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Lefse-Making: A Legacy, a Recipe, and a Factory

Don’t they advise bloggers not to post long posts? Sorry. This is a long one, but at the end, you get a tasty treat…

I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know what lefse was and how to make it. I’m sure that before I was seven, I must have been lefse-ignorant, but after our divorce (as in … the family got divorced and not just my parents!) my mom and sister and I went to live with my grandparents. That’s when I discovered the joys of this simple delicacy.

Lefse, for those of you who’ve never heard of it, is the most splendidly delicious Norwegian-American legacy I can think of, certainly far better than lutefisk (ugh!) Lefse is made from cold mashed potatoes (yes, a recipe that uses your holiday leftovers), mixed with flour and rolled thin. They are dry grilled like a tortilla — which is exactly what they look like to the uninitiated. But instead of filling them with meat and beans, you slather butter and cinnamon-sugar on them and roll them up. Then you shove one into your mouth and, while chewing, put butter and cinn-sugar on the next one, so it’ll be ready to go as soon as you can swallow the first one. Repeat until stuffed.

Or, if you’re on Weight Watchers, you figure out that one lefse is about 1.8 pts (less if you choose to make the mashed potatoes with milk instead of half-n-half or cream), and if you spread it with a little Brummel and Brown (which is almost as good as butter as long as you don’t put too much on) and a sprinkling of cinn-sugar, then it totals about 2.5 pts each. So you eat a lot of extra veggies that day to fill you up and you have two lefses and eat them slowly, churning around each bite to get the subtle flavor of the moist potato, the slightly nutty taste of the browned flour, the crunch of the sugar, and the spiciness of the cinnamon.

Grandma taught me how to make lefse, every holiday time getting out the requisite equipment: her mother’s glass rolling pin (can be filled with ice cubes to keep the pin cold when rolling pie pastry) and the heavy iron griddle that we would place on top of two burners of Grandma’s electric stove. For aprons — and yes, with all the flour used in the lefse-making process — we used dish towels tied around our waists. A giant formica-covered cutting board emerged for rolling and the tin bin with
written on it was placed directly on the board. Of course, Grandma had done the hard work the night before of peeling the potatoes, cooking and mashing them with cream and butter.

We took the uncovered pot of mashed potatoes out of the fridge and let it sit while getting everything ready, and then we added flour and began the 3 hour process (it doesn’t have to take that long, but we always made a big batch). I can still hear her: “Be careful not to overmix or they’ll be tough.” “Always, make sure you make the mashed potatoes the day ahead and cool them. If they are warm and you mix in the flour, you’ll have a big mess on your hands.” “Not too thick or it won’t taste right.” “Don’t worry about the first one — it always looks ugly. That’s a tester anyway!” “If it rips, don’t sweat it. Just pat it back together like this.” “Now we’re cookin’ with gas!!”

Opening a lefse factory was always Plan B for us. We knew that if people could just taste lefse, there’d be an overwhelming demand. Who wouldn’t love to buy such a delicious treat?! Grandpa always got the first lefse (after the “tester”). I would bring it to him on a little plate. He always sat to the left of the fireplace on the hearth, which was about 2 feet off the floor. Grandma had put a velour pillow in his spot so he’d be more comfortable. His eyes would sparkle as I approached with the plate. “Hey, chipmunk, watcha got for me?” As if he didn’t have a clear view of us slaving away in the kitchen directly across the room from him!

After I got married, I still came over to Grandmas to make lefse each December. Then I moved out of state for graduate school. Sometimes we came home for the holidays and sometimes not. Grandma and I made lefse anyway. Didn’t matter then what time of year it was. Well, except summer. I don’t think I’ve ever made lefse in summer.

Through the years we switched places, the two of us, with me taking over the more complicated mixing and rolling part and her flipping the cooked lefse. Then she sat on a bar stool and flipped. Then Grandpa died. His pillow remained, permanently indented, by the fireplace. Then Grandma sat and flipped lefse for a few minutes and moved to her easy chair. Then I cooked alone and brought her the “tester” with some black coffee (man, that scandihoovian lady lover her coffee strong and plentiful!)

When we moved to the east coast, I wasn’t able to make lefse with her much. I always called her when I made it at home with my son, though. And I always made sure to call and ask her advice about making the rummegröt (cream porridge) that we used to serve with lefse on Christmas Eve. I still can’t get it right after all these years, and now Grandma’s gone. I used to want to send her some of my lefse in the mail, but I worried that it would be a disappointment — too dry. Better not to have any than to have dry lefse. We threw out a batch one year when our “tester” revealed the batch was gummy. My mom made lefse for Grandma sometimes for Christmas, but Mom had not had the years of lessons that I had. She had been busy making a living and doing other important stuff. No offense Mom, but Grandma thought you rolled your lefse too thick. She appreciated the thought, though, and at least your alwasy have good flavor.

Last year was my first lefse season after Grandma’s death. It was also the first year that my son actually became helpful as a lefse cook. I was able to leave the flipping and cooking part entirely to his discretion — not a one was burnt or undercooked. He’s been watching me and “helping” for years, probably as long as he can remember. It’s in his blood now. He even asked if he could bring lefse to school on Tuesday for his little classroom birthday celebration. Imagine that! A ten-year old boy passing up a chance for chocolate cupcakes or whatever for lefse!

So I made the mashed potatoes ahead, and on Monday night my son and I got out our equipment and made lefse for his pals. And just like last year, he was a true partner in the process. I think maybe lefse is a two-chef dish. In any case, his friends and teachers loved it. Of course. Who wouldn’t?

P.S. One of life’s oddest little coincidences. On our trip this summer, retracing my grandma’s family’s westward migration, we visited the little town of Opheim, Montana, pop. 103. Grandma almost died there in the early 1930s during the Dust Bowl. There’s a lefse factory there now. You read that right! A lefse factory in the town where my grandma almost starved to death. How ironic. Better yet, my son and I got a personal tour and enjoyed a supper of lefse in our hotel room that night. EXCELLENT supper 🙂 So if all this lefse talk has got you hankerin’ after some of the stuff, you’re in luck because Granrud’s Lefse Shack ships lefse (at least to US destinations — not sure about Canada and elsewhere, but you can ask!) And their lefse is almost as good as mine and Grandma’s. Order at least a pound and get them halved, not quartered, so you can roll them up properly.

2 Responses

  1. That sounds really good. I had never heard of lefse. Also, this was a wonderful post, just great.

    I will be missing my grandma’s “stuffed grape leaves”, my favorite Greek dish. I suppose you can get them at the store, but they are not the same.

  2. Yeh, lefse rocks! But stuffed graped leaves sounds good to me, too. Of course, nobody can quite make any of these recipes the same as Grandma, but even something close makes me nostalgic 🙂

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