NOT ALL FLATBREADS are created equally, and there are no others that taste like lefse, which is made from mashed potatoes and flour and then fried in a dry skillet. In Ithaca you can find tortillas, focaccia, pita, roti, naan, and lavash, but no lefse; in Scandinavia, they thank God for their daily lefse.
Lutefisk and lefse are the staples of a 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. Lefse should be flat and supple like a flour tortilla; if fried at too high a temperature, lefse turns crisp around the edges.
Swedes eat lefse faster than they can mash potatoes. It is served with a swipe of sweet cream butter across one side of the round and 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.
I have made lefse wraps with shaved roast beef, a homemade garlic dill pickle spear, and a dollop of horseradish. “Our people don’t eat lefse that way,” my mother told me. But I’ve expanded my lefse horizons. Mother’s reaction to this heresy?
“I have NEVER heard of any Swede who put a pickle in lefse. YUK! “ she said. “You don’t want to spread wrong rumors.”
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.
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, if not part of our ethnic heritage, then at least in line with our regional bounty.
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 for me it’s the blue and the yellow of my native Swedish flag that propels this push to make lefse local.
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
With flour, dust a rolling pin and a large, flat surface like a kitchen counter.
Pre-heat an electric frying pan to 375-400 degrees.
In a large bowl, add butter or sweet cream and the two 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 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 as needed 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.
Jill Swenson lives in Brooktondale, NY. She works as a book development editor and owns On Warren Pond Farm & Seed Co., specializing in local, hand-harvested, culinary herb and heirloom flower seeds.