One of my students, of Norwegian heritage, admitted in class the other day that she knew about lefse. “Every time my dad makes it,” she said, “I have to eat a little piece. It’s OK but it’s not my favourite.” Another student chimed in and said, “If you don’t like your dad’s lefse, he’s using the wrong recipe.”
True, that — even for just potato lefse there are probably as many different recipes as there are cooks. Lefse ain’t just potatoes. There are hard lefses and soft lefses, baked and fried, cooked with fillings and filled with things later. There’s even a dish called “Lefse Kling” that is taco fillings rolled up in a lefse.
Since I spent most of last Sunday making lefse (and since the recipe isn’t the secret to good lefse), here’s mine:
3 cups potatoes, steamed in their jackets and ground through a meat grinder when done (4-5 good sized spuds)
4 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 cup dairy or non-dairy milk
1 1/4 cup flour
Combine potatoes, oil, salt, sugar and milk and mix with a handheld pastry blender. Add the flour and cut into the wet mixture with the pastry blender. Do not knead or stir! Cover the bowl and put in the refrigerator to chill. Using an amount of dough about the size of a tangerine, roll out paper thin. Grill on a lefse griddle preheated to 500F.
Now the secrets:
First, put a piece of clean canvas down on your work surface, and start rubbing flour into it until it won’t hold any more. That will let you roll out the sticky dough, without working too much into the lefse and making it tough.
Second, get or make a “lefse stick” to turn over the thin dough. A 1/4-inch thick piece of oak strip about an inch wide and 24 to 30 inches long is good. Sand down one end to a gradual flat point that tapers from about halfway along the stick. Round off the end. Use this to pick up the dough and turn it over as you roll it out. They are available by mail order, or just google it and see what it should look like.
Third, you don’t need it but it’s helpful to have a lefse rolling pin. Google that, too. Pleny of lefse has been made with the good old fashioned regular pin, so use that if that’s what’s in the drawer.
Fourth, a large round electric griddle WITHOUT a non-stick coating is good. A cast-iron skillet is OK if that’s what you have. Don’t use non-stick coatings like Teflon because high heat not only damages the coating but it puts all kinds of toxic crap in the air that you’re breathing. It’s toxic enough to kill pet birds, if you have one in the kitchen. The Bethany Heritage Grill is the gold standard. Some lefses grill at 350F, but potato lefse cooks at 500F.
Fifth, use a floury potato. Most recipes call for Russet or similar. I like to use organic Russian Blue potatoes from our own farm — not only are they locally grown (just down the hill!) but they make a wonderful purple-coloured lefse with a real potato-ey taste.
Take your little ball of dough and start rolling it out on the cloth. “Start round to end round.” You want a round lefse, not one that looks like Alberta. Practice makes perfect, and of course even the ugliest lefse will still taste good. A ball the size of a small tangerine should roll out at least 12 inches across. That’s seriously thin. Use the stick to turn the lefse over so you roll both sides a couple of times at least.
Place your lefse stick just on top of the left edge of the lefse, flip the edge up and over the stick and roll the stick three times to roll some of the round onto it. Pick up the round wrapped on the stick, flop it on the griddle and unroll it flat. Cook the first side about 20 seconds, then slide the stick under the middle of the lefse, pick it up, turn it over, and unroll it on the griddle. Let it cook about a minute or so, watching carefully for any spots that might burn. Flip it one more time to brown the first side a little. It should have little toast-coloured spots on it here and there, no burnt places.
Take the lefse off the griddle, and put it flat on a tea towel. Now roll up the tea towel with the lefse in it (like a jelly roll). Roll out and cook another lefse, unroll the tea towel, overlap the new lefse on the first one, and roll up the towel again.
This recipe makes between 10 and 15 lefse, depending on how much dough you use for each. I average around 12 lefse that can be as big as 16 inches across. If your pan is smaller, that’s your size limit. Store the lefse, still rolled in the towel, inside a plastic bag in the fridge, and eat it up within about four days. (That’s not hard!)
Lefse can be eaten spread with butter and sprinkled with sugar, or with any kind of filling you have. It’s definitely not a simple bread to make, but hundreds of years of Norwegian grandmothers will smile kindly on you from on high. That’s gotta be a good thing.
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