Saturday, December 18, 2010


When a load of potatoes are put on to boil in my mother's kitchen and the lefsa griddle comes out, you know it's beginning to look alot like Christmas. Though lefsa is eaten year round, for us, and many Norwegian-American families, it's an annual Christmas season tradition to gather in someone's kitchen and make lefsa. It's a relaxing afternoon because there is a certain amount of time spent waiting for things to cook so there's lots of easy-going conversation.

Germans have brautwurst, Mexicans have tortillas. The Thai have sticky rice, Australians have vegemite and Norwegians have lefsa.

Lefsa, or lefse, is a traditional Norwegian flat bread made primarily from potatoes. There are a few different kinds of lefsa- thick, thin, crispier, soft- and countless recipes. Unlike fruit soup (click here), lefsa recipes do vary across regions of Norway in the way they are made and eaten. All version, however, are thin (or thin-ish) and made from potatoes.

Lefsa isn't hard to make though it does require some special equipment.

Ideally, lefsa is cooked on a lefsa grill. This is essentially a round electric griddle. In the past, we used a large round, flat pan on top of the stove. After my dad bought Mor the griddle, that pan seems to have disappeared.

You also need a rolling pin and a turning stick. If two people are working together, it's super handy for each person to have their own.

Your rolling pin should be a grooved pin, with the grooves running around the pin. This allows you to roll the lefsa thinner without air pockets and gives the lefsa its distinctive grid pattern. This results in the yummy texture of the cooked lefsa. You'll see in a minute.

The turning sticks are for, well, turning the lefsa as you roll it out and cook it. These were made from the slats that are inside the bottom "pulling end" of roller-style window shades. Just shape and sand smooth one end. Oh, those clever Norwegians.

by commonculinarian via Flickr Creative Commons

Finally, you'll need a potato ricer. The one you will be seeing us use here today has been loved much more than the one pictured above.

My mom- "Mor" in Norwegian- uses a recipe from her mom. I love my mom's recipe box. It's stuffed full of these cards, most of them written by my Mor with notes added over the years. At the bottom of this recipe, you can see where Mor added a note in 1962 after talking the recipe over with Grampa. There are more notes on the back.

Before we get to work, a note to all my Norske friends out there. I know that chances are your recipe is different. Even for lefsa that is supposed to be the same type, the variations are countless. But, like with the Fruit Soup, our recipe is the right way to make lefsa. OK, you know I'm kidding. It's just the way that I suspect my Grandma learned it from her mom, who learned it from her mom, etc for generations back into the wild and mysterious Viking times of Norwegian history. Your family probably just lived in a different valley than mine.

So, let's get going on the lefsa.

Grandma's recipe says you need:

12 potatoes
1/2 tsp shortening for every cup of riced potatoes

Let's talk potatoes. Mor says to use Russet potatoes. Idaho Russet potatoes are preferable as you need a potato that will cook up dry and mealy.

Mor also says not to use milk or cream as these will cause the lefsa to blister when cooking. They blister a bit anyway and as you will see they tend to blister a bit more when I'm stationed on the grill. It's just yummy that way to me.

Alright, let's get going....

Clean your potatoes by giving them a good scrubbing under running water.

Take out any bad spots and cut them into quarters.


Cook them (covered) in a large pot with the skins on and just enough water to keep them from sticking. Add a dash or two of salt.

While the 'taties are cooking, admire Mor's sweet arrangement and the herb starts in her window.

Then the potatoes are fork tender, scrub out your sink really well and drain them right into the sink. OK- you can drain them however you like but this sure is easy.

Let the potatoes cool a bit- just until you can stand to hand them. You don't want them to be cold. Then peel them,

and push them through the ricer. Twelve potatoes will give you about 10 cups of riced potatoes.

For each cup of riced potatoes, add 1/2 tsp of shortening. We had 10 cups of riced potatoes so we added 1 Tbsp plus 2 tsp of shortening. Distribute the shortening around the potatoes instead of adding all in one clump in one spot. Doing so helps with getting it mixed in evenly.

Remember, Norwegians who may be listening and who make their lefsa differently, this recipe does not call for milk or cream.

Now add about 4 cups of flour and salt to taste and mix up the whole batch very well. You want a dough that is not too stiff and is easily handled. It should be just a bit- just a bit- dry and crumbly.

Now plop out some dough on a length of wax paper, shape it into a log, and roll it in waxed paper. Many folks will tell you that the dough should be formed into balls about the size of a tennis ball and chilled on a plate in the 'fridge. My uncle says to chill the dough overnight. Whatever, it all cooks up the same.

Anyway, we got five rolls. We just let it sit on the counter and cool its heels while we get everything together for the next step. About 5 minutes. Mor and I chilled one fo the rolls as an experiment while we worked on the others but didn't notice any appreciable difference.

You can roll the lefsa on a floured counter top but it works very well to roll it on a heavy, floured towel or pastry cloth. Mor has a round cutting board that she made a cover for out of a heavy weight muslin. It's just a circle with elastic around the edges to hold it onto the cutting board.

Working one roll at a time, cut a slice of dough about 2 inches wide or so,

 pat it out in your hand, (see, it's a ball!) and

... get to rolling. You want to roll it a thin as possible but not so thin it tears when you turn it. It's an art. Work back and forth and then turn the pin to roll perpendicularly. You'll get a nice cross-hatched texture. Keep your surface floured. In fact, if you don't end the day with flour over 99.9% of your kitchen, you haven't made your lefsa correctly.

Turn the lefsa with the turning sticks as you roll it out and then transfer to the grill. Turn it over once one side starts to brown up a little.

You can see the cross-hatching and some of the blistering texture. This recipe makes up about 40 lefsa. Give or take. And depending whether or not you count the ones eaten in the name of quality control. Well, somebody has to make sure it's fit to eat.

Cool the lefsa on a towel. Mor folds each piece in half and makes little stacks. Normally they are covered with waxed paper or another towel to keep them from drying out. I know, it doesn't really look like much, but that's some yummy stuff.

The most common way of eating lefsa is to spread it with butter, roll it up, and eat it just like that. This is called "lefse-klenning" and is how we usually eat ours. However, there are no rules for properly eating lefsa. Many people add sugar or preserves. You can add fish such as pickled herring or a raw fermented fish called rakfisk with onions and sour cream. Some folks add salami or maybe some sort of cheese. You can even dip it in the Fruit Soup. There's no right or wrong way- whatever gets you through the next 3 months of darkness to spring.

Making lefsa with Mor has always been not just a Christmas tradition at our house but a kind of right of passage, a grafting onto our family tree that goes deep into history and blossoms with love. It's a bonding. I've been running the grill for years but my older sister always got to do the rolling. Rolling is an honor. This year when Mor asked me if I wanted to roll, I choked. What if I messed up? I'm "of a certain age" now but still didn't feel grown up enough to roll. It somehow seemed so wrong for anyone but Mor or my sister to roll that I simply couldn't mess with tradition. I am the grill daughter, not the roll daughter.

Maybe next year.


  1. Our family makes fatimand every year. Rolling is usually the job of my uncle and brother, and the frying goes to us "of age" ladies. The younger ones and the older ones cut and fold. It's a very old tradition in our family, and our recipe card was written by my great-grandmother. Funny how strong these traditions are!

  2. I love those traditions that bind us to where we came from. I've thought about fatimand but have never gotten around to it. Thanks for sharing your family traditions.

  3. Used to have a griddle like that, but it died. Who manufactures the griddle?