The days are growing shorter and it’s the time of year for our annual Norwegian lefse-making party.
This long-standing tradition usually falls around Thanksgiving, just as the dark of winter settles over the season. We’ve gathered with the same families for years on a Saturday in November to make this Norwegian potato flatbread. Everyone brings ingredients—flour, potatoes, butter, cream, sugar, salt. Each family also brings something to share for the potluck chili dinner afterward—smoked salmon from the summer’s harvest, home-brewed beer, caribou sausage, and holiday cookies. Then everyone rolls up their sleeves and gets to work for an all-afternoon endeavor that leaves the entire household coated with merriment and flour dust.
I learned to make lefse back in the 70s in North Dakota. Traditionally, family members had gender-specific jobs. Mom and the sisters mixed ingredients, made the loaves, and rolled them out flat. Dad and the boys fried the lefse on grills, using long wooden sticks to flip the large discs of dough. The guys then dusted off excess flour and tucked the lefse between clean towels to let them steam and soften. The entire house grew warm, not only because of the 400-degree grills, but also because of the good-natured ribbing that heated up over the course of the day. If a woman rolled a lefse thicker than a piece of paper, the guys teased that they were frying up horse blankets. And if a guy tore a lefse with one of the grilling sticks, the women retorted that their back-breaking work had gone to waste. And so, the days went with much laughter and teasing.
The first time I made lefse on my own, my one-year-old son Erik, sat on the table while I rolled.
His job was to sprinkle flour on the rolling board. He reached deep into the canister, felt the silkiness of flour slide through his fingers, then gleefully delivered mounds of flour into the path of my rolling pin. When he and his younger brother grew old enough to work the grill, they played sword fight with the lefse sticks.
Over the years, in hot steaming kitchens, we’ve watched our children grow to adulthood. Erik is now 36 years old and his baby brother, Mark, is 35. Our grandkids now come to the party and the group has grown large enough to borrow the church kitchen for the event. The last time I hosted at my house, there were upwards of twenty people. Since then, we’ve lost track of the countless “lefse orphans” who remember this dish from their childhoods and have joined in the fun.
We are still laughing about the case of mistaken identity when a husband patted the rear-end of a woman at the rolling station, thinking (or so he says) she was his wife. It was instead, the pastor’s wife who had come to the party for the first time. Mary must have thought it an unusually friendly Lutheran gathering. And we are still talking about the lefse that someone sent in a Christmas package to family back home. The package arrived a month late, and mold had overtaken the contents of the box.
Debates continue about how to best eat lefse – with or without sugar, brown sugar, or cinnamon. Purists insist only butter, nothing else. Others prefer more creative uses, the way people use tortillas, filling them with breakfast food or sandwich goodies. The purists insist that no upstanding Norwegian would ever consider such a thing.
In the end, the most important ingredient in making lefse has always been the family and friendships that brighten this season. And each year we give thanks for the traditions that make our Alaska winters a little warmer.
- 10-15 pounds potatoes, peeled
- ½-pound butter
- 1-pint heavy cream
- 1/2-cup salt
- 4 cups white sugar
- 10 pounds all-purpose flour
- Cover potatoes with water and cook until tender.
- Press warm potatoes through a potato ricer.
- Allow riced potatoes to cool.
- Making small batches, mix 5 cups riced potato with 2 cups flour, ¼ cup cream, 3 tablespoons butter, 2 teaspoons sugar, and 1 teaspoon salt.
- Form into two loaves and let rest ten minutes.
- Pull off pieces of the dough and form into golf-ball-size portions.
- Flour a pastry cloth and a covered rolling pin. Roll out lefse balls to 1/8-inch thickness.
- Cook on a hot (400 degrees F) lefse griddle until bubbles form and each side has browned. Flip and cook the other side.
- Place between clean towels to cool. Serve warm or cold with butter.