When the pandemic hit, Sparrow Cafe went down. This coffeehouse had thrived at the corner of 50th and South Penn Avenue in south Minneapolis. I liked that they were nearby and weren’t a chain. They were locally owned by Jasper and Sheila Rajendren, who knew, I would think, that they had to be better than the chains in order to to be as good. And they were.
Sure, I like Starbucks and Caribou and Dunn Bros as much as the next coffee lover, but I like to support fellow hard working, do-all-jobs small business owners when I can. By the huge windows at Sparrow, I wrote sections of my last two books, Keep On Rolling! Life on the Lefse Trail and Learning to Get a Roundand Final Rounds: On Love, Loss, Life, and Lefse. What kept me coming back was a rich, chewy gluten-free brownie muffin, espresso, and rooibos tea. The brownie muffin was served on colorful non-paper plates (probably earthenware), the expresso with a small, charming non-paper cup and a tiny spoon, and the tea steeped in a small glass pot that filled with a non-paper cup twice.
Sparrow went that extra mile to satisfy customers, but it still wasn’t enough to prevent closing last spring. The neighborhood mourned, but then we all delighted when Sparrow re-opened in a limited fashion for carry-out customers late last fall.
Shortly after the re-opening, I approached Jasper and Sheila about providing lefse they could sell, thus setting Sparrow apart from other coffeehouses. I don’t know of a Minneapolis coffeehouse, and only one St. Paul coffeehouse, that sells lefse. I said I would provide the lefse free and deliver it every Saturday morning at 7:30. It was my small way of helping small businesses that have been hammered by the shutdown. They said sure, why not? Nothing to lose.
The deal meant making lefse dough on Friday evenings and getting up around 5 a.m. to make 15 rounds of fresh lefse. When I felt sorry for myself for having to get up so early on a normally sleep-in Saturday, I remembered that Jasper and Sheila get up at 2:30 a.m. every day but one to open the store by 7 a.m.
I’ve been making lefse for Sparrow Cafe since December, and now that customers have taken to lefse — not much doubt about that — Sparrow pays me. I’ve made lefse in a lot of places and in front of a lot of people, but making lefse to sell to customers who may not know about our favorite food is exciting. I press myself to make my best lefse, and it gives me a chance to do my weekly lefse-making meditation in the still, wee hours of the morn.
And then there is the joy and satisfaction of a job well done and of being a successful lefse ambassador. Of carrying a steamed-up bag of pretty dang good lefse into a warm Sparrow Cafe, ordering a cup of dark roast to go, and hearing about how customers are taking to the traditional lefse with butter and cinnamon sugar. But hand it to Sparrow for getting creative. They’ve rolled out lefse with cream cheese and lingonberry jam, which I have heard of but not tried, as well as lefse with Nutella and bananas, which is new to me. I’m going to try that, and I hope you do as well.
Every once in a while I get a note or an email reminding me why I write books and teach lefse making. This email came late last Saturday evening from Monica Olsson, who gave permission to let you enjoy it. It reads:
I bought it on a whim at a Scandinavian store near where I live. My dad’s family is Swedish and my mom’s Norwegian, but I didn’t grow up eating lefse, and certainly not making it. I have enjoyed eating it occasionally, but never thought about making it myself. Then I read your book, and grew fascinated. I tried to make a small batch of the one-hour lefse without any of the equipment — no potato ricer, no fabric-covered board, etc. It did not turn out very well. (I think the main fault was that I didn’t cook/mash the potatoes properly. Now that I have a little more experience, I think I would do better.)
My boyfriend’s mom is Norwegian, and she bought me ALL the lefse-making supplies for Christmas! So I tried again. I’ve made it five times so far, and just tried your recipe (from the Keep On Rolling book). It was my first time making lefse from real potatoes instead of flakes. They turned out SO well, and I am so happy about it!! My boyfriend and I spent the day making lefse and just ate dinner: folded lefse wraps with cream cheese, smoked salmon, capers, red onions, and arugula (see photo above). Delicious.
Thank you again for your book! Without it, I doubt I ever would have gotten so excited about lefse-making, and I am so happy I can do it now!
I have to praise the mom of Monica’s boyfriend, who bought all the lefse equipment. What support!! And then what impressed me about Monica’s newfound passion for lefse making is she is young and therefore going to be a lefse ambassador for decades to come, presumably. She cares enough to keep trying to make good lefse after making lefse that was not so good. Reminds me of my lefse beginnings. And then she’s pleased when she makes a round round, making her a lefse maker after my own heart.
The other thing that makes my day is she is creative with lefse and willing to have fun with this Norwegian flatbread. She could have stopped with rolling a round round and serving it with butter and sugar. Nope, she got wrapped up making creative wraps using ingredients like those below.
As I said, I read Monica’s email late Saturday evening. So, inspired by Monica, I had the best time making this Sunday morning lefse wrap made of a spread of sour cream (I didn’t have cream cheese), capers, arugula, red onions, and salmon with lemon juice, dill, salt, and pepper. Served with grapefruit juice and black coffee … bring on the day!
It’s my turn to express gratitude. Thanks, Monica, for infusing energy and creativity into Lefse Land. Keep on rolling!
When a derecho roared through central Iowa last summer, folks scrambled for shelter and for a definition of a term they had not heard. This windstorm was monstrous and menacing, like nothing they had seen, and they were reminded of the true meaning of the word awesome.
A walnut tree on Diane Tott’s farm near Roland, Iowa, went down in the storm. It was part of the family, a calming constant on this land that is a few years shy of being a centennial farm (in one family for 100 years).
Diane contacted me in late August to see if I could help her pull off an ambitious project: to have five lefse rolling pins made from the wood of this walnut tree. Diane wanted to give the rolling pins as Christmas gifts.
I sell Heirloom Lefse Rolling Pins, so this was a project of interest to me. There were many challenges, such as cutting the tree into manageable logs and then getting the wood to Minnesota, where my master woodturning friends would create the five lefse rolling pins.
Diane arranged for the tree to come down and the trunk be sawed into 20-inch lengths. Bob Tott, Diane’s husband, loaded four of these sawed logs into his pickup and drove them to my house in Minneapolis. The plan was I would put the logs into my Prius and drive them to a kiln in Hastings, Minnesota, where the logs would be sawed into 4-in. x 4-in. lengths and then vacuum kiln dried. These 4x4x20 blanks, once dried, would be used to make the barrel and the handles of the lefse rolling pins.
Bob arrived at my house, and my jaw dropped when I saw the size of the four logs. If he were to have rolled them off the truck bed onto the ground, they probably would sink all the way to the center of the earth they were so heavy. No way I could fit them into my Prius, even if I could lift them. So after some head scratching, Bob volunteered to take the logs to the kiln in Hastings.
Fast forward a month, and I had 71 dried walnut 4x4x20 blanks in my Prius and was driving home. Bob Puetz had agreed to make the five rolling pins on his lathe, and he came to my house to pick up 11 blanks. He wanted extra in case there were any surprises inside the blanks. That’s part of attraction with woodturning, that the beauty of the wood is hidden—or not there at all—and only reveals itself once you start turning and slowly removing wood.
Bob started working on the blanks immediately, but stopped soon after he began. Talk about surprises! The kiln drying had produced cracks that ran the full length of the pieces he had worked with, which meant he could not use these pieces to make the barrel of the turning pins. He tried piece after piece, and decided to use the five blanks that had the fewest number of cracks.
Right around Thanksgiving, Bob had managed to pull off the creation of five beautiful walnut rolling pins that, according to Diane wishes, had crosshatching, not just grooves going one way around the barrel. I met Bob at a Menards parking lot and would have wholeheartedly shaken his hand—maybe even hugged him—had not the pandemic interfered.
The first week of December, I met Diane at Love’s Travel Stop along I35 near Albert Lea, Minnesota. Turns out we had met a few years ago when I spoke at the Sons of Norway meeting in Story City, Iowa. I had wrapped the pins, and there was no small amount of anticipation as she unwrapped each of the five pins. As she did, I explained the drama with the drying of the wood, and gave her some of the bad blanks that Bob rejected. She was thrilled with the result, and I was relieved. She had her very special Christmas presents for some very special lefse makers in her life.
Coming full circle, I asked more about the walnut tree and what it had meant to her, her lefse tradition, and her Christmas celebrations through the years. So I leave you with Diane’s reflections:
Growing up on the farm near Roland, I remember this tree and a second tree placed near a very busy part of the farm, which was owned and operated by my dad and his brother. Our families lived on the farm and spent many hours playing near these trees, which held a tire swing and a bag swing. Later, I remember routinely harvesting the walnuts. We used an antique corn sheller to remove the husks, washed the walnuts, and let them dry. During cold, winter nights, my dad often sat and shelled the walnuts, which my mom would later use in her baking. Mom and Dad’s grandchildren and great grandchildren have helped with harvesting. Granddaughter Janel (my daughter) did a purple-ribbon Iowa State Fair 4-H project detailing the harvesting process. During that project, we learned we could flood the husked walnuts with water, keep the nuts that sank, and then discard the “floaters.”
I would also note that my side of the family has Norwegian and Dutch heritage. Lefse has been a big part of our family Christmas traditions. We make “hard” lefse [no potatoes]. Our lefse is traditionally served with cod, riced potatoes, just the right amount of salt and pepper, and a hard boiled egg and butter mixture. We roll them into a beta and hold it in two hands when eating. (It just doesn’t taste right if you have to eat it with a fork. Ha!). My husband, Bob, is responsible for having added salsa to the beta “recipe,” and there are now several family members who use salsa as well. We all remember my grandmother’s wide eyes the first time she saw Bob bring a jar of salsa to the Christmas table, but she became accepting of this crazy new twist. Our Christmas meal is often topped off with a lefse with butter and sugar.
Now is the time for all good lefse makers to come to the aid of their culture. It is the pre-Christmas crunch time when demands for lefse—and unmerciful expectations of excellence—are high. Time to step up your lefse game and get on a roll!
So, I will give five tips for making “perfect” lefse. Specifically, I’m talking about making round rounds, as opposed to rounds that look like amoebas. Tip to geography teachers: Use lefse making to help kids learn the states of the US and the continents of the world. It is common for lefse makers to roll rounds that look like Texas, Ohio, Australia, and Africa.
My point to perfectionists such as myself is to ease up. Yes, go for lefse ecstasy of the round round, but if you don’t get to the promised land, oh well. Keep on rolling.
Given that, if you enjoy the quest for a round round as I do, here are five tips:
1. Use King Arthur’s Flour. Or use a high-quality, high-protein flour for making dough and for rolling. It makes for a velvety soft dough, and the edges of the round are much less jagged than when using a cheaper flour. When your edges aren’t jagged, your chances of round rounds go way up.
2. Start round, stay round. I spend a lot of time making lefse dough patties that are round and that also do not have cracks at the edges. A little crack in the patty gets to be a big crack in the round. So start with a round round and then take your time to keep it that way as you roll, especially as the round rolls out to be 6 to 8 inches in diameter. That’s the critical time. If the round stays round in these early inches, you have a good shot for a round round when you finish rolling.
3. Light on the pin. Do not be a banger or a squisher. Gently place the pin on the patty and let the pin do the work without any help from you. You start squishing that poor round, and suddenly a part of the patty squirts out of whack and you can’t get it back. Easy does it, and rotate the pin often to keep your round round.
4. Saw your round free (see opening image). Once you get a round round, you are not home free. You have to get it to the grill without incident. That incident is often sticking. You get drawn into the rapture of rolling a perfect round, and you fail to detect that sticky spot that will become a tear—bringing on tearing and gnashing of teeth. It’s always a good idea to run your turning stick under the finished round and “saw” your way through any sticky spots before lifting the round to the grill.
5. Use a pizza cutter.
When all else fails, do what Chuck Ihlen from Pipestone, Minnesota, does to get a round round. He places a grease splatter screen on his finished round and uses a pizza cutter to trim away whatever dough is not in the round area under the screen. And if you turn up your nose at this, consider that Chuck did this in full view of the public and still won the National Lefse Cookoff, which is part of the Potato Days in Barnsville, Minnesota.
So what do you do when you desperately want to make lefse but are desperate for lefse making-equipment?
Well, you learn from Karen Torjesen and a dozen others in her extended family. I know I learned a lot, and I was teaching a lefse class that served as a holiday family lefse fest for this spirited group. Three things I picked up from the class:
Find time for family. A pandemic was not going to stop this family from getting together and having a good time making lefse. Zoom and Karen’s talent for herding cats from all over the world took care of that. Karen was in Kenyon, Minnesota, but most of the family was in North Carolina. Jenny Wright was in the Maryland, and John Ambrose was in New York. And then our far-flung lefse makers were Erik Torjesen in Singapore and Enrique Torjesen in Afghanistan.
You can make lefse without lefse-making equipment. I have had people drop out of my Zoom lefse class because they didn’t have a lefse grill or turning stick or ricer. Not this group. No one whined about being without; they just made do and plunged into making lefse. Kristine Torjesen, perhaps knowing how I sing praises for my Blue Pastry Board Cover, slipped a black t-shirt over a cutting board and used that to roll her rounds without sticking. Erik said he once used a bottle for rolling lefse because he didn’t have a rolling pin. Skillets were also used as a substitute for a lefse grill, and spatulas for a turning stick. Jenny Wright used a panini press as a grill. And Jill and Catherine Wright ingeniously found a way of preventing sticking as well as lifting the rolled-out lefse round to the grill: They rolled the dough patty between two pieces of parchment paper and then carried the finished round to the grill using the bottom piece of parchment paper. Getting the round on the grill involved simply turning the parchment paper over and slapping the round on the grill. Brilliant!
“It’s all in the wrist.” Karen’s husband, Hakon, reminded us all of the importance of the presence of the patriarch at these lefse fests. Judging by how Karen mumbled and rolled her eyes, this line—“It’s all in the wrist.”—was one Hakon used as a motto encapsulating the beliefs or ideals guiding the family through the trials of many decades. So lefse-making families, follow this example and come up with a motto!
Thanks Karen and family for reminding us what lefse-making is all about. Keep on rolling!
These are the times that try lefse makers’ souls … and feet and grills and countertops.
Thanksgiving and Christmas are when we make the most lefse. Many families and groups of friends do lefse fests, laughing and making memories as well as stacks and stacks of fresh lefse. There’ll be fewer lefse fests this year with the pandemic, but lefse makers will find a way to safely make lefse for the holidays. To help make the experience as joyful as possible, here are four essentials for the times when we make lotsa lefse.
Have a replacement probe control for your lefse grill. The manual on your grill says change out the probe control every 90 minutes of making lefse. Long use does not harm the grill but can burn out the plastic parts of the probe control and ruin your lefse fun.
2. Protect your counter from the intense heat of the grill. I have had two students in my lefse classes tell sad tales of their hot lefse grill cracking their granite countertop. Not good. Put something under your grill to keep the heat away— wood, a pizza tin, a cookie sheet, something. I offer a variety of colorful Lefse Grill Counter Protectors as well as a beautiful batch of Cozy-Counter Protection Combo products.
3. Use the Blue Pastry Board Cover to help prevent sticking. The blue cover may seem like a cosmetic thing—blue adds color to lefse’s white world—but it’s much more. You can see potential sticking spots on the blue cover earlier than on a white cover because the blue will be darker where there’s less flour on the cover. It’s harder to see that with white flour on a white cover. So use the blue and keep on rolling as long as your heart desires.
4. Keep your feet happy. After making lefse for hours and hours, my dogs are barking and my calves are calling! I have always used shoes with good arch support, but this year I’ve started to wear Burlix Graduated Compression Socks. They are wonderful, and I’m not going back to plain old socks for lefse making. I also wear them when I do a lot of standing in the shop. And during the winter, they add a bit of warmth, which is always good.
I have made speeches all over the Midwest, in red states and blue. But no matter the location or the leanings of the audience, the unifying power of lefse took over. Respect, cordiality, and a lefse kinda of love were in the air. Let’s remember that as we move forward after the election.
After all elections, it seems, most of us are weary of politics—whether we win or lose. Especially this year. So it’s a relief to get back to rolling lefse and connecting to the fun of this grand old tradition. Elections come and go. Lefse lasts.
So for fun, I decided to try—against the wishes of every lefse lover I know—making lefse with aquavit. Just a small batch. See what happens. Who knows, maybe it’ll be good. Or not…
I refer to my blog called “One-Potato Lefse—40 Minutes”. The idea is sometimes you want lefse but don’t want a big production. With this quick-and-easy lefse, it’s a perfect time to try new techniques or ingredients. I’ve tried lefse with sour cream, and it was excellent. Why not lefse with aquavit? Hey, if it’s good, it makes for great conversation in a long winter. If it’s bad, I can work on the rest of the bottle of aquavit as consolation.
The question, of course, is: How much aquavit do I add to the dough? As a guide, I thought of vanilla, which is about 35% alcohol. A little bit goes a long way. My one-potato lefse makes for about 1 cup of lefse dough, which includes 2-3 tablespoons butter, 1/8 teaspoon salt, 1 teaspoon powdered sugar, 1/8 cup cream, and ½ cup flour, extra for rolling pin and rolling surface.
With a nervous hand, I added 1/2 teaspoon of aquavit. I have three different aquavits, but went with my favorite specialty brand (the white frosted bottle in above photo) made in a bathtub by an acquaintance in Texas (another story). I mixed the dough, added flour, and within 10 minutes rolled three beautiful rounds, if I say so myself.
So how did the aquavit lefse turn out? In a word, wonderful! Frankly, I wish I would have added slightly more aquavit to enhance the subtle sweet, woody, slightly caramel and anise taste that really popped with added butter. The aquavit should not be so obvious that someone would exclaim, “Who added aquavit to this lefse?” But it should be enough to make the taster pause in appreciation and ask, “What’s in your lefse recipe? This is unique!”
Give it a try with aquavit or whatever ingredient you have a hunch about. Be bold but be subtle.
When I sent the first edition of The Lefse & Lutefisk News to 66 recipients three years ago, I had the conviction that there is a strong community of lefse and lutefisk lovers out there eager to hear all the news that’s fit to print about their favorite food and their favorite love/hate food. Well, the community is indeed strong. There has been a ten-fold increase in the audience, mostly word of mouth, and I am rewarded with funny yarns, lovely notes, and heartwarming stories. Everyone, it seems, has a lefse tale — and a lutefisk joke — to tell.
Mary was from the hills and mountains of Norway, the story begins. Her father left for America, and Mary, her mother, and three siblings remained in Norway. The plan was for the father to cross the ocean, build a home, and send for the family. Weeks became months, and months became years. Then around 1880, the message came. Mary’s mother packed up the family so they all could be together again in America. They severed connections to relatives and friends and to Norway.
They boarded the sailing ship to America. Mary was 12 at the time, the oldest of the children. The ship was over-loaded, and the North Sea rough. Marit’s mother became sick and died. She was buried in Liverpool, England.
It was up to Marit, who could not speak English, to make the crossing with her three siblings. Her only possessions were a few bundles, a trunk, and a ticket to New York City.
Marit and the children made it to New York and indeed were re-united with her father. She went on to live in North Dakota and is buried in Carpio, ND. But this part of the crossing story ends with the following, which was published in Marit’s obituary: “The hardest part of the whole trip was when her father asked where Mary’s mother was when they reached New York!”
For lefse folks, there are advantages to wearing masks in this pandemic. Two come to mind:
We are introverts. We proudly display this bumper sticker: I’M A SOCIAL VEGAN—I AVOID MEET! So a mask is a godsend. It helps limit transmission of the virus, and it helps us hide. It covers our flat affect and scowls, which is good. Who wants to be seen as a sourpuss? So with a mask, we can frown away to our heart’s content. The drawback, of course, it that a mask hides our gorgeous smiles … but we are very stingy with smiles anyway. In Keep On Rolling! Life of the Lefse Trail and Learning to Get a Round, lefsemakerCordell Keith Haugen told me: “I think the only time I saw my grandmother Mari Haugen smile was when she offered lefse.”
We can say something without actually saying something. Again, we are introverts, so feelings have to ricochet through a labyrinth of cultural no-nos before they escape to the frightful freedom of expression and vulnerability. But by wearing a lefse mask with KEEP ON ROLLING! front and center, we don’t have to utter a peep. People see a lefse mask and smile, which, heck, may even make us smile! And the mask can preach a succinct sermon at a time when we need resiliency and hope.
Normally, this is lefse festival season. If not for the pandemic, I would be itching to travel to the Norsk Hostfest in Minot, ND, in two weeks to greet old friends and sell new lefse and lutefisk products. But the Hostfest was cancelled, as was Potato Days in Barnesville, MN, where I have sold my stuff in August for years and have been a judge at the National Lefse Cook-off.
I am sad about losing a year of lefse festivals. But I am glad that this year I planted a few potato plants and yesterday passed a pleasant afternoon hour harvesting five pounds of what seems to me to be rather jovial spuds of not insignificant size, thrilled to be freed from the dark underground and at last basking in the warm sun. These potatoes will make the dough for what undoubtedly will be my best batch of lefse ever!!
The potato yield was small consolation to the loss of going to the lefse festivals, but consolation nevertheless. Plus the digging and excitement of discovering—you never know how many potatoes will be there and how plump or puny they will be—unearthed special memories of Potato Days and Barnesville.
Pity the poor potato. It’s packed with flavor and nutrition, and yet typically people display pathetically little potato appreciation. They deem it to be lowly and grubby, and they disparage the dirty little tuber, using phrases like “small potatoes” and “couch potato.” The spud doesn’t see the light of day until it’s yanked from the muck, sliced, fried, mashed, riced, rolled, or whipped—and then greedily gobbled up.
Thankfully, there are people in our midst who find the potato to be most appealing. A. A. Milne, who wrote books about the thoughtful and steadfast Winnie-the-Pooh, praised the potato right proper when he wrote, “What I say is that, if a man really likes potatoes, he must be a pretty decent sort of fellow.”
Pardon the promotional potato preamble (I lose perspective regarding potatoes), but it helps explain why we are in Barnesville. Lefse lovers are pretty decent folks who applaud the pomme de terre, holding it high because it is the fundamental ingredient in the most fantastic food this side of heaven. When it’s lefse time, it’s tater time—and it’s tater time all the time during one potato-packed weekend in this northern Minnesota town (pop. 2,570 in 2013). Barnesville’s annual Potato Days Festival in late August pulls in around 20,000 spud lovers who participate in events that embrace all things potato—including the National Lefse Cook-off. With good food, kooky contests, silly stuff you have to see to believe, and a gripping lefse competition, Barnesville’s food festival is a must stop on the Lefse Trail.
Let’s stay safe and hope that Potato Days and the Norsk Hostfest make a big comeback next year.