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Lefse, TV, and Perfection

During the recording of Merry’s Eclectic Interests on cable TV, I sing a song about the folly of striving to make perfect lefse.

I was nervous as the recording for the TV show was about to begin. How did I look? Would I be witty during the recording, or would the lights and cameras and the moment tie my tongue? And of course, the persistent question with me no matter what I do: Would I be perfect — and when I’m not, would I be OK with “pretty darn good”?

And then I thought of lefse. This recording of two, 30-minute TV shows last spring was about lefse. Lefse is the show no matter what, I told myself, so let lefse carry the day.

That calmed me, and the cameras rolled. Mary Ellen Zagrabelny, host of Merry’s Eclectic Interests on cable (CCX Create), started asking me about my beginnings with lefse and how lefse has been my muse. How did learning to make this simple flatbread feed the writing of two lefse books, the teaching of lefse classes, the developing of the Lefse Trail, and the promoting of all things lefse with sales of related products on LefseKing.com?

Talking Back to the Bad Boy

The interview went well, and the time flew by. It was really fun! But weeks later when I received the link to the edited video, I didn’t open it for days. The final version of the video — or more specifically, me — was not going to be perfect, I knew. I would come up short, once again.

Ah, but I have put up with this voice of perfectionism, the Great Oppressor, for years, and I know enough to talk back to this bad boy. I did so, and then clicked on the link.

And dontcha know, it’s pretty darn good! Check out this video, which will be aired in October of this year — lefse’s prime time.

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Lutefisk Led to Spring Lawn Repairs

Rosalie and Marvin “Super Pete” Pederson, who owned Pederson’s Super Market in Starbuck, Minnesota. Marvin, who was very proud to be of Norwegian heritage, was born on May 17, Syttende Mai.

My parents were Rosalie and Marvin “Super Pete” Pederson (pictured). Dad owned and operated a family grocery store in Starbuck, Minnesota, from 1954 to 1994 and was known in this part of the state for his lutefisk sales. He made lutefisk by soaking dry cod first in the garage at our home in Starbuck and later in the backroom of our store. He learned the craft from Clayton Anderson, a grocer in North Branch, Minnesota, where Dad met Mom after the war. Clayton was emphatic that making fish took a lot of labor, in part because the lutefisk maker sold something that had soaked up about 10 times its weight in water.

One of Dad’s “tails” was from 1954, the first year he made fish. There was no plumbing available, so he drained the soaking water into the back alley. But in the spring, he had to pay to repair lawns that were damaged by the runoff.  Yes, those were the days.

Cleaning Lutefisk Tanks

As I became older, I participated in that annual smelly event in our store by adding the lye and moving the fish from tank to tank during soaking. I also cleaned all debris at the bottom of the tank when the lye water had been drained.

With lutefisk, of course, there is the smell. Dad tried storing his many bales of dried fish in sheds of farmers, but they wanted no part of that. At our store, the smell was so bad in the backroom during fish season that dad put an exhaust fan in the wall. This annoyed neighbors, so he constructed a special room made from cement blocks to contain the smell. And he built a plywood ventilation chute to the roof where a fan blew the smell higher and away from the building.

Above, the stock tank used to display lutefisk in the store. Below is the bill for the store’s first delivery of lutefisk in the fall of 1954.

Dad placed a stock tank in the store’s meat department to display the soaking fish to customers before they made their purchase. Dad would fill that with fresh water and ice blocks every day during the selling season. We used a baling hook to handle the fish. After purchase, it was wrapped in a wax-coated locker paper; in the later years we switched to plastic bags so it would not drip on the floor as much. Uffda!

Lutefisk for 19 cents per pound. Those were the days!

I am thankful for the memories and opportunities that were presented to me by life in a small town grocery store. Recently I visit residents at our local retirement home, and another visitor, Bob Kyyvig, reminisced about standing in line to buy fish.

Recalling such lutefisk moments brighten my day.

 

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8 Unconventional Tips for Making Purple Lefse

Vitelotte Noir potatoes that have been cooked and made ready for purple lefse dough.

Gary’s note: The previous blog on purple lefse makes it clear that Canadian Chuck Hays dances to a different drummer than most lefse makers. I like that, and I really like how Chuck brings his individuality to lefse making with these eight “outside the box” tips he uses with this recipe:

3 cups potato

4 tablespoons olive oil

½ teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon sugar

¼ to 3/8 cup milk, depending on how dry potatoes are

1 ¼ cups flour, or as needed

Steam rather than boil potatoes.

1. Steam the Vitelotte Noir potatoes whole in their jackets. Scrub them well and put them in a steamer pan over boiling water until they test done. This takes a little longer than boiling them, but they don’t soak up as much water. BTW, those five potatoes pictured above made enough ground spuds for 1 2/3 batches using my recipe. Consider the lefse from the extra 2/3 of a batch to be a bonus blessing from the Lefse Goddess.

Grind rather than mash and rice potatoes.

2. Don’t mash the unpeeled spuds; that can be an exercise in frustration. Run the hot potatoes through a meat grinder using a small plate (1/8-inch holes), jackets and all.

3. Cool — don’t chill — potatoes. I’ve lately joined the “No Chill” movement. Hey, with purple lefse I’m already going across the grain on tradition, so I might as well go all in. I’ve found cooling but not chilling potatoes makes good lefse and cuts down on the time commitment. Anything that makes me willing to make lefse more often is good.

4. Try olive oil. Doubters may ask about my recipe: “What part of Norway did that olive oil come from?” For many years I was a practicing vegetarian, vegan denomination. I respect that worldview, but I’m really an omnivore. Olive oil let me keep making lefse even when some of the ingredients were off-limits under the rules of the game. I’ve kept using olive oil because I like it, it adds a nice flavour, and the lefse is a little softer. BTW, I used to replace milk with soy milk. It wasn’t bad but definitely a compromise. I’m back to using milk, but it’s good to know soy milk works. Use it if it makes sense to you.

Work flour into potatoes with a pastry cutter.

5. Don’t knead. Work the flour in with a pastry cutter. This keeps the dough softer, without allowing for the ultimate gluten development.

Roll without using a sock on the rolling pin.

6. Don’t use a sock on the rolling pin. Occasionally, I get a piece of potato stuck in the pin, so I stop and pick it out. That’s how I roll. For one round, make a lump of cooled-not-chilled dough about the size of a tangerine, and roll it out on a board covered with a floured cloth. Turn the round two or three times.

Place a heat reflector beneath your 500F grill.

7. Use a heat reflector. I place an old piece of countertop on the stove under my griddle. I suspect that the wood keeps heat radiating from the 500F griddle from being conducted away by the metal stove. Because of this, the griddle stays hot without having to cycle the thermostat as much (or at least it seems so to me).

Stack your purple lefse between towels for cooling.

8. Stack your lefse rounds between towels and let the the rounds cool there before packaging. My recipe makes 8 to 10 rounds. That’s enough for two lefse lovers to have two rounds with supper, two with butter and sugar for dessert, and some rounds left for scrambled-egg-and-bacon lefse wraps for breakfast. And yeah, for the most part I’ve learned to make round lefse instead of lefse that looks like the shape of Alberta.

Praise for Purple Lefse

Before closing, I want to circle back to my lefse roots that I mentioned in my first blog. My mother eventually came around to making potato lefse about the time I graduated from high school. I was pretty much out of the house by then, so I didn’t have a “roll model.” I had to go through the “lefse jerky” stage and make lots of “lømpe” before I discovered The Last Word on Lefse and became a convert. Don and Judy Fearn of Rochester, Minnesota, have been remarkably patient with me, kindly coaching me to make lefse “from the inside out” and all the while letting me think I knew it all already.

Those of us who grew up around Scandinavians understand that praise can be a little muted. Sometimes it’s better that way, and sometimes the muted praise isn’t muted at all when you really listen and are able to translate correctly. One of my Norwegian friends rolled a round of my purple lefse with butter and sugar, shrugged, and took a bite. “Yah, y’know,” he said looking me in the eye, “it doesn’t taste purple.”

Pretty high praise!

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Purple Lefse??

 

Is it possible to add more passion to your life? Try purple lefse.

 

When I was a kid in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, I thought I knew what lefse was. In my family, lefse was Vestlandslefse — hard, cracker like, dry. Not a speck of potato in it. When Mom would wet this lefse and let it soften between towels for a few minutes, I ate it and loved it.

Years later as an adult, I went looking for lefse in a grocery store and found Mrs. Olson’s in the cooler. I took it home and tried it.

“Huh? What the heck is this?” I thought.

I called Mom. “Oh, yeah, well there’s our lefse,” she explained, “and then people in the Midwest make it with potatoes.”

So I came to believe that a world with two kinds of lefse was a pretty good place.

Fast forward a few decades, and I make much more potato lefse than Vestlandslefse or Hardanger lefse. And courtesy of Gary Legwold and his lefse books, I know there are many more than just two kinds of lefse.

Not only am I a lefse maker, but I am also a journalism professor at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, British Columbia, and an organic farmer who has carried on a lifelong love affair with the potato. I believe that making just one kind of lefse doesn’t really account for the incredible diversity in potatoes. We grow heirloom potatoes, so why not experiment?

The Spud

What makes a good lefse potato? It is not waxy, it can be boiled or steamed, and it will be dry — not gummy — when mashed. And of course, it has good potato flavour.

The incomparable potato, the Vitelotte Noir!

One of our varieties is Vitelotte Noir, a dark purple potato with a really intense potato flavour. Vitelotte Noir is a smallish to medium, usually very knobby spud. It’s genetically very close to some of the historic varieties grown in the Andes. I like to say it has a face only another potato could love.

The Vitelotte Noir contains the anti-oxidant anthocyanin that gives this spud its unique color.

Inside the skin, we can see the high concentration of the anti-oxidant anthocyanin that makes the potato appear purple and even blue.

My basic lefse recipe is not too out of line, so I’ll put that up first for those who know how to make lefse. But in my next blog, I’ll write about my untraditional techniques, tools (meat grinder), and ingredients (olive oil) I use to make lefse-making less work and the lefse itself more delicious.

3 cups potato

4 tablespoons olive oil

½ teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon sugar

¼-3/8 cup milk, depending on how dry the potatoes are

1 ¼ cup flour, or as needed

Stir together the first five ingredients, then use a pastry cutter to mix in the flour. After that, it’s the standard lefse-making procedure of rolling out dough on a floured cloth and baking it on a griddle at 500F.

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2 Hot Lefse-Baking Tips

You may have to modify your old lefse grill to be able to use newer probe control models.

The title is not hyperbole. I am giving you two hot lefse-baking tips — hot, as in temperatures of up to 500 degrees F — that allow you to get full power to your most valuable lefse-making tool, your grill, and to prolong its life.

I have several lefse grills that I use for my lefse classes, but during my last batch of classes I discovered I had two grills that no longer worked because the electric probe controls were shot. They had burned out. If you’ve had your lefse grill for a while, you may have had this problem. So …

Alternate use of the electrical probe control every 1 1/2 hours of grilling lefse.

Hot Tip #1: Purchase a second probe control.

In the “How to Use Your New Grill” section of the Bethany Heritage Grill instructions, it reads: “It is not recommended that the probe control be used continuously for periods of more than 1 ½ hours at maximum temperature. At that time, allow the probe to cool down for 30 minutes before re-using. Alternate probes may be used to continue baking.”

I had never alternated probes in all my years of making lefse, which probably explains why my probe had burned out. I now have an alternate probe.

Here is how Roxie Svoboda, president of Bethany Housewares, summed it up when I interviewed her for my latest book, Keep On Rolling! Life on the Lefse Trail and Learning to Get a Round: “If you alternate the controls, you’ll have better luck making your grill last longer. Have two controls; we sell just the control separately. Put a different control in every hour, and let the other one cool off. We have people get together as a family and bake for eight hours. The grill is OK; it can handle it. It’s the control that you should change every hour or so.”

Hot Tip #2: Modify your old grill for a new control probe.

I bought new probe controls for my old grills, but the new probe controls didn’t fit snugly into the receptacles of the old grills. The probes didn’t go into the receptacles far enough for the grills to heat up sufficiently to bake lefse. Hmmm. So I emailed Roxie, asking if Bethany carried controls that would fit old models.

She responded that Bethany did not have old controls, but new controls work in older grills “with a slight modification.” Here’s how to modify your old grill for a new probe (see photo opening this blog):

  1. Turn over your old grill. You’ll see two screws that secure the aluminum shield wrapping around the receptacle into which the probe control fits.
  2. Loosen those screws and slide the shield toward the center of the grill.
  3. With the shield in its more central position, re-tighten the screws.

This allows the new probe control to fit deeper into the receptacle and supply full power for a 500-degree grill.

“If this does not solve the problem,” added Roxie, “you may have a grill that has larger prongs [probes] that were produced for a short period about 30 years ago, before we purchased the company.”

In this case, the solution is to replace the larger probes. You need to send the grill and the probe control to Bethany, who will replace the larger probe with a smaller one. The charge is $20 plus shipping. Roxie advised to include a note in the shipping box that has your name, address, phone number, and a brief description of what you would like done.

 

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‘Sewer Trout’ and Lefse

A 1956 photo of Verna Spencer with her son, Nolan Spencer, who was in Bagley High School at the time.

I’ve been reading The Last Word On Lutefisk, which brought back memories.

In 1947 my parents, Ed and Verna Spencer, built a small store open seven days a week. They called it the Hi-Way Store, which was located 1 mile west of Bagley, Minnesota, on U.S. Highway 2. This was just after Dad returned from serving in the U.S. Army in the Philippines. He used his GI bill to build the store.

Dad traded guns, rented outboard motors, and sold fishing tackle and minnows (that’s a minnow tank in the picture). He and Mom also ran the grocery. What saved the store was they were able to obtain a 3.2 beer license — the only one in Clearwater County — that allowed beer sales after noon on Sundays.

Mom and Dad sold sill all year and had lutefisk delivered around Thanksgiving and Christmas. Like the sill, the lutefisk came from the Hogstad Fish Co. in Duluth. The fish arrived in short, wooden tubs about the size of a small washtub. My after-school job, at age 9, was to change the water for the skin-on fish.

‘Sewer Trout’

Francis “Fritz” LaRoque, half French and half Ojibwa, and his full-Norske wife Harriet would come in to buy what he called “sewer trout.” I’ve never heard that title used anywhere else.

Dad established a trailer court, as he knew a pipeline was being built from Saskatchewan to Duluth beginning in 1954. The pipeline workers filled the court with 54 trailers. At the end of the pipe-laying season in November, maintenance personnel stayed to “lay up” the equipment (change oil, drain radiators, etc.) before the “drag-up dust” (snow) arrived.

One woman came into our store and saw the tubs of lutefisk. She asked what it was. Mom explained it was a seasonal, cured codfish that Norwegians and Swedes enjoyed during the holidays. “Oh, we like fish,” said the woman, who sounded as if she hailed from in a southern state. “I’d like two pounds.”

When the woman came back the next day, Mom asked how she liked the lutefisk. “Oh, it was great, but it kinda stuck to the fryin’ pan.”

Can you imagine the smell of fried lutefisk in an 8 x 32-foot trailer house?

My First Lefse

My first taste of lefse came in 1948 when Violet and Einar Jallen, Dad’s sister and brother-in-law, lived with us for a winter. Einar had to have lefse! The lefse was baked on the covers of the wood- or coal-burning side of the combination range my folk owned. The wood/coal burner flanked four gas burners.

My job was to split up wooden apple/orange/pear/peach crates to provide fuel for lefse baking. Violet rolled the lefse, and Mom baked it using the sharpened window shade bottom “slat” for a lefse stick. I was hooked on lefse from that point on.

That’s Mom and me in the above picture during the summer of l956. I had one more year at Bagley High School, and then I attended Bemidji State Teachers College. I obtained degrees in biology and chemistry education. I taught one year in Beloit, Wisconsin, and then 35 years in Crosby-Ironton, Minnesota, before I retired in 1997.

I married Sharon Gilbertson, who I miss as she has passed on. We were too poor to buy a lefse grill, so I had a friend cut an 18-inch disc out of ½-inch steel for baking lefse. It went over one of the burners on our gas range and worked just fine.

Combining a bit of lefse and lutefisk, I leave you with this cheer that was a rouser when our high school teams opposed the Greyhounds from Fosston, a town 17 miles west of Bagley. It goes:

Lutefisk and lefse
Gammelost and sill
We can beat those Greyhounds
You doggone right we will!

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Listen to the Best Lefse Song Ever

Marge Kellor took this photo of me performing “Keep On Rollin'” before members of the Scandia Lodge of the Sons of Norway in Waconia, Minnesota.

 

I’m on a lefse tour these days, barnstorming with my books and making speeches about lefse and lutefisk to any group that might find entertainment and humor in hearing about these traditional foods. The speech highlights a fun afternoon or evening, and I always look forward to ending my presentation by singing a lefse song I co-wrote with Erik Sherburne from St. Paul. The song is “Keep On Rollin’”, which is a benediction for my latest book Keep On Rolling! Life on the Lefse Trail and Learning to Get a Round and, I can confidently say, is the best lefse song ever recorded on a Tuesday evening in December.

Erik wrote the music, and I wrote the lyrics to this lefse song for voice and piano. It’s a tune that honors the tradition and fun of lefse making as well as the resiliency, faith, and gratitude of lefse makers who just keep on rolling throughout their life. This “family” song is easy to sing and easy to play whenever folks gather to make and eat lefse.

“Keep On Rollin’” is eight pages filled with three verses, a bridge, and a rousing chorus. Many people have purchased the score after they hear me sing the song. Typically, the audience starts singing along in the chorus after the third verse, and the song invariably brings down the house.

People who cannot attend my presentation have asked if there is any way to hear a recording of the song before buying the sheet music. I’m happy to say that yes, now they can. Listen to my recording of “Keep On Rollin’”, with Dorothy Williams at the piano.

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Make Friends With Lefse Sticks

With lefse sticks, here’s what you do

Beyond just flipping rounds.

You make them for a chum or two

Now friendship knows no bounds!

Nolan Spencer’s gift to anyone he teaches to make lefse: a homemade lefse stick.

 

Wanna make friends fast? Make lefse sticks and give them away.

“Oh, I can’t make lefse sticks,” you protest. “I’m not good working with wood.”

Oh, yes you can! Here’s a simple way to make a sturdy and stylish-looking lefse stick — and you can get the wood free.

This tip came from Nolan Spencer, who I featured in Keep On Rolling! Life on the Lefse Trail and Learning to Get a Round. He recently made the lefse stick pictured above and mailed it to me from his home in Deerwood, Minnesota.

“I’m cheap,” wrote Nolan, “and I make them from 5-gallon paint stir sticks, which I get free of charge at The Home Depot. I jigsaw the ends, plane down the sticks, and finish them on my belt sander. Everyone I teach lefse making to gets one. You’re an exception, Gary. Give it a try, and keep on rolling!”

Will do, Nolan, my lefse friend!

Nolan Spencer with a photo of himself and his late wife, Sharon.
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The Joy of Ricers

My love is like a red, red ricer …

Gary’s note:

Roses are red

Ricers are, too!

Give one to your luv

And make lefse for two!

Becky Latka is back, blogging away about her colorful collection of 50 vintage ricers. This is a very RICE story that begins when Becky was in grade school.

 

I love vintage kitchen utensils in a variety of colors, and I love lefse. So my obsession with colorful vintage potato ricers is a no-brainer.

My first two ricers were red, both from my Grandma Skarstad and used for making lefse with the whole family when I was in grade school. I thought all potato ricers were red until I was in my 20s and saw a green one in an antique store. But my obsession didn’t begin then, and I didn’t buy that green ricer.

It was years later when I started making lefse with my children that I realized I needed more than my two red ricers. Ricing always seemed to be a bottleneck in the process of making lefse, the result of owning a limited number or ricers. I started asking friends to join me at my lefse-making events, and I increased the amount of potatoes we’d process into lefse. My friends were willing to help, and it was clear we needed more ricers!

I bought a couple brand new ricers. They were not colorful, and I wasn’t happy with the newer models. One had aluminum handles that bent after a few attempts at ricing potatoes. The other had holes in the basket that were too small, which caused too much of the potato to be trapped and wasted. Grandma’s ricers worked best. If only I could find more like hers!

A rainbow of ricers.

Buying Binge

I started buying “old school” colorful ricers whenever I’d find them in antique stores (not often in Nebraska, a state practically devoid of Norwegians). Red ricers were still the most common followed by green. Then I found black and blue and beige, and over the years I’ve added orange, yellow, teal, and white! Most of the vintage ricers are similar in style to my Grandma’s, but there are two other vintage styles that I find less often. One is cast iron with narrower handles (for small hands), and the other has a thin area on the top handle over the basket.

As family and friends learned about my ricer collection, I started receiving ricers as gifts. I was accumulating so many ricers that I had to establish criteria for purchasing additional ricers. They needed to be a color I didn’t have, or they had to be marked at a price too good to pass up.

I have ricers hanging on my kitchen wall, on my basement shelves, and in a vintage aluminum bowl as a centerpiece. I have red ricers that are only used for lefse-making, ricers that I will part with as gifts, and ricers that I sell at The Lefse Shoppe. I have 50 ricers, including one recently sold and another recently purchased.

Life’s nicer with ricers — lots of them!

I love vintage items, but especially items that are still useful. To some, my ricers may be clutter, but not to me — not as long as they spark joy and loving memories. And not as long as they have a superior design and are more efficient than any modern ricer. What’s not to love?

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Video: Krina Lefse Topping

Gary’s note: This is the final installment in Les Olsen’s three-part blog about krina lefse, a “very yummy” lefse, as Les puts it. The previous blogs (below) covered the tools for making the base krina-lefse round as well as the lore about krina lefse in Les’ family. This blog includes the topping recipe and a video on the fun application of the topping to the base round.

 

This is my family’s recipe for krina lefse topping:

2 eggs

1/2 cup cornstarch

1/4 cup sugar

3/4 cup milk

2 cups flour

Beat eggs until mixed. Add milk. Fold in cornstarch and sugar. Fold in 1-1/2 cups of flour. Then add just enough flour until when you pull a spoonful of topping out of the bowl, it will stretch and tear (see video). When the topping is thick and stringy, it will hold the pattern.

Take a round of krina lefse, place it on the countertop and place a large spoonful of topping on the lefse. With the spoon’s edge, spread the topping over the entire lefse round, all the way to the edges. If the edge is not covered, it will brown too fast.

Use the krina tool to scrape the excess topping off the lefse. Spread the topping in one direction, leaving only the ridges of topping.

Now use the krina tool to make the pattern in the topping. You can create your own pattern. We use my grandma’s pattern (see photo and video). I wonder how many pieces of lefse my grandma, mom, and I have finished with this pattern.

Between the krina lefse tool and the lefse turning stick is Les’ krina lefse topping pattern.

Place the lefse with topping on a baking sheet and put under the broiler. Set the broiler on low and the rack 6 inches below the broiling element. Here is the tricky part: Watch the lefse to make certain the topping turns only a light golden brown. This takes about 2 minutes under the broiler. Do not close the oven door. If you broil the topping too fast, it will bubble up off the lefse. Remove the round, and to keep it from curling, stack your rounds under flour sack towels and the heavy ¾-inch plywood (see video).

Final Preparations for Eating

You may wonder when you finally will get to eat krina lefse. Well, your stack of krina lefse will keep for months. After a few days the lefse will dry and harden.

When you are ready to eat krina lefse, run each round of lefse under warm water and place it between flour sack towels. DO NOT STACK. With a spray bottle, mist the lefse and towels every 5 to 10 minutes. The lefse will soften to an edible state in approximately 1 to 1-1/2 hours. At that point, butter the side without the topping, and apply cinnamon and sugar to taste. My cousins in Norway mix the butter, cinnamon, and sugar together and apply. Place the two pieces of prepared lefse together, topping sides out. Cut into wedges and serve.

Here is an alternative to cinnamon and sugar: In 1997 while in Norway, I visited a restaurant in Rognan where the heated krina lefse was served with melted brown cheese, sour cream, and butter. Very yummy!