Mama’s Justifiably Famous Potato Lefse
[This is a recipe she developed in collusion with a group of faithful Old Norskies in Puyallup, Washington, one of whom added the strict instruction that the lefse must be rolled “so thin you can read a faded love letter through it”. I’ve spelled out the procedure here in my own words, so Mom can’t be blamed for that part of the recipe!]
8 c. cooked and finely mashed potatoes
1/4 lb. butter
1/2 T salt
1/4 c. potato cooking water plus 1/4 c. evaporated milk
2-3 c. flour + more for rolling the lefse
Take a gallon bowl filled with 8 cups of riced cooked Russet potatoes, still hot, and press 1/4-pound piece of butter into the middle of it. Put a generous 1/2 tablespoon of salt on top. Pour a mixture of 1/4 cup of the potatoes’ cooking water plus 1/4 cup of evaporated milk over the top of the salt. Mash everything together thoroughly and mix it with 2-3 cups of flour. This makes enough dough for 20 lefse. [Yes, Mom was likely to make a triple recipe or more for many occasions. Eat one piece and you’ll know why.]
The flour amount should start out as small as possible and only get the potatoes into a very light dough-like, rather spongy consistency, and not stick to your hands as you mix. The more flour added, the tougher and drier the finished lefse will be. Mom almost always did the potatoes the day before their appointed baking day, rolled the tender dough into logs about 3″ in diameter and wrapped them in cling film, storing them in a cool place. The fridge is forever too crowded at the time when you’re lefse-baking for festivities of any kind, so if the weather was cool enough, the potatoes usually waited overnight on the workbench in the garage in that state for their final apotheosis.
Baking day is invariably messy and laborious, particularly on the days of multiple batch preparation. One does best to have the correct tools for the occasion, and they are many and specialized. First, you really ought to have a lefse griddle, which is a flat, circular electric griddle about 18″ in diameter and capable of reaching around 500º F in temperature. You’ll also want some nice old flour-sack dish towels or linen tea-towels to stack freshly baked lefse between on the counter as you take them off the griddle. You’ll find it helpful to have a pastry rolling cloth on your work surface, because not only will it keep the lefse from sticking as easily to the countertop, it’ll also help hold the lovely texture of the lefse’s surface that is so ideal for carrying oodles of melted butter and other fillings.
Make sure to have not just a rolling pin but an actual lefse rolling pin, a wooden pin whose roller surface is scored to create the optimum texture: some are simply grooved with parallel lines around the circumference of the roller and others, like Mom’s, textured with a full crosshatch of about 1/16th-inch grooves). Most people using the lefse rolling pins also like to use a soft cloth sleeve over the roller, because (and you can guess how I know this), a very soft, tender and potentially super-sticky dough will create a remarkably gunky agglomeration in the grooves of the pin, and lemme tell you, it’s a serious undertaking to get that concrete out ever again. Think about how many of those little grooves are on a whole rolling pin. Think fondly of an early death. Nahhh, just cover the pin.
Last and not least, it’s good to have a really fine lefse turner. Yes, the person who will flip the lefse when it is appropriately birthmarked on one side with light brown speckling to give the other side its chance for equally pretty freckling, that person will be an important part of your equipment. But even more important is the modest sword-like object known in our household as a lefse turner. It’s a flat stick around a yard/metre long. Yes, it would probably be entirely possible to use an actual sword for the purpose, but if you did, what would you use to fend off the ravening lefse-starved Viking invaders whilst baking? You could probably use a yardstick. Then you might well benefit from the ability to measure your lefse’s circumference in the very midst of moving them from griddle to stack. My mother has two lefse turners of both great practical beauty and artful grace. Gramps handcrafted them from fine-grained wood, making a 3/16″ thick x 2-1/2″ wide handle end pierced with a hanging hole and tapering them down to a soft ovoid tip less than 1/16th” thick, each turner sanded down to perfectly smooth softness so that it feels as sweet in the hand as that aforementioned sword ought to do in a master swordsman’s, and able to slip its narrowest point easily under a magically tender hot lefse to lift it from the griddle to the cooling stack.
Mama's lefse turners, handcrafted by her father, hang on her kitchen wall.
With your mise en place, off you go. Slice the log of soft potato dough into evenly measured pieces that, when you pat them gently into shape, are about the size and shape of a slightly smaller diameter, slightly thicker than typical hamburger patty (twenty pieces from a whole batch, if you remember). Keep them rather cool, so that they don’t become more difficult to roll–they’re sensitive enough as it is. Gently flour the outside of a piece of dough, pop it in the middle of a small handful of flour in the center of the pastry cloth and roll the lefse out into a circle of delicate, ethereal, dainty, lightly textured sheerness as big as you can fit on the lefse griddle–even a tiny bit too big, because it’ll retract a tad and shrink to fit the griddle as soon as it hits the 450-500º heat; test to see how quickly your griddle bakes the flatbreads without either scorching or drying them out.
You don’t want the baked lefse’s spots too dark brown–lift an edge and check occasionally as they cook. You don’t want too much flour flying around–always use the smallest amount you can get away with using. You don’t want the lefse too dry–they’ll dry a bit as it is, when they’re awaiting use. As you can imagine, during the baking day one works hard, gets hungry, and smells buttery mashed potato dough cooking, so some of the lefse will not live long enough to worry your pretty little head about any real drying-out problems with them. Some will have to be rescued from their intended wait immediately for slathering with beautiful melting butter and eaten instantly. After all, there are always some lefse that resist the most valiant efforts to make them into a perfect circle and choose instead to replicate maps of various continents, and once you get too far away from Australia-looking they’re just not going to fold into even quarters for the standard packaging and serving format and it’s best to destroy the evidence. It’s sort of like James Mason’s delightfully dry remark in ‘11 Harrowhouse‘ when he’s found apparently in the midst of removing the contents of a diamond safe: “I’ve eaten the inventory.”
What else is there to say? Roll. Bake. Lay a freshly-minted lefse flat on a clean towel and cover it with another towel. Roll. Bake. Lay the next lefse on top of the first and cover it with that top towel. Repeat until all of that carefully crafted dough is baked into giant, tissue thin circles of lightly moist flatbread. When the whole batch is done, either eat it all for supper or let it cool under its towel, carefully fold each piece into quarters and then package small stacks of the finished lefse in zipper bags for the counter, refrigerator or freezer, depending on how long until they will be eaten.
And what is all of this enormous effort for? Some, including members of my own family, would say as Grandma W said regarding lefse’s cousin kumpe (Norwegian potato dumplings) that it was “a lot of work to spoil potatoes”. Others revere them as the Norsk version of the Mexican tortilla, Middle Eastern pita, South/Central Asian naan, or any other culture’s soft flatbread. Making lefse is of course potentially a fine way both to preserve the Norwegian culture in both country and family, as well as a social event. You know me, though: Lazy Girl helped only when I had to other than in the devouring of the finished product. It was usually other relatives and friends that pitched in with Mom in the manufacturing of lefse. And it’s so fragile, both as a tensile object and in its moisture content, that it doesn’t taste good for very long.
So in my opinion, what this labor of love is about is, well, love. Secondarily, it’s about a great potato flatbread best hot off the griddle and smeared with fresh butter only, as it always was preferred in my family. Others like it best with sugar and perhaps some cinnamon sprinkled on it before it’s folded up and jammed into their mouths, and we would sometimes, if the day had grown extra long and laborious over multiple batches of lefse, make a heartier meal of it by making a sort of quesadilla out of a hot lefse with some cheddar or Jarlsberg cheese and thin slices of good ham folded and warmed inside, not a bad “sandwich” at all.
In any case, I can tell you that there are many who will vouch for Mama’s inimitable lefse as the archetype of all potato lefse. But then, you already knew that Mom is pretty much the archetype of moms, so what would you expect! As for Grandma W, she may be forgiven for thinking potato dumplings, and possibly lefse as well, too labor-intensive for their meager culinary payoff since she grew up in her immigrant father’s grocery store and might have considered it better to enjoy prepared foods in that Modern, American way.That’s Grandma, by the way, the little barefoot girl in white, Christmas-tree-tipping Auntie Ingeborg behind her, with their parents and little brother and an employee (haloed in window light) in Great-Grandpa’s grocery store. Lefse or no, they apparently did have some fine food on hand! May all of you dear readers eat well–whatever you’re eating!