Lefse from Scratch: Worth the Effort?

Lori Writer / Heavy Table

Lori Writer / Heavy Table

I am Norwegian by marriage. I don’t crave lefse, but I can tell by the spark in my husband’s eyes when anyone mentions it that he does. It was a Thanksgiving and Christmas tradition with his maternal grandfather’s family especially. His great-aunt made it for years (also, on the bitterest, coldest days of winter, a rich, creamy porridge called rømmegrøt. When I asked my husband to pronounce it for me, he replied, “Mush.” To my untrained ear, it sounds like “rahm-eh-GROTE.”).

When I asked my mother-in-law — who is a wonderful cook, the sort who mixes up bread, brownies, and rice pudding from scratch without ever having to consult a recipe — to show me how to make lefse, I was surprised by her response: “I am no expert. Mom [my husband’s Gram] used a shortcut recipe and frankly that is all I have ever used. For purists it wouldn’t do. We use instant potatoes rather than cooking and mashing, etc. If you are still interested knowing that we do what could be considered the “Sandra Lee Semi-Homemade” version, we certainly can give it a try.”

My inquiry sent my mother-in-law on a quest for the best lefse recipe. She thumbed through her old ribbon-bound church fundraiser cookbooks; asked friends for their recipes; and consulted the recipe, scrawled in her own hand on church stationery, that Gram had dictated to her.

Gram always made lefse for her church’s annual Christmas bazaar. She’d say: “Use the cheapest potato buds and margarine you can buy.”

Some recipes insisted that only Betty Crocker Potato Buds would do, while others swore by Real Idaho Potato Flakes.

After many batches of lefse from numerous recipes, my mother-in-law narrowed it down to three recipes calling for real potatoes, Betty Crocker Potato Buds, and Real Idaho Potato Flakes that we tasted side-by-side.

The lefse made with the real potatoes was our favorite, tender, thin [Gram would say: “Lefse too thin is just vanity”], and, in the light, translucent at the edges. (See recipe, tweaked by me, below.)  However, with the peeling, dicing, boiling, and ricing, it was also the most labor-intensive. Also, you absolutely need at least two days to make lefse from scratch, as it is imperative to allow the potato mixture to cool overnight. Do not rush this step (we tried), or you will struggle to roll out your lefse without tearing it.

Our second-favorite, and a very reasonable alternative, was the recipe that called for Betty Crocker Potato Buds. (See recipe below.) It wasn’t quite as soft, but if you need to roll out an emergency batch of lefse or you’re just plain short on time, this recipe would satisfy most.

Our least favorite, the one that was the toughest and tasted, comparatively, most like a flour tortilla, was the recipe that called for potato flakes.

My mother-in-law (clearly, the world’s most patient person) spent a long Saturday in her kitchen rolling out batches of lefse with me snapping away with my camera for the series of photos presented below. The following Saturday, after we’d returned home and made a stop at Ingebretsen’s for equipment (“Buy the wider lefse stick,” my mother-in-law said), I asked my husband what we should do with our weekend. “Make lefse,” he said, with that spark in his eye. How could I say anything but yes?

Lori Writer / Heavy Table

Lori Writer / Heavy Table

Above: Peeling potatoes. [Not shown: cubing, boiling, and draining them.] Ricing potatoes, and adding butter, salt, sugar, and cream. Covering with tea towel for cooling.  Note: peeling and ricing potatoes are good projects for husbands, children, and other lefse-loving kitchen helpers.

Lori Writer / Heavy Table

Lori Writer / Heavy Table

Above: [Not shown: kneading flour into cooled mixture.] Forming dough into patties.

Lori Writer / Heavy Table

Lori Writer / Heavy Table

Above: flouring pastry cloth and rolling patties out tissue-thin. Dust your hands and stocking-covered rolling pin with flour, too. Flip lefse every roll or two.

Lori Writer / Heavy Table

Lori Writer / Heavy Table

Above: [Not shown: dusting lefse stick with flour.] Transferring lefse to ungreased electric griddle.

Lori Writer / Heavy Table

Lori Writer / Heavy Table

Above: lefse baking on griddle.

Lori Writer / Heavy Table

Lori Writer / Heavy Table

Above: [Not shown, flipping lefse over to bake second side.] Transferring lefse from griddle to folded bath towel.

Lori Writer / Heavy Table

Lori Writer / Heavy Table

Above: spreading softened margarine onto lefse and sprinkling it with sugar. Cut in half and roll to serve.

Note: Both the “from scratch” and “shortcut” recipes are presented below. The rolling, baking, and serving phases are identical.

FROM SCRATCH LEFSE
Yields approximately 12 10-inch lefse

Equipment
Potato ricer
Pastry or lefse board, covered with pastry cloth
Rolling pin, either smoothed or grooved (which removes air bubbles for thinner rolling), covered with a pastry stocking
Lefse-turning stick
Electric lefse griddle or large round stove top griddle
Bath towel, folded in half, to store cooling lefse

Ingredients
2½ lbs (about 5) Russet potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 tsp salt (for boiling potatoes)
3 tbsp butter
½ tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt
½ c sweet cream
All-purpose flour, just enough for rolling, about 2-2½ c
Flour for frequent dusting of hands, pastry cloth, rolling pin, and lefse stick
Butter, softened
Granulated sugar or granulated sugar and cinnamon or brown sugar

Preparing the dough:
(Must be done at least the day before you want to bake the lefse)

  1. Peel and cube potatoes. In a medium, covered pot, cover cubed potatoes with cold water and bring to a boil. Add 1 tsp of salt, lower heat, and simmer until potatoes are tender enough to pierce with a fork (about 15-20 minutes).
  2. Drain potatoes. While still warm, force potatoes through potato ricer into a medium bowl, twice.
  3. Add butter, sugar, salt, and cream to potatoes. Mix thoroughly.
  4. Cover bowl with a tea cloth and place in the refrigerator or cool room (e.g., in the winter, your garage) overnight until the mixture is thoroughly cooled. Do not try to rush this step or the dough will be as sticky and impossible to work with as wallpaper paste.
  5. Knead in flour, a little at a time. The less flour you use, the more tender and translucent your lefse will be. Dough should be slightly sticky, elastic, and hold together when you squeeze it into a ball. It might seem slightly pebbly, but resist the urge to add more liquid.
  6. Dust your hands with flour, then shape dough into 12 balls or patties.
  7. Place the patties on a tray, cover with a tea towel, and place in the refrigerator until they are thoroughly cold and you are ready to roll out lefse.

Shape, bake, and serve:

  1. When ready to make lefse, preheat griddle to 490°.
  2. Dust pastry cloth and sock-covered rolling pin with a small handful of flour. Sweep hand across cloth to spread flour into a thin, even layer. Place patty at center of floured pastry cloth.
  3. Starting at the center of the patty, roll dough into a very thin pancake using sock-covered rolling pin by rolling in one direction, then returning to the center of patty and rolling out in another direction.
  4. Dust your hands with flour, then flip the lefse over, sprinkling the cloth with flour as necessary to prevent sticking. Roll lefse out even thinner, trying to maintain a round shape. It will be easier to fold and roll yourself (for serving) if your lefse is round, but if your lefse turn out to be shaped like imaginary countries on a map, that’s okay, too.
  5. Repeat until the red lettering of the pastry cloth is faintly visible through the lefse. If you roll it too thin, it may tear. If you tear the lefse and have to re-roll it, it will be chewy, instead of soft and tender.
  6. Dust lefse stick with flour, then slide it under the lefse at its diameter and lift to transfer lefse to the griddle by touching one end of the lefse to the griddle and layer the remainder of the lefse onto the griddle with a gentle sweeping motion of the stick.
  7. Bake on the ungreased griddle until the lefse develops air bubbles and brown spots.
  8. Slide the lefse stick under the center of the lefse to turn it and bake the other side.
  9. When both sides are lightly browned, slide the stick under the lefse to lift and remove it from the griddle. Transfer it to a towel and cover.
  10. When you are ready to eat the lefse, prepare it spreading softened butter with a knife on half of the lefse, sprinkle it with white sugar, brown sugar, or a mixture of sugar and cinnamon. Cut it in half and roll.
  11. When the lefse has completely cooled, store it by folding it into quarters and putting it in a baggie in the refrigerator or freezer. Reheat in microwave to serve.

SHORTCUT LEFSE
Yields about 12 10-inch lefse

Lori Writer / Heavy Table

Lori Writer / Heavy Table

Equipment
Pastry or lefse board, covered with pastry cloth
Rolling pin, either smoothed or grooved (which removes air bubbles for thinner rolling), covered with a pastry stocking
Lefse-turning stick
Electric lefse griddle or large round stove top griddle
Bath towel, folded in half, to store cooling lefse

Ingredients
3 c water
1½ c butter
3 c Betty Crocker Potato Buds
1 c instant nonfat dry milk
1 tbsp sugar
1 tsp salt
1½ c all-purpose flour
Flour for frequent dusting of hands, pastry cloth, rolling pin, and lefse stick
Butter, softened
Granulated sugar or granulated sugar and cinnamon or brown sugar

Prepare the dough:
(Must be done at least several hours or the day before you want to bake the lefse)

  1. In a medium saucepan, bring water to a boil.
  2. Melt the butter in the boiling water.
  3. In a medium bowl, mix together dry ingredients, except flour.
  4. Stir boiling water and butter mixture into dry ingredients.
  5. Cover bowl with a tea cloth and place in the refrigerator or cool room (e.g., in the winter, your garage) until the mixture is thoroughly cooled.
  6. Knead in flour. Dough should be slightly sticky, elastic, and hold together when you squeeze it into a ball. It might seem slightly pebbly, but resist the urge to add more liquid.
  7. Dust your hands with flour, then shape dough into 12 balls or patties.
  8. Place the patties on a tray, cover with a tea towel, and place in the refrigerator until they are thoroughly cold and you are ready to roll out lefse.

Shape, bake, and serve:

  1. When ready to make lefse, preheat griddle to 490°.
  2. Dust pastry cloth and rolling pin with a small handful of flour. Sweep hand across cloth to spread flour into a thin, even layer. Place patty at center of floured pastry cloth.
  3. Starting at the center of the patty, roll dough into a very thin pancake using stocking-covered rolling pin, by rolling in one direction, then returning to the center of patty and rolling out in another direction.
  4. Dust your hands with flour, then flip the lefse over, sprinkling the cloth with flour as necessary to prevent sticking. Roll lefse out even thinner, trying to maintain a round shape. It will be easier to fold and roll yourself (for serving) if your lefse is round, but if your lefse turn out to be shaped like imaginary countries on a map, that’s okay, too.
  5. Repeat until the red lettering of the pastry cloth is faintly visible through the lefse. If you roll it too thin, it may tear. If you tear the lefse and have to re-roll it, it will be chewy, instead of soft and tender.
  6. Dust lefse stick with flour, then slide it under the lefse at its diameter and lift to transfer lefse to the griddle by touching one end of the lefse to the griddle and laying the remainder of the lefse onto the griddle with a gentle sweeping motion of the stick.
  7. Bake on the ungreased griddle until the lefse develops air bubbles and brown spots.
  8. Slide the lefse stick under the center of the lefse to turn it and bake the other side.
  9. When both sides are lightly browned, slide the stick under the lefse to lift and remove it from the griddle. Transfer it to a towel and cover.
  10. When you are ready to eat the lefse, prepare it spreading softened butter with a knife on half of the lefse, sprinkle it with white sugar, brown sugar, or a mixture of sugar and cinnamon. Cut it in half and roll.
  11. When the lefse has completely cooled, store it by folding it into quarters and putting it in a baggie in the refrigerator or freezer. Reheat in microwave to serve.

RESOURCES

Ingebretsen’s Scandinavian Gifts & Foods
1601 E Lake St
Minneapolis, MN  55407
612.729.9333

Scandi-Style

Lefse Time

Thank you to the three generations of Norwegians who contributed to this story.

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12 Comments

  1. Great article. I could almost taste the lefse as I read it.

  2. fasolamatt12/22/2009Reply

    We attended what we hope is a new tradition this year: Lefsefest. Our friends K and K set up their huge kitchen with six count ‘em six lefse making stations. You bring your own dough (the three-year-old and I made it a couple of nights before) and roll and cook communally at one of the stations, messing up someone else kitchen instead of your own. The kids play outside or watch videos in the basement or read Christmas stories with a willing adult. A couple of hours later, you’re off with a bagful of lefse and you’ve been to a great party.

  3. linda higgins12/22/2009Reply

    This brought back vivid memories of the ladies of the Norwegian side of my family. Sometime when I’ve got lots of time, I’m going to try to make them in my own kitchen, rather than in Grandma’s. Thanks!

  4. Michael B12/23/2009Reply

    The tradition of lefse making reminds me of my family. We do not make lefse but instead horseradish. With horseradish, my cousins and I scour the country side digging up the root on a fall Friday. It takes quite a bit of effort. Then, the rest of the family gets together on Saturday to clean and debark the root. In this effort, you never want to get blender duty as the fumes are about strong enough to burn out your eyeballs. The title of this story especially reminds me of my family’s tradition. The effort is worth it because it brings the whole family together. I may not have a lefse memories, but put some horseradish in front of me and I get that special twinkle in my eye too. Yes, its worth it! I loved this story.

  5. morchella12/23/2009Reply

    Margerine on lefse?!? Use butter! I can’t imagine ruining all that hard work by putting margerine on it. Uff da.

  6. Midwesterner12/24/2009Reply

    Thanks for the wonderful article, and for the secret to finally get the flavor I remember from church smorgasbord dinners — brown sugar on the buttered lefse (all these years I’ve been varying the cinnamon-sugar combination). I especially treasure your quote from Gram, which will comfort all beginning lefse makers: Gram would say: “Lefse too thin is just vanity”.

  7. I think the best reason for making homemade lefse is eating it hot and with dripping butter just off the griddle.

  8. I love myself some lefse! My Norwegian blood calls me to make it from time to time.

    I only take a day to make my from-scratch lefse, but I also add some flour (just enough to make a dough that comes together) to the potatoes, and I tend to do that when they’re still slightly warm. I don’t put sugar in or on my lefse, either. I consider it blasphemy. Blasphemy, I say! ;)

  9. I remember the little older Norsk ladies of our small NC Wisconsin Norwegian Lutheran Church making lefse, rolling it out on a big table in the kitchen and grilling it on big black wood stoves. Also, my father helping to prepare the lutefisk for soaking, changing the water periodically for several weeks at the church before out annual two night Lutefisk supper. I truly treasure those memories.

  10. My mother’s Norwegian Grandmother (Ester Sordahl, may she rest in peace)made this every year for special occasions until she was too arthritic. My great-grandma was very dear to my mom and so for Christmas this year, as we had to make a Christmas gift instead of purchase one, I made my mom lefse. Thank you so much for the tips and tricks. They turned out more like “maps of several different countries” but I got the hang of it by the end, even without a lefse rolling pin. There must be very few Norwegians in Calgary, as I did try to locate one. She receives her gift tomorrow and I am positive it will be received well by my whole family.

  11. My grandma would let us spread homemade jelly or applebutter on her lefse and that roll it up to eat it. It was better than most deserts!

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