Norwegian Dakotan Lefse

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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.

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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.

Ingredients:
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

Instructions: 

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.

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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.

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Aunt Mary’s Breakfast Casserole

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I’m very, very excited to welcome my guest today. Emelyn Rude is a food writer and culinary historian. Her first book, Tastes Like Chicken: A History of America’s Favorite Bird, was published last year by Pegasus Books. Tastes has been written up in Nature, the scientific journal, and has received great reviews from The Boston Globe and Kirkus, as well as mentions in The New York Times and on NPR.

While remarkable that Emelyn has already published a book, I actually came to know her name when Mayuk Sen of Food 52 wrote an article about a Kickstarter campaign started by a woman trying to fund a magazine focused on food history. Obviously right up my alley, I wanted to find out more about the magazine, and Emelyn herself.

First of all, I was very interested in how and why Emelyn got interested in food writing in the first place. “My career in food writing started when I took a class in college called ‘The History of Dietetics,'” she said, “which was essentially the history of what people did to be healthy. I think my first paper was an exploration of how the phrase “You are what you eat” changed throughout history, and I was hooked. How I got into more popular food writing was more of a pragmatic thing. After I graduated from college, I started working for restaurant groups and was barely scraping by. I noticed a job posting by VICE saying they were looking for freelance food writers, so I pitched a story and they took me on. The rest of the writing gigs grew from there.” Amazing.

This, of course, led me to ask why exactly she wanted to write a book about the history of eating chicken specifically. She told me, “The subject was actually the topic of my senior thesis, which was inspired both by that class on the history of dietetics and by the fact that I have never been a fan of eating chicken. (Ironic, I know!) I must say that the only thing more entertaining than chickens are people interacting with chickens, so it’s an oddly fascinating subject.”

Her love of food history and writing eventually led her to the idea of a food history magazine. Originally called “Repast,” Emelyn had to change the title because the same name was already used for a magazine published by the Culinary Historians of Ann Arbor. “EATEN is a food history magazine intended for a popular audience. I personally love food history and really enjoy researching and writing articles in the field, but I noticed a certain divide in how food publications deal with culinary history. These kind of pieces either get highly academic in food studies journals or become kind of shallow for more popular mainstream glossies. But these stories are interesting and important, so I wanted to create a popular platform on which to share them. A few emails and a Kickstarter later, EATEN was born!”

Emelyn explained to me that the plan is for each volume of the magazine to have a theme. “EATEN Volume 1 is themed ‘The Food of the Gods.’ I am super excited about some of the articles we have lined up for this. Scholar Ken Albala wrote a very entertaining piece entitled ‘What Did Jesus Eat?’, butter historian Elain Khosrova wrote something on the ancient rite of Tibetan butter carving, a wonderful young woman in France named Alice Spasaro interviewed Trappist monks reviving ancient beer brewing traditions. Some exciting things!” When I asked Emelyn how she was able to get such talent to participate in the magazine, she said that she did the same thing I did to get her–she shot them an email. Sometimes it’s best just to ask!

I was so pleased when I reached out to Emelyn and she said she’d be happy to participate in a post and while we were chatting on the phone, Emelyn was already brainstorming a possible recipe that we could use. “My family doesn’t have too many recipes that we share and pass on. My mother is not a big cook and I don’t think my grandmother was either.” The casserole she chose is the exception. “I almost never eat cottage cheese but I enjoy it in this casserole. It is also one of the few recipes that I would call a ‘family recipe’ of ours.”

Food runs in the family, even if recipes don’t. “My mom may not have cooked all that often, but she was always interested in food. In fact, she met my dad when the pair of them were both getting their master’s in Agricultural Economics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She looked at food as more of a commodity and thing to trade while I have become more fascinated by the culinary aspect of things.”

The casserole that she chose was a recipe from her grandmother’s sister, Mary. “Mary was a military wife and had to do a whole lot of entertaining,” Emelyn told me. “This was one of her go-to brunch dishes when she had guests. It was absorbed by my side of the family the year that Aunt Mary’s husband was away in Vietnam. She spent Christmas that year with her sister (my grandmother’s) family and made this dish for Christmas breakfast. It was such a hit with everyone that it became a Christmas tradition.” In addition to Christmas, Emelyn said that it has also become a New Year’s tradition for her family.

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Aunt Mary’s Breakfast Casserole

Ingredients:
10 eggs
1/2 cup flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
2 cups of cottage cheese
4 cups cheddar cheese, shredded
2 4 oz cans of green chiles

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Beat the eggs and add the cottage cheese, cheddar cheese, and chiles. Mix until fully combined.

Mix together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Add to the egg mixture and mix until fully combined.

Bake for 1 hour, until a knife inserted into the middle comes out clean.

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Keep in mind, this is a recipe to serve a crowd, but it’s easily halved for a smaller group. And I have to admit: Cottage cheese? Green chiles? I was skeptical. But after I made it I had to write Emelyn and tell her how good I thought it was. Her response was, “It’s kind of creepy, but weirdly delicious…” Emelyn says that for her the dish means “family and presents and holiday cheers and lots of hot sauce, English muffins, and orange juice to go along with it.”

If all goes well, Emelyn hopes to have the first volume of EATEN ready to ship on November 17th. If you’d like to pre-order the magazine, you can do that here. The plan right now is to release one volume quarterly.

In addition to the magazine, Emelyn also hopes to write more books in the future. “I definitely do intend to write more. I just have to find a subject worthy of all that effort!”

Thank you so much for sharing your story and your recipe, Emelyn!

Carrot Zucchini Snack Cake with Maple Cream Cheese Frosting

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I do realize this is not a topical post. There is a big football game happening on Sunday. I should be making party foods. Turns out, grandma had no recipes for nachos or jalapeno poppers. Instead, this is a completely self-serving post. Today is national carrot cake day, (Have I mentioned how I’m both completely intrigued, yet totally confused by these national food days?), but this carrot cake is really a vindication. A few months ago, we were going to our friends’ house for dinner. I insisted, insisted, on them letting us bring something and they finally caved and said I could bring dessert. At some point during my baking, I realized that something had gone terribly, terribly wrong with my carrot zucchini mini cake. I’ve made this recipe a zillion times, so I don’t know what distracted mistake I made, but what I was left with was a little 6-inch rock, with no time to make, or even buy, something else.

Our friends were, of course, lovely about it, because we have great friends. But deep down (or quite obviously), I was both mortified and determined to redeem myself.

This recipe is not one of grandma’s either. It’s actually a version of my mom’s zucchini bread that she got from God-knows-where. The ingredients are the same, but changing the proportions slightly takes them from a denser bread, to a lighter cake. I had to try a couple of times, but I think we’ve got it. Also, feel free to play around with the spices. I like a spicy carrot cake, but if you prefer just cinnamon (or that’s all you have on hand and you don’t want to go buy several other expensive bottles of spices), you could do that too.

For the frosting, cream cheese is the obvious choice. I love cream cheese, but I love, love, love maple syrup. I put it in everything, including my coffee. I’m turning into Buddy from Elf. I thought maple cream cheese frosting would go well with this spicy cake. I was not wrong.

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Carrot Zucchini Snack Cake with Maple Cream Cheese Frosting

Ingredients:
For cake:
1 1/4 cup flour
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp coriander
3/4 cup vegetable oil
2 tbsp honey
1 tsp vanilla
1 whole egg
1 egg white
1 1/4 cups zucchini, shredded
1 1/4 cups carrot, shredded

For frosting:
8 ounces of cream cheese, softened
1/3 cup maple syrup, room temperature

Instructions:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Grease an 8×8-inch pan, and line with parchment paper so that you leave “handles” exposed above the height of the pan.

Wash well 1 medium zucchini and 3 medium carrots. Shave the rough skin off the carrot. The zucchini’s skin can be left intact. Grate 2 1/2 cups of a combination of zucchini and carrots.

In a medium bowl, mix together the flour, brown sugar, salt, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and coriander.

In a large bowl, combine the oil, honey, vanilla, and eggs. Add the dry ingredients to the wet and stir until just combined. Add the grated vegetables to the mixture and stir until everything is incorporated.

Pour the mixture into the greased pan and bake for 32-35 minutes. Begin checking for doneness at 32 minutes by inserting a toothpick into the middle.

When done, remove the cake from the oven and allow to cool in pan for about 5-10 minutes. Then remove from the pan with the parchment paper “handles” and allow to cool for an additional 45 minutes to an hour on a cooling rack.

For the frosting, beat together the cream cheese and maple syrup.

Once the cake has cooled completely, frost cake and serve.

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Chock full of veggies, but still rich and delicious. I think the little orange and green flecks throughout are cool. If you have kids, they  probably won’t like that, but I don’t know what to tell you. Get better kids? Tell them they’re Lucky Charms marshmallows? I’m not a parent, clearly.

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Citrus Shaker Pie

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I’m somehow surprised every year when citrus season sneaks up on me. I can never wrap my head around the fact that it’s in winter, because my favorite citrus recipes seem so light and summery. Wishful thinking, I guess. In celebration of all the beautiful citrus fruit at our disposal this time of year, I made a Shaker pie, slightly altering the original recipe, which uses regular lemons. Instead, I used two of the yummiest members of the citrus family: blood oranges and Meyer lemons.

Folks today probably know the Shakers more for their simple, well-built furniture. I decided to write about the Shakers because they  were in the news recently after one of their members passed away, leaving only two (!!) Shakers in the whole world. The reasons vary:  some Shakers who were adopted into the Community  as children chose to leave as adults, others opposed the hard-work and celibate lifestyle, and finally, they just stopped accepting new members. At this point, you couldn’t become a Shaker if you wanted to. While their numbers have dwindled, the Shakers are still one of the longest-lasting Christian sects in the United States.

The first group of Shakers formed in Manchester, England. They were originally known as “Shaking Quakers” because their religion was an off-shoot of the Quaker religion, and because, during their sermons, Shakers often tremble and twitch. A short time before the American Revolutionary War, Mother (as she was called) Ann Lee led a small group of followers from England to the American colonies. As pacifists, Shakers refused to fight the British or swear an oath of allegiance (as it was against their religion), leading to jail time for some. In the years following the War, Shaker religious communities grew and spread through the United States. At their peak, as many as 6,000 members worshiped in communities across the country.

Shakers live piously and communally. Though men and women live as equals and serve equally in religious leadership, they live separately, since marriage and sex are forbidden. Members are acquired through adoption or recruitment. As an agrarian society, Shakers grow or raise most of their own food and live quite frugally, aiming to waste as little as possible.

Which leads us to this little pie, made in accordance with the Shaker lifestyle, simply and efficiently. A Shaker lemon pie is made of whole, thinly sliced lemons, allowed to sit in sugar for a day to allow the peel to break down, which are then mixed with eggs and baked. Very simple and very delicious. Shakers would probably object to me using a non-local fruit, and, OK, traditional Shaker pies are not usually electric pink in color. If you’re a traditionalist, this recipe could easily be modified to resemble a more authentic pie, by replacing fruit with two regular lemons, but don’t rule this one out just yet… Do, however, note that this is not a one-day pie. You will need to allow your citrus to macerate in the sugar for about a day, and up to a day and a half, before baking.

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Citrus Shaker Pie

Citrus Pie Filling Ingredients:
Slightly adapted from NPR, and Smitten Kitchen

1 medium blood orange, plus zest
1 Meyer lemon, plus zest
1 3/4 cups sugar
3 tbsp flour
2 tbsp butter, melted

Zest both the lemon and the blood orange, about 2 tbsp.

Cut the ends off both the Meyer lemon and blood orange, discard.

As thinly as possible, slice the entire orange and lemon, including the peel, into rings. Remove seeds as you go.

In a container with a lid, combine the zest, sugar, and citrus. Mix to coat every ring. Cover, and allow to sit for 24 hours to 36 hours, at room temperature. The fruit will break down and dissolve the sugar. You will be left with liquid and what is left of the fruit. Do not drain, or remove fruit, but do remove any seeds that made it into the mixture.

Beat 4 eggs together well. Mix with entirety of the blood orange and Meyer lemon mixture, flour, and melted butter, and pour into prepared, bottom crust of pie (see below).

Citrus Pie Crust Ingredients:
Slightly adapted from Food and Wine

1 1/2 cups flour
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, cold and cut into centimeter cubes
1/4 tsp salt
1/3 cup water, ice cold
1 egg, for wash

In a food processor, combine the flour, butter, and salt. Pulse together for about 5 seconds. (This can also be done by hand or with a pastry cutter, quickly incorporating the butter into the flour.) Add the ice water to the food processor and pulse for about 5 more seconds until the dough begins to come together.

Pour the contents of the food processor and pour onto a lightly floured surface. Begin gathering the dough together until it forms  into a ball. Cut the dough into two equal parts. As your working with the first half of the dough, wrap the other and place in the refrigerator.

Re-flour your surface and roll out the first half of the dough into a large circle, approximately 1/8-inch thick (the circle should have about a 13-inch diameter). Draping the dough over your rolling pan, transfer to a 9-inch pie pan, making sure you have about 1/2-inch to 1-inch overhang on the sides. Set aside.

Roll out the second half of the dough to the same size as the first; it can be slightly smaller.

Add the lemon-orange filling to the bottom pie crust.

Carefully cover with top layer of pie crust. Cut away any unnecessary dough. Sealing the top and bottom crusts together, create a decorative edge with your hands or a fork. Allow the pie to chill in the refrigerator for about 20 minutes.

After 10 minutes, remove the pie from the refrigerator and begin to preheat your oven to 425 degrees.

Beat one egg thoroughly and brush over the top crust and edges of the pie. Sprinkle with a pinch of sugar.

Slice a few holes into the top of the pie crust to allow steam to release while cooking.

If the pie crust still feels quite cold, wait a few more minutes before putting in the oven. You don’t want the crust warm, but you don’t want it so cold that it cracks while baking.

Bake for 20 minutes at 425 degrees. After 20  minutes, decrease the heat in the oven to 350 degrees and bake for another 20 to 25 minutes.

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Blood oranges are not necessarily as sweet as regular oranges but, with its light raspberry flavor, it moderates the bitterness of the Meyer lemon and creates a bright, tart, but still sweet, and very pretty, pie. Make yours soon, before citrus season disappears!