I’ve always wanted to make lefse—Swedish potato crepes—on Christmas morning.
My husband, David Anderson, is full-blooded Scandinavian, the son of a Swedish father and a Norwegian mother. Along with two brothers and four sisters, he grew up in Yankton, South Dakota. Every Christmas morning David’s mother made a mountain of these exquisitely thin potato pancakes for her family. The first few they enjoyed wrapped in bacon. When it ran out, they switched to butter and sugar, rolled up cigar-style.
We weren’t often home for Christmas, but I remember Aldoris serving them a couple of times for family reunions. It was a huge effort, and there was lots of discussion about how to make them—which potato variety, the best cooking method, the style of rolling pin, how much flour to add, how far ahead they could be made.
Mom Anderson died in 1999. Finally all those lefse questions the sisters had asked over the years became urgent. The older sisters had already incorporated the lefse Christmas tradition in their families, but when the matriarch died and this huge clan felt suddenly lost and alone, lefse became the ritual that invoked the maternal spirit. Now even the in-law cooks learned the tradition. One found a mail-order source. The other’s daughter took to lefse making. That left me—the food professional—as the only person in the Anderson family who didn’t serve lefse on Christmas morning.
I don’t know if everyone got together and decided it was finally time to teach me how to do it, but last weekend, David and I flew to Atlanta for a visit with his sister before driving to David’s father’s 91st birthday celebration in Tennessee. When we arrived Susan said, “I’m making lefse for breakfast.”
I found out that making lefse is not that hard. Easy for me to say, since Susan had already boiled the potatoes and mashed them with butter and a little milk. When I got downstairs the kitchen was set up like a classroom, dish towel-wrapped cutting board with two rolling pins, her hand-written recipe book with at least three versions of lefse. Her sister Kathy has perfected the recipe, and it’s pretty much the version everyone’s adopted.
Susan says the potatoes can be made ahead, but once you add the flour, you’re committed. There’s no stopping at this point. She pulls off a golf-ball size plug of dough and demonstrates the rolling on a heavily floured cloth-covered cutting board, taking it to the point it can’t be rolled any thinner and says, “Now this is still too thick.”
She keeps rolling until the dough is translucent thin, then drops it in a dry skillet set over strong medium. Heat is crucial—too hot, you scorch them. too cool and they get brittle.
After a short tutorial, it’s my turn. At first I’m newbie awkward. My first few are misshapen, they tear as I attempt to roll them to that final thinness, but eventually I get it. Once I realize it’s more akin to flatbread dough than delicate pie or puff pastry, I start handling it with confidence, and like a secure baby, it starts to cooperate.
Stacked in a dishtowel to keep them warm, the finished lefse start to pile up. With two dozen crepes in the bag, bacon cooked, and softened butter and cinnamon-sugar ready to go, I imagine we’re ready to tuck into these babies. Just then Susan’s son Luke comes into the kitchen and sets up to make his signature pepper Jack eggs.
Wait a minute, I think. What’s this with eggs? The matriarch would not approve of scrambled eggs—much less pepper-spiked ones—getting all cozy with her lefse. But as everyone piles them on with bacon, I get it. I’m watching the third generation keep a tradition and remake it too. Aldoris would love this.