Lefsa is a traditional holiday food on the Norwegian side of my family. My dad’s family made it every year just before Christmas. It’s like a potato tortilla, for lack of a better description. For Christmas it is served along with a meal of fragrant lutefisk, boiled rutabagas and boiled potatoes. Melted butter is poured over it all and my Norwegian relatives dive head first into it.
Eventually my family also served lefsa with our Thanksgiving meal of turkey and the trimmings, so it was made in massive batches in late October and early November. We modified my Grandma Thompson’s original recipe slightly and cooked it on lefsa griddles.
My mother took to making lefsa like a duck to water. She was German, but did the Norwegian tradition proud. She changed the recipe from 3 tablespoons of shortening and 1 tablespoon of butter to the opposite, and discovered it was a better flavor and they were moister. She also developed the system where we wrapped several folded slices in first plastic wrap, then freezer paper, then into zippered freezer bags. They stayed moist in the freezer and being frozen helped the moisture equalize throughout the pieces. We jokingly now say they are being “proofed” as they are frozen. That’s mostly true and totally effective.
I have two griddles and have made lefsa since I was about 16. I didn’t start rolling them until I was much older. My mother always had the knack for rolling them perfectly round, so I was the flipper for all those years. Once I learned to roll, I did them for many years on my own until my son decided he wanted to learn. Justin learned quickly and by 16 was rolling them as fast as I was. Hence the second griddle.
Eventually Justin’s new wife joined us and took over the flipping so we could keep three griddles going at once. My daughter Emily started flipping and recently has been perfecting her rolling technique as well. It’s a lively Saturday at our house when the lefsa is being rolled and grilled to perfection. It’s such a tradition we always look forward to it, even though it is very labor intensive and many ibuprofen are swallowed afterwards to ease sore muscles. To simply look at a piece of lefsa you’d never know how much work goes into making those harmless looking things! There is a good reason why they aren’t cheap in the grocery store.
We start the night before, peeling 40 pounds of potatoes. Justin and Karyn peel, I usually cut them into smaller chunks and place them in the large kettles of salted water. When a kettle is ¾ full, I put it on a burner on high and bring it to a boil. Once it comes to a boil, I turn it down to just over medium and let them cook until fork tender. Hopefully I notice before they boil over, but that is a natural occurrence around my house. We get busy doing other things and forget to watch. Oops. Sudsy potato water all over the stove is probably another tradition.
Once the potatoes are done, we drain them into a large colander. From there Justin scoops them into the potato ricer and rices them into a large bowl. I was thrilled when he was old enough to take over that task. Ricing requires a whole lot of muscle. My “station” is next to him, where I scoop 3 heaping cups of hot, riced potatoes into a bowl. I measure in 3 tablespoons of heavy cream, 3 tablespoons of butter (not margarine!), a tablespoon of shortening, a teaspoon of sugar and a teaspoon of salt.
From there I hand the bowl over to Karyn. At her “station” she mixes the potatoes and other ingredients until they are melted and fully integrated. She sets the bowls aside until I take a break from measuring and roll each bowl into a ball and store it in a plastic container. Eventually from 40 lbs of potatoes we get about 19 or 20 balls of dough. I call them dough, but the flour isn’t added until they are rolled, so basically they are glorified mashed potatoes still at this point.
We work fast at the measuring and mixing, trying to get the butter and shortening into the potatoes while they are still hot enough to melt. Toward the end when it is late and we are moving slower, we sometimes have to put a bowl into the microwave to heat the potatoes again to get the butter and shortening to melt.
Balls all made, we let them sit in plastic storage containers overnight. That’s a modification I made myself. My mother used to set them out on the porch or in the maid’s closet or garage to chill overnight. Sometimes the weather was so cold they even froze. She’d bring the containers back in a few at a time to reach room temperature so she could roll them.
Soon after I started making them, one night I forgot to chill the containers. When I made them the next day they were as good as ever. Maybe better, as they hadn’t ended up with a lot of condensation from chilling and warming again. There isn’t much in the dough balls to turn bad overnight; it’s not like it’s pork or beef. Butter often sits out in the cupboard, so it was a no-brainer. We let them sit on the counter overnight now.
The next day we set up our tables and griddles and equipment in the places we’ve found most convenient for us and plug in the griddles. The griddles run at 550°F so we make sure there are no children running around. The griddles draw a large amount of power so we use heavy extension cords and plug each griddle on a separate circuit in the house. Each year we forget which outlets we use. Discussion ensues and we eventually do one in the kitchen, one in the living room, and one from the upstairs bathroom, just to make sure they’re different.
Griddles heated, sticks ready to transfer the rolled sheets to the griddles and to flip, I start to prepare each dough ball. In a large bowl I place a potato ball, then measure in ¾ of a cup of flour. This is the most important part of the process. The flour must be worked in just right, and the consistency must be just right. Not too wet, not too dry, not worked too long so that it ends up elastic.
Preparing the dough is something you learn by feel. I use my fingers to kind of lift the dough up, kind of using a finger kneading motion, to get it separated into small clumps about an inch each. I can tell if it is still too wet, and add more flour, about 2 tablespoons or so at a time. It’s never an exact measure. When I like the feel, I roll it around and around in the bowl for 2-3 minutes until it forms a ball again. Not too long, or it will be as elastic as pizza dough! Then it won’t roll out, it will keep zapping back into place.
When the dough is in a ball, pick it up and form it into a log, about 10 inches long. We lay it on a dry cotton towel and using a butter knife, mark it into 10 equal sections. Each ball will make 10 lefsa. Take one section into your hand and roll it, giving it just a touch of elasticity. Flatten it on your palm and put it into a shallow bowl of flour, coating it thoroughly. I prepare the balls each time we run out and Karyn makes sure the bowls are kept filled with flour.
The rolling boards are round. For years my mother pinned several white cotton dish towels over the board, then covered it with a drawstring lefsa board cover. Without thinking, I did that for a lot of years. It was my most dreaded task of the lefsa making process. Then one year I simply used two drawstring covers and it worked perfectly. Ta da! We pat a large amount of flour into the covers to keep them dry, then begin rolling. We re-flour the board before rolling each lefsa. Next comes the actual lefsa-making, finally!
Place the flattened lefsa dough onto the center of the board. Sprinkle with a good amount of flour, about ¼ cup. Using a lefsa rolling-pin that has lines carved into it, use light motions to roll the dough out into a circle. With practice you’ll have smooth sides and thin lefsa. Sprinkle with small amounts of flour if you see it is wet and wanting to stick to the rolling-pin. Don’t let the dough stick to the rolling-pin, it will harden and make a mess of rolling. In the sink, use a toothbrush or a butter knife to occasionally clean out any grooves to make for easier rolling.
When the lefsa is rolled to the right thickness, insert the lefsa stick down the middle underneath and lift. Lay one half side onto the griddle and roll the stick toward the other side, so the lefsa drapes gracefully onto the griddle. If it’s hanging over one side, leave it! It is more of a mess to fix it than ignore it for now. When your lefsa is bubbled up and has light brown spots on the bottom side, insert your stick up the middle and lift. Lay one side down, then slide stick toward the empty side of the griddle and drape it out as before. The part that had draped over the side will now cook flat.
Similarly, if a small corner ends up bent up, leave it. You will make your lefsa stick wet if you mess with it, and it is nearly impossible to fix it anyway. When you flip it to the second side it will usually straighten out, just like the one that was draped over the side. Don’t sweat the small stuff, is what we say. We also joke about the very large ones that are even larger than the griddle. My mom is good at doing that, she’s just that good at rolling. We will say “There’s a Marian one!” And when we fry a lefsa just a little too dark we call it a “Wally” one, because my dad prefers his lefsa cooked more dark than the rest of us. It reminds him of his mom’s original lefsa
You will just cook the second side of the lefsa briefly, then remove it from the griddle with a stick inserted down the middle. Draped in half over the stick, it is easy to lay onto a cotton cloth folded in half. As a caution, make sure your dish cloths are not dried with fabric softener. My sister Linda still talks about the year all of her lefsa tasted like her fabric softener. We make sure those cloths are dried separately at our house so that never happens.
I have a large Rubbermaid container that was probably designed to hold Christmas wrapping paper that I use for my lefsa equipment. It holds both griddles, stacked, all of the sticks, rolling pins and other equipment. I even put our chef aprons (you end up with a lot of flour on your belly when you roll!), dish towels, and drawstring board covers in there once they are washed. It’s handy to have it all in one place and not have to remember which drawer or cupboard an item was stuck in.
Once all of the balls of lefsa have been processed and fried, we let them cool for an hour or two and usually go out to dinner for a break. When we return we cut the lefsa in half, fold each half in half, and stack 4 lefsa together. Using plastic wrap, we wrap each bundle, then wrap each again in freezer paper. Finally we put 6 or 8 packages into large zippered freezer bags. We do that to prevent freezer burn and also to prevent the lefsa from absorbing freezer odors, which it likes to do if it is not wrapped securely.
We date each freezer wrapped package with a Sharpee marker and into the freezer it goes. When we want to thaw it, we remove it from the freezer, then from the bag, and let it thaw on the counter in the plastic and freezer paper. It is best handled when room temperature; it is easier to pull apart and butter, then roll up. Some family members like their lefsa buttered then sprinkled with sugar. It is usually eaten that way as a kid in my family. I think it’s atrocious now; I like the pure flavor of nice soft lefsa simply buttered. If the package isn’t eaten immediately, it is good for several days in the fridge.
Besides being buttered and rolled up, we like to make what we joke are “Norwegian Burritos” with the Thanksgiving leftovers. We place pieces of turkey, stuffing, and cranberries down the center of the lefsa, roll and eat. We like them cold, but also have microwaved them the times we put gravy over the stuffing and turkey. I’ve been considering a lefsa casserole, where it is used like lasagna noodles to make a leftover turkey, potato, stuffing and gravy layered casserole. Cheese could be included for a different taste, or not. I think I’ll work on that next. I have a lot of lefsa in my freezer still.
Lefsa will last a year in the freezer usually, but is best if used within 6 months. I’ll admit lefsa has gotten lost in my freezer and been good after 2 years, but other times not so good. Again, 6 months is a good rule of thumb.
My recipe is for making one ball of dough, which will produce 10 lefsa. Decide how many you want and multiply from there. My own notes say something like: 32 tablespoons of butter = 4 sticks of butter, to help me decide. But we almost always make 40# of potatoes which gives us just short of 200 lefsa each year. The amount varies by how many we snack on or ruin while rolling or flipping. It’s a ballpark figure.
3 heaping cups of riced potatoes; hot
3 tablespoons heavy cream
3 tablespoons butter (margarine is forbidden in our lefsa)
1 tablespoon shortening (I only use Crisco butter flavor in sticks)
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
Mix together until all of the butter and shortening is melted and incorporated. Roll into a ball and store in a plastic container. When the balls have cooled to room temp, place lids on them or cover with foil.
The next day, mix each ball with ¾ cup flour with your fingers. Add more flour if your potatoes seem wet still. You want them a bit dry, almost like the consistence of new Playdoh. Roll into a ball for several minutes, then shape into a 10” log using your hands.
Place the log onto a cotton cloth and divide into 10 portions using a butter knife. Roll each portion with your hands for 3-4 minutes until it is smooth. Flatten to about 2” with your palms and dip in flour, heavily coating it.
Place disk on the center of your rolling board you’ve covered with flour. Place ¼ or so of flour over the disk and roll until it is desired size and thickness.
Lift by sliding your lefsa stick up the center and draping on half onto the griddle. Roll your sick toward the empty side of the griddle, draping the second half out flat. Let cook until small bubbles form, then flip using the same method.
Cook the second side just a minute or two, then remove and drape folded in half on several layers of cotton cloth. Brush the excess flour off the griddle with a large ball of paper towelling to prevent burning.
Wrap in plastic wrap, freezer paper then date each package with a Sharpee marker. Place several packages into a zippered freezer bag and place in freezer. Will keep fresh about 6 months in the freezer.
20# potatoes, cooked and riced, makes about 100 lefsa.