to the nitty gritty — would that be bacon grease or bacon bits? — before we laughed off the idea.

Plan ahead

The effort starts the night before when the potatoes are prepared: peeled, boiled and drained, as you would for mashed potatoes. Then they are put through the potato ricer, a sieve-like contraption similar to a garlic press or food mill, that pushes the potatoes through tiny holes into rice-like bits, before they will be gently mashed. It’s a terrific way to make mashed potatoes anytime, but for lefse, where you don’t want any lingering chunks of potato, it’s almost a necessity.

Almost is the operative word, as one of our cooks prepared her mashed potatoes without ricing them.

“I couldn’t find my ricer,” she pleaded (nameless here to protect her lefse reputation).

Those who had used ricers for their dough were unforgiving. “There are lumps in her lefse,” a few muttered, perhaps more times than were necessary.

Preparation continues

After refrigerating the mashed potatoes overnight, there is no turning back the next day once the flour is added (as with baking, the amount will depend on the humidity in the air and the moisture in the ingredients).

By now it’s real dough, not simply mashed potatoes, and it’s gently shaped into golf ball-sized spheres that are soft and supple. We keep them chilled until ready for the griddle.

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    Makes about 50 to 60 pieces. Note: You will need to begin this a day in advance. From Beatrice Ojakangas.

  • Kathy Kvammen-McKinley checked lefse as it browned on the griddle. She and others from Central Lutheran Church in Minneapolis made hundreds of lefse for a bake sale. Below, a cloth-covered rolling pin is one of the tools of the trade.

  • A cloth sleeve coated with flour covers the rolling pin used to mash lefse dough balls into wide, thin circles.

  • From left:  Maggie Peterson, Diane Stoltenberg, Rebecca Jorgenson Sundquist and Kathy Kvammen-McKinley joined forces to make lefse.

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