“It just isn’t Christmas without lefse.” It’s a phrase I’ve been known to say many times over the years as I eagerly tear into the foil wrapped package of lefse sent express from my grandma’s kitchen in Illinois to my childhood home near Seattle.
Growing up, the tortilla-like Norwegian flatbread (often made with potatoes, especially in Scandinavian-American communities, but not necessarily in Scandinavia itself) was a special treat – even if my uncle often compared it to a cloth napkin in flavor and texture. He just didn’t get it.
Like her Norwegian ancestors, my grandmother usually makes lefse once, maybe twice, a year, freezing small packets of lefse to last throughout the year. Truth be told, lefse making is chaos incarnate, which perhaps explains why a year’s supply is made in one fell swoop. The sticky, gummy dough sticks like library paste to the grooved rolling pin and counter tops, while a thin layer of flour covers every horizontal surface in addition to your face, hair, clothes, and the inside of your eyelids.
The dough is no match for my grandmother, though, whose slight frame masks a fierce rolling skill. The dough quickly becomes thin enough to “read the newspaper through,” her constant refrain as she rolls and watches my feeble attempts to match her dexterity. Good lefse requires careful discernment of the right amount of flour, the proper temperature of the griddle or pan, and the perfect temperature of the dough, neither too warm nor too cold.
I helped her some years, though I may have messed it up more than I helped. The grilling is one area that I’ve managed to master with aplomb, lifting the dough in one swift swoop of my sword-like stick, laying down the edge, and rolling it out quickly so it lies flat on the round lefse griddle. Thirty seconds or so later, the lefse needs to be flipped. Timing is everything in achieving the perfect balance of knobby brown flecks and bubbles on the pale rounds. A whole batch can take all day.
Moving to Wisconsin, I was shocked to learn you can buy lefse in the grocery store – nearly all of them in Madison have at least one brand. As with all things, though, homemade – grandma-made -is best.
It turns out lefse skill runs in my family. While scanning some newspaper articles my grandma had saved, I found an article in a Minnesota paper featuring my great-grandmother and her lefse recipe. It turns out, according to the article, that she, too, didn’t think it was “Christmas without lefse.”