It’s the beginning of November, so I assume we can dive straight into preparing for the holidays. When it starts to get cold and dark outside, I can’t help but remember the family recipes of my childhood that used to light up these winter months. My grandma’s lemon meringue pie, my mom’s mashed potatoes… Maybe it’s my Hoosier roots, or my Midwestern roots in general, but I’m a big fan of mashed potatoes. By some magic, my mom would make them perfectly smooth and fluffy, without a hint of gumminess, the best in the world. I’ve tried using a hand mixer like she does, but it just never works out for me. But with winter almost upon us, I know I’ll have another five months of practice.
While I myself am a fervent lover of the foods I had growing up, for most of my life I thought of Midwestern cooking as one bland white-bread-white-flour-white-cake category that was historically insignificant compared to other, more seemingly exotic regions. And while it’s true that our foods tend to be on the carbier side, historically insignificant they are not. If you’ve read even a few posts on this blog, you know that I’m a sucker for dishes that tell a story about where they came from. Regional dishes are by far the most interesting posts for me to do, and I’m particularly interested in foods that are considered “Midwestern” but that I’ve never tasted, or even heard of. For example, the fabulous Molly Yeh, who lives in North Dakota, has recently been gracing the Internet with photos of her hotdish. I had certainly never heard of hotdish, even though it’s technically a “Midwestern” dish. (Answer: It’s basically a casserole that you would traditionally bring to a social gathering. In more recent times, tater tots have become a common topping. Who’s the Upper Midwestern genius who decided to load tots on a casserole? Get that person a medal.)
And, speaking of Midwesterners, their love of potatoes, and winter: For those in North and South Dakota, the first snow and the beginning of the holiday season traditionally meant that it was time for another dish I had never heard of: Lefse, a Norwegian flatbread consisting mostly of mashed potatoes.
Last Thursday was the 126th anniversary of both North and South Dakota becoming the 39th and 40th states (though no one knows which is which, because President Benjamin Harrison shuffled the papers and signed them blindly). The Upper Midwestern States, the Dakotas and Minnesota, have very large Scandinavian populations. Norwegians began settling in the Dakotas before they were even states, and between 1860 and 1880 the population of Norwegians in the Dakotas increased from 129 people to one-tenth of the population. Now, one in three North Dakotans claim Norwegian descent, which is the highest for any state, although Minnesota and South Dakota are close.
Lefse is a Norwegian dish, which, like other old world traditions, found new life in America. There are lefse recipes dating back to the 1600s in Norway, though those traditional recipes would have used only flour, as potatoes did not make their way to Norway until about 250 years ago. To find an authentic, Norwegian-Dakotan lefse recipe, I reached out to Erin Zieske, who I featured in a post a few months back. She lives in South Dakota and had mentioned lefse when we were discussing her post. She immediately directed me to her mother, Tonna. Tonna told me that she often uses a recipe featured on NPR, in place of her grandmother’s recipe. However, it appears that there is little variation to the few ingredients that make up lefse: Potatoes, butter, salt, sugar, cream, and flour—ingredients you probably already have in your kitchen, which is likely what makes this is an enduring recipe.
Now a list of things I didn’t have when starting this process: A lefse stick, a lefse griddle, or a lefse pin. The stick helps to flip the rather large flatbreads, the griddle is extra-large and flat, and the pin has deep grooves in it, which give the lefse a waffled appearance when you roll it out. Have no fear. If you also don’t have these things, you can still make yourself some delicious lefse, though slightly less authentic. But after you taste your inauthentic lefse, and decide you love them more than anything else in the world, you can make the decision to invest in specialized lefse equipment.
Norwegian Dakotan Lefse
Slightly adapted using this recipe, as well as the recipe from Miss Anna Berg, of Bismarck, North Dakota, in the December 22, 1948, issue of The Bismarck Tribune. Makes about 40 sheets of lefse.
9 cups of potatoes, mix of red and russet, mashed
1 1/4 cup unsalted butter
4 tsp salt
4 tbsp white sugar
3 1/2 cups of all-purpose flour, plus 1-1 1/2 cups more for rolling out the dough
Peel and cube potatoes, add to a large pan, cover with water, and boil for about 20 minutes, until soft enough to mash.
Mash potatoes in the pan and then measure out 9 cups into a very large bowl. Add the butter, cream, salt, and sugar and mix thoroughly.
Allow the potatoes to cool.
Press a paper towel onto the top of the mashed potatoes and then cover the bowl with a towel. Refrigerate for at least three hours, or overnight.
Using your hands, in the bowl, mix the flour into the potato mixture, beginning with a full cup, and then about 1/4 cup at a time, until everything is thoroughly mixed.
Pinch off pieces of the dough and roll into a ball, slightly larger than a golf ball. Place on a cookie sheet or plate. You can stack them on top of each other if you run out of space.
Refrigerate for about half an hour.
Place a towel folded in half near your work space. Place two pieces of wax paper between the folds of the towel.
Heat an ungreased large griddle or skillet up to about 500 degrees.
Liberally flour a work surface and a rolling pin. Begin rolling out the dough, adding more flour as needed to your work surface, the dough, and the rolling pin (you may need a lot, and that’s OK). Roll until very thin, into a circle about 10 inches in diameter.
Using a spatula, transfer the dough circle to the preheated griddle. Cook for about 1 minute, until light brown spots begin to form on the bottom. Then flip and cook the other side for about one minute.
Remove the lefse from the griddle, fold in half, and place between the two pieces of wax paper in the towel.
Continue until the dough is gone, laying the complete lefse on top of each other.
Allow to cool completely, fold into a quarter, and eat immediately or freeze for later use.
Often, families will make dozens of lefse at a time, eating them throughout the holidays. (I now understand why, since making them is time-consuming and rolling them out is tedious). As with most flatbreads, they are amazingly versatile. Some families stick to adding only butter, or butter and sugar. Others go savory by filling them with lutefisk (!!). I’ve generally gone the butter-sugar route. Long story short, butter, potatoes and sugar together are tasty.