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.
My mother-in-law says lefse is a 2-person event. I would like to try it sometime.
Also, I used to live in Yankton, SD!
Mmmm… lefse. My mother’s family is from Yankton and my dad’s family is (still) from Sturgis!
Sally K says
This is totally off-topic, but the pictures here remind me of the pictures in the Laurel’s Kitchen cookbooks. It’s a good thing.
Mmmm. Wish I lived closer, Pam, because I’d join you for a few of those lefse and a good cup of black coffee! My understanding is that the classic way to serve lefse is with butter and granulated sugar, but somewhere along the way we started adding bacon (with the sugar, I might add!). So it’s great to see the younger generations adding their own twists. Actually, lefse can be used like a tortilla, so with the eggs, they can become a Norwegian breakfast burrito!
Sally, my next book–a one dish theme– is out this fall, but the one after is vegetarian themed, so your observation about this looking a little like Laurel’s Kitchen is quite astute (although totally coincidental).
Kathy, thanks for sharing what you know. For those reading these comments, she’s the sister who’s perfected the Anderson recipe and helped me immensely in developing this recipe. Your tip of cooking them only on one side is brilliant.
Finally, Kristin. What’s your last name? I’ll bet my husband’s family knew yours!
Jamie @ My Baking Addiction says
I have never heard of Lefse, but these look and sound fabulous…especially with the scrambled eggs. 😉
Bob M says
Being 1/2 Norwegian, thank you! I haven’t had Lesfe since my Grandma made them in the early 60’s.
And here I thought I was giving you a lefse lesson! Leave it to Pam to learn lefse and then perfect it the next week. It sure was fun having you in my kitchen!
Her family from North Dakota, my mom grew up on Lefse, always eating it with a little butter. My great-aunt who still makes Lefse sent me the family recipe… but I’ve always been a little too scared to have a go at it. Reading your post makes me think I should really try my hand at it… Thanks!
Growing up in NE South Dakota, lefse was a family staple at our house during the holidays. My grandma, aunts and mom would spend a couple of days each fall making enough for the WHOLE family to use for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Now that my grandma is in her 90’s, my aunts and mom have started using instant mashed potatoes. Although it is cheating, they’ve found that it makes a more tender lefse. Thanks for the post and the walk down memory lane!
Leslie G. says
I had lost my family’s lefse recipe but this one looks very close to it if not identical (and anyone who would have had the recipe has passed away) so I am surprised and very happy to find this here – and yes, they are a 2 person event. The Norwegian branch of my family from Minnesota and Iowa made these often – how nostalgic.
Lefse must be Norwegian rather then Swedish 🙂 but it looks good!
Nice to read about you trying to make it. I have tried once, unsuccessfully, and think I will try again. I do have the griddle! By the way, we have friends that live in Yankton, in fact, John started the outdoor ice rink there. Beautiful along the river! Even though I live in PA now, I have lived in Wisconsin, Iowa, Nebraska, and Illinois, and grew up on lefse during the holidays. Yum. My kjds ask for it now, and usually I order!