Lefse Making in Ladysmith

Minnesota & Wisconsin lefses, oddly, have an essence of tater-hot dish and cheesecurd, respectively.
Minnesota & Wisconsin lefses, oddly, have an essence of tater-hot dish and cheesecurd, respectively.

It’s lefse making time all across the Nordic and near-Nordic scapes. From Hamar, Norway, to Portland, Oregon, to Ladysmith, Wisconsin, and beyond, the aroma of griddled potato flatbread fills the air. The annual tradition signals the beginning of winter, the coming of the holidays (Christmas to Easter), and the realization that one’s weekly exercise routine may need to be doubled, or even tripled, if there is any hope of keeping the svelte figure that was chiseled summer last.

The grand old Gerard Hotel keeping watch over the Majestic Flambeau
The grand old Gerard Hotel keeping watch over the Majestic Flambeau

Lefse can be made year-round, if the humidity levels are low enough (or if you’re willing to add additional flour); but it is often affiliated with the winter months as a companion to dinners of lutefisk, and/or some type of Northern European meatballs, and/or rakfisk, smoked trout or salmon. The history of potato lefse dates back two-and-a-half centuries and flour lefse might go back before the age of the Vikings (not Bud Grant’s Purple People Eaters). If you’ve never tried this Scandinavian staple, and you’d be willing to dedicate parts of two days to crafting this treat, then the recipe below will guide you through the process.

A few items that help immensely: potato ricer, Christmas bread (for sustenance), mixing bowl, and old fashioned food mill for making fruit butter, etc. to accompany the various breads.
A few items that help immensely: potato ricer, Christmas bread (for sustenance), mixing bowl, and old fashioned food mill for making fruit butter, etc. to accompany the various breads.

First, gather the ingredients for making the lefse:

Beer: I prefer a darker style: Stout (Dogfish Head, LynLake), Porter (Dangerous Man, Smutty Nose), Belgian Quad (Brau Bros, Boulevard) or, if not dark, at least with more heft: Barleywine (AnchorLift Bridge), Imperial Red (Fulton, Lagunitas), Scotch Ale (Steel Toe, Dark Horse) or a robust Brown Ale (Mad Tree, Freehouse). And, seeing as though the beer is not for mixing into the potatoes, you can substitute wine or a nice cordial, whatever you like to sip on.

(1) 5 lb. bag of Burbank Russett potatoes (if you can’t find burbank, see what your grocer offers that is the driest potato—less moisture = better outcomes); this should yield 8-9 cups of riced potatoes, adjust following ingredients by pinches or smidgens if you end up with more or less; recipe will make approximately 2 dozen pieces

(2) sticks of unsalted butter – room temperature; do not substitute margarine and if you want to use lard, that’s fine, just go 80% lard, 20% oil, equivalent to 2 sticks butter (1 cup) (having never tried this, I’m going with what others have said)

(1) Tbsp, or thereabouts, salt (I use kosher—no iodine, and larger surface area means increased contact (with less salt) resulting in greater absorption of moisture, think geometry and chemical reactions); additionally, add at least (2) tsp of kosher salt in the water when cooking potatoes

≈ (1)Tbsp white sugar

(3) cups white flour (again, keep humidity in mind)

This recipe does not use cream or ½ & ½, as many others do, which does create a different, though not necessarily less authentic, version; it’s just our particular take (it’s more about the Love you bring into the kitchen). As an aside, The Sons of Norway don’t use cream either.

Second, gather the necessary implements

(1) pot for cooking 5 lbs of potatoes

(1) potato ricer or masher and forks if no ricer is available

(1) mixing spoon

(1)  1-cup measuring cup

(1) Large mixing bowl

(1) flour sifter if you want, not entirely necessary

Day 1 – peel potatoes, quarter potatoes, and cook as for mashed (until a fork easily pierces the flesh)

  • drain potatoes and then rice the entire batch (in the same pot); if you don’t have a ricer, use a masher, and then two forks to ensure you’ve removed all the lumps
  • once riced, transfer to larger mixing bowl (you may want to transfer by packing the measuring cup and counting so you know how many total cups you’re working with, or not)
  • add both sticks of butter (or lard & oil), salt, & sugar while the potatoes are still warm, and mix until well married
  • cool uncovered for 1½ -2 hours then cover with paper towel and then over the paper towel place a clean cotton dish towel and let potatoes rest over night, on a counter, not refrigerated (don’t tuck the towel in)

Day 2 – Prepare for lefse making by staging the following items: (here they are)

  • set up the lefse griddle/flat top grill (make sure your chosen surface heats to a minimum of 450°, 500° is optimal) 
  • lay out towels for steaming: 3-5 towels should be laid down for the lefse to rest upon, depending on thickness and ability to retain moisture (at least two towels should be akin to a flour sack dish towel-100% soft cotton, these are the towels that will contact the lefse, top & bottom) and another 2-3 towels should be placed on top to cover the lefse as it comes off the griddle, this is done for the steaming process
  • (1) wood pastry board, round is preferable but if you have another shape and it’s large enough to roll out the lefse (at least 20″ x 20″) you can use that, the lefse should roll out to a circular-type shape approximately 12″-14″ in diameter
  • (1-2) pastry cloth(s) that can be secured in a taut fashion over the wood board (having a backup is handy; if you begin to experience excessive gumminess or it is generally being disagreeable, change your cloth)
  • (1) good basic rolling pin with 2-4 covers → (“lefse cloth”/pastry cloth material)
  • (1) corrugated rolling pin (this is for finishing/design purposes)
You may use the corrugated rolling pin for everything, just make sure it is sheathed in the pastry cloth for the primary dough rolling
  • (1 or 2) lefse sticks; if you are employing multiple helpers, it’s nice to have an extra stick but don’t allow for any light-saber battles, they are rather delicate
  • (1) vessel of white flour (at least (2) cups) for dusting the board and the rolling pin
  • (1) small clean cloth stationed next to the griddle for wiping off excess flour in-between each flatbread
  • (1) ¼-cup measuring cup
  • (1) designated location to place your beverage(s)

Day 2 – Procedures

  • divide bowl into half, be as exact as possible but don’t buy a scale just for this, do your best
  • set aside one bowl with half of the potatoes, cover again with new towel
  • add half of the flour to the first batch and mix by hand, this is very important as you are kneading the flour into the potatoes until smooth, because you’re making bread, not potatoes (this will be repeated with the other ½ , post completion of 1st ½—hence, beverage preparation)
  • fill a ¼ cup measuring device (packed but not smushed) and then form the dough into a spherical-like shape and place it onto a plate or board (has to be able to fit in the fridge) allowing it to rest in fridge for at least 30 minutes

Commence with the lefse making

  • preheat griddle to 500° and reduce to 475°ish a few minutes prior to first round hitting the grill (continue to monitor/adjust heat as needed, older grills can be finicky)
  • work 2-3 Tbsp of flour into the pastry cloth (by hand) where the dough flattening will occur (this must be done to sufficiently minimize adherence of dough to cloth)
  • prior to every precious nugget of dough being placed on the board (including the first), lightly dust the rolling area with flour (approximately a Tbsp that is slightly heaping should be enough but adjust as necessary)
  • place dough onto board and give a pat, then turn over and push down slightly, this gives both surfaces an initial coat of flour to help keep the dough from sticking to the rolling pin or board
  • start rolling out the dough in short quick strokes of the pin (make sure the cover is on the pin), do not use too much force, just enough to get the dough spreading evenly; here (at the 5:30 mark) is a good example; and pick up the pin as you reach the edge or the fringe will be thinner than the rest of the “disc” making for an overly crisp outer ring
  • keep rolling into a roundish shape until quite thin, a millimeter at most (a dime is 1.35 mm, so thinner than a dime is the goal); if during the rolling, you find the dough sticking to the pastry cloth covered rolling pin, scrape the cloth clean and rub a little flour on the soiled spot, then determine if you need a little more flour on the dough/board or if you’re using too much force (easy, Arnold; repetitive bouts of scraping and flouring means you should replace your rolling pin cover); also, if you find that you’ve completely mangled the now defunct dough ball, just roll it back up, throw it in the fridge and come back to it, just try not to do that more than once to the same lump as the addition of too much flour will give you something that tastes more like a flour cake—no eggs, no butter, no vanilla, no bueno

This is a good time to point out that the most difficult part of the lefse-making process is preventing the dough from sticking to the board, or pin, or both.

  •  once the proper thickness has been achieved, give a quick 2-3 wisp-like rolls with the corrugated rolling pin (with or without a cover, for decorative purposes) very carefully slide one lefse stick under the flattened dough, pretending that you are following a diameter line (maximize surface area for even weight distribution) and gently lift the lefse and transport to the grill
  • gradually unfurl the lefse onto the grill by twisting the stick, don’t try to rush this, it’s not going to help if you’re picking at it to get it flat after tossing it on in a heap
The unfurling of the lefse
The unfurling of the lefse
  • allow lefse to cook for as long as it takes, you’ll know it’s ready to flip when you see smallish bubbles forming and the edges browning nicely; if this is taking more than 1 & ½ minutes, or less than 45 seconds, the heat needs to be adjusted to a warmer/cooler setting (485°/460°)
an exemplary piece of lefse
an exemplary piece of lefse
  • using lefse stick, again gently slide your saber under the mid-section of the half-done bread and using the same technique (twisting motion) place uncooked side down and wait another minute +/-, check it by peeking at underside, before taking it off
  • when lefse is done, remove with lefse stick and lay (still folded in half) on the bottom cotton towel and cover with top towels (& don’t forget to dust off any flour left on the griddle)
lefse laid out on the steaming towels, under the watchful eye of a Dangerous Man
lefse laid out on the steaming towels, under the watchful eye of a Dangerous Man

 

  • Continue to layer each lefse on top of the last, with about one inch showing on the top of the previous piece
  • When you are close to reaching the end of the towels, about 12-15 pieces, move up the first 10-12 so that they are almost entirely on top of each other, about 1/4 inch overlap, and then continue with the layering, moving up more as necessary; and don’t forget to keep the lefse covered, it needs to steam in the towels to retain moisture
  • Once you’ve finished the batch, allow them to steam for another 20 minutes before putting away (if it hasn’t already disappeared); Lefse keeps best in a sealed bag in the refrigerator. It’s good for a few weeks but we don’t usually wait to see how long it will last.

How to eat your culinary delight:

buttered, rolled, ready to eat
buttered, rolled, ready to eat

My preference is a modest spread of butter, rolled up, that’s it. However, many folk prefer a little sugar, brown or white, along with the butter. It’s also perfectly delicious solo, smeared with fruit butter, nibbled with cheese, or filled with meatballs, smoked salmon or gravlax. There is really no wrong way to eat lefse. It tastes delicious any-which-way you nosh it.

Additional information/tips for the artisans attempting this feat:

The import of dry arctic-like air from the region around Oslo, Norway (or Ladysmith, if their bottling line is up and running) can help artificially create conditions that are favorable for a successful lefse making venture (similar to what some bourbon drinkers do (importing limestone filtered water to supposedly enhance the experience). However, you run the risk of getting a package that was not properly sealed and has no return address, and then you are left with nothing to attenuate the humidity in the cooking area.

Rusk County's Dehumidifying plant responsible for much of Western New York's snow
Rusk County’s dehumidifying plant is responsible for much of Western New York’s snow

Ladysmith (and Rusk County more generally) is lucky, when it comes to lefse-making; with the semi-arid Flambeau River enveloping the village, and the dehumidifying plant that is situated neatly on the river’s edge removing even more moisture from the big drink in the Heart-O-The-North, much of the remaining pine forest dampness is removed and the resulting steam is sent off in the general direction of Syracuse, New York (so now you know why Western New York gets so much winter precipitation). This all adds up to create a near-perfect micro-climate for the lefse experience (much like Santa Barbara’s wine regions).

The Mighty Flambeau
The Mighty Flambeau

And for all those kitchen craftswo/men attempting this feat in-between Palm Beach County, Florida (from Belle Glade to Boca Raton) and St. Martin Parish, Louisiana (either region), you may need to seal off your workspace, install some dehumidifiers, and crank up the heat, in addition to importing the more arid form of atmosphere. Moreover, if you don’t have the World Champion lefse-maker (a.k.a. my Mom) helping you out (because she’s busy crafting lefse and other heavenly confectionery, in Fall Creek (which has it’s own semi-arid micro-climate, if less intense), Lefse Time and many many other useful sites/videos have you covered.

Good Luck with the lefse-making venture and let me know if you have questions: 26.3andbeyond@gmail.com

Skol!

 

 

 

 

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Leif

Bent on making public education more equitable, economic opportunities more widely available, the general public more empathetic, and food more tasty. Rich experiences in Inner-city public education, rural America (farm to factory), restaurant industry professional, and animal & plant caretaker extraordinaire. 40 States visited and counting.