Jilly D.

Lefse, more lefse

In Pictures and memories, Time and seasons on January 2, 2011 at 3:00 am

Potatoes for lefse

 In Ithaca you can find tortillas, focaccia, pita, roti, naan, lavash, but no lefse. Not all flatbreads are the same and nothing else tastes like lefse. Made from mashed potatoes and flour, lefse is fried in a dry skillet. In Scandinavia they thank God for their daily lefse.

Lutefisk and lefse are considered the hallmark Scandinavian dinner. Lutefisk is cod; salted and cured in lye. It is boiled and served with butter, salt and pepper. My dad described its’ flavor best: boiled snot. True. As a third-generation Swedish-American I dropped that part of my culinary heritage. Lefse, however, is in my genetic code.

To non-Scandinavians, Lefse is described as tasting like shoe leather. Untrue. More like potato-flavored communion wafer. There is that distinct texture of browned flour coating the gluey mashed potato flatbread. If fried at too high a temperature, lefse turns crisp around the edges. Lefse should be flat and supple like a flour tortilla.

Swedes eat lefse faster than they can mash potatoes. It is served usually with a swipe of sweet cream butter across one side of the round, rolled up into a wrap for its naked Swede potato taste. Norwegians sprinkle sugar on top of the butter before rolling for a treat to eat with morning Kaffee.

“Our people don’t eat lefse that way,” my mother told me. But I’ve expanded my lefse horizons. I have made lefse wraps with shaved roast beef, a homemade garlic dill pickle spear, and a swipe of horseradish. Mother’s reaction to this heresy?

“I have NEVER heard of any Swede who put a pickle in lefse.  YUK!  You don’t want to spread wrong rumors,” she said. I didn’t want to make an issue of my Swedish sushi: pickled herring wrapped in lefse.

In most grocery stores in Minnesota, you can find lefse in the dairy case near the tortillas. It’s not a seasonal item but more lefse is sold in December than any other month.

Here in New York nobody ever heard of it. Lefse. What’s lefse?

It is time to bring this potato flatbread to the fore in the Finger Lakes where potatoes are a staple. I don’t expect Wegmans will stock it any time soon, but you can tell your family and dinner guests that lefse is an ethnic thing.

Potatoes grow well here in the Finger Lakes region and they are one of America’s favorite comfort foods. Wheat grows here, too. Red wheat, white wheat, spelt. I’ve discovered Cayuga Pure Organics fresh ground flours are as tasty as the Finger Lakes’ varieties of spuds. Lefse recipe variations abound in possibilities for making it part of the ever evolving haute cuisine of foodieville, Ithaca, New York. But I’ve got the blue and yellow to make lefse local.

My mother’s one true gift is her talent for making lefse. It is an art. She makes more of it than any other woman I’ve ever known in my big and wide family history.

Mom took the position of all matriarchal power when she perfected lefse. Mom makes lefse for church suppers, coffees, neighbors, dad, my sister and her family and me. She sends me an entire batch for my Christmas package.

I like making lefse. There is something so rewarding about donning my apron and creating a flour dust storm in the kitchen. I participate in a tradition that connects me to those kin I know nothing about in a foreign land where there’s even less sunlight than here this time of year.

Let there be lefse. Lefse more lefse.

LEFSE Swedish flatbread


5 cups of mashed potatoes (mashed, not whipped; not instant either)

2 Tablespoons of butter or sweet cream

2 cups of white flour


            Prepare a large surface for rolling out the dough with white flour. Dust the surface of the rolling pin and the flat surface with flour.

            Pre-heat an electric frying pan to 375-400 degrees.

            Add 2 Tablespoons butter or sweet cream and 2 cups of flour to the mashed potatoes and mix until all the flour is absorbed. If it has not yet formed itself into a ball, then add more flour one tablespoon at a time and stir it in until it has the consistency of pie crust dough.

            Pinch off a golf ball size of the dough and roll out into a round much as you would a pie crust. Use flour to keep the lefse from sticking to the rolling pin and surface. The flatbread should be 1/8 inch thick.

            Transfer the lefse round to the skillet and watch carefully so it doesn’t burn. The lefse will begin to brown slightly and it may begin to swell up with steam before it exhausts itself. When you begin to smell burnt flour, turn it over. You’ll smell burnt potato — different from burnt flour — if you wait too long.  The lefse should be golden brown in round blobs and the rest still floury white. There is a resemblance to a good flour tortilla. 

            Remove the lefse round when both sides are slightly browned. Once you remove a round, let it cool on a rack for an hour. Tee hee. Like that’s gonna happen! Best served immediately like any fresh bread.

  1. Interesting! I had never heard of lefse. Now we have expanded each other’s potato horizons! =)

    • I don’t there is a better vegetable than the potato. There used to be a restaurant in St. Paul, Minnesota, named One Potato, Two. They offered nothing but big baked potatoes with anything and everything on top! Broccoli and cheddar was very popular. More potatoes, less Prozac!

  2. Sounds delicious–can’t wait to make them. Out here in L.A., most people run from carbs; perhaps in favor of Prozac (and I laugh mightily at them all–ha!). Have you or your mom ever tried experimenting with flavors, like onion or garlic?

  3. Not my mom! It would be tricky to add real onions or garlic without them burning, but I bet you could add onion powder or garlic salt.

  4. I’m gluten and corn free, so I’m going to experiment with sorghum flour. Could be a great alternative to tortillas? What do you think? Also, what about adding a little of that parsley we talked about? http://bit.ly/e5HMlq

  5. Actually, lefse is Norwegian, not Swedish. We don’t eat lefse in Sweden. It’s interesting how different Scandinavian traditions become commingled in the diaspora!

    • Norwegians can take credit for inventing it, but they did so at a point in history known for a potato famine, and it was a lot more like Matzoh than what most Scandinavian-Americans have come to know as a dry fry flatbread made from mashed potatoes. Norwegian-Americans like it with butter and sugar (oooh, ick!).

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