Sometimes in our youth (think high school and college age) we do things just so we can eventually say we’ve done them. Kind of like building your resume to eventually impress your grandkids. Thus, I decided to make lefse on a canoe trip.
You don’t have to have high-tech equipment to make lefse, and at the time and on that trip I certainly adhered to that principle. Nevertheless, things were kind of primitive. I was on a float down the upper Mississippi River in north central Minnesota. Normal canoe trips involved portages and keeping weight to a minimum, but there I really didn’t have to carry gear or the canoe around anything. Nor was I backpacking, so I went a bit heavier on provisions. While I was heavier on provision, I still didn’t have a proper rolling board, pastry cloth, rolling pin, griddle, or flipping stick. Time to improvise.
Make Do to Make Lefse
Finding the flat rolling surface was easy. I just turned over the canoe and used the flat part of the hull bottom. Rolling pin? Easy — a beer bottle worked, although a wine bottle would have been better. I had a cheap aluminum frying pan and pancake turner, which kind of worked. Still being somewhat primitive, I used a cooking fire instead of a heat-controlled specialty griddle.
Ingredients were easily solved with instant mashed potatoes and pancake flour. Instant mashed potatoes weren’t as good in the middle 60s as they are now, but they worked. And of course, this was an experiment. I don’t recall exactly what I used for shortening in the dough, but it was probably bacon grease. Anyway, I somehow got the dough rolled and into the pan and kind of cooked.
Texture and cosmetics were primitive, but then a judging panel was not present so I ignored those subtleties. As I recall, the lefse was surprisingly tasty — must have been the bacon grease — but then I wasn’t making it for refined tastes. It might also have involved the hunger generated by paddling all day.
My techniques have improved in the last half century or so, but making lefse on a canoe trip is still a fond memory. If I were to make lefse while out camping these days, it would be a bit easier to do it in my motor home. But the biggest challenge today would be to get the canoe into the motor home to roll out the dough!
Lefse limericks are like potato chips. You can’t eat just one chip, right? And you cannot, it seems, write just one lefse limerick.
This was impressed on me as soon as limericks started rolling in for the first Lefse Limerick Contest announced in last month’s newsletter. Limericks came in bunches, and many contestants were having so much fun writing them that they quickly followed up their first batch with a second batch of wacky lefse limericks.
Judging was difficult — hence the ties — because they were all so full of the spirit of the limerick. Some people stated that this was their first attempt at writing a limerick because writing poetry was not their thing. But they could not resist, and once they did one, well, shoot, they had to do it again and again!
I think the attraction in writing limericks is that, by definition, they are supposed to be edgy, bawdy, and ribald. Not raunchy, but on the edge — and certainly not with a lefse limerick. Many contestants could not go near the edge, and some did not nail the limerick‘s meter, the long-established basic pulse and rhythm of the poem. But our winners did, and here they are:
John Ziegenhagen — Minnetonka, MN
John was the clear winner and is, at least to me, a natural with limericks. He willingly went to the edge without crossing the line, and he was prolific, writing at least three that were superior. This was the one I chose as the winner:
There once was a man named Scupper
Who ate beans with his lefse for supper
He walked with such poise
To avoid a big noise
But, boy, his cheeks they did pucker.
Steve Seim — Wheatland, WY
Steve got so excited about the limerick contest that he dashed one off … about lutefisk. Forgivable, since one is more willing to go bawdy with lutefisk than lefse. But he collected himself and wrote this winner:
There once was a guy they called SpudWho was known around town as a dud
Ate lefse galore
And hoping to score
But Lena had eyes just for Bud.
Jim Leet — Roseburg, OR
Jim beat the end-of-April deadline with four submissions that were all giggles. But this one stood out and earned Jim second place:
The lefse was taken by Sue
Who tucked it inside of her shoe
Her ultimate goal
Was patching her sole
But now she had lunch with her too.
Heidi Bacon, Red Wing, MN
Heidi had to be a winner because she was the only one bold enough to feature herself in the limerick. At least I think the Heidi in the first line is the Heidi pictured above. Anyway, heeeere’s Heidi!
There once was a Norski named Heidi
Whose kitchen was much less than tidy
When lefse was rolled
The stories were told
Of Grandma whose legend was mighty.
Reid Trulson, Collegeville, PA
Now, c’mon, doesn’t Reid (pictured above) look too distinguished to stoop to writing a lowly limerick? Well, he could not help himself, apparently, but justified his submission by stating that his mission was “to extol the benefits of lefse.” Okay. As you see below, he starts out taking the high road, but dips into an edgy limerick sweet spot at the end.
A diet of lefse is cool
Eliciting no ridicule
It also has use
As a substitute snus
That eliminates troublesome drool.
People who are overcome with gratitude will often say something like, “I am so thankful. I cannot express just how grateful I am.” And it’s true; gratitude cannot be quantified or magnified by adding words, in many cases. Don’t get me started on how a heartfelt “Thank you” cannot be topped by the gushing cliche of the times: “Thank you so much!” “So much” adds nothing and subtracts a bit of sincerity, IMHO. So please, leave off the “so much”, thank you.
But I digress. Last month I wanted to express just how grateful I was to my customers who allow this lefse train to keep on rolling. So free books were offered to anyone who emailed me. I did this last year and sent out a dozen or so free books, so I thought I’d do it again. I sent out the March enewsletter that included the free books offer.
I casually checked my email the night I sent out the offer, and there were scads of responses, like around 50. Yikes! I started adding up the shipping cost. Hmmm… . I have never done this before with my newsletter, but the next day my better-business self sent a follow-up “What was I thinking?” newsletter that said the free book offer would end at the end of the day.
So, after two days of checking emails and shaking my head—in gratitude—and then two more days of my grandson Zo and me stuffing envelopes, 105 books were lugged to the post office. I left my boxes overnight so that I not overwhelm the postal clerks.
When I returned the next morning to pay, I started to think that maybe you can quantify gratitude. I mean, shipping 105 books has to mean a ton of gratitude to my customers, even shipping at media rate, right? And certainly wasn’t I showing deep gratitude to my Canadian customers, since it is indeed a high price to pay for shipping anything to our northern neighbors?
After paying and as I folded up the 10-foot long receipt that listed all the tracking numbers, I reflected on what had happened. At the end of the day, I was glad for making the offer. I really was. I was grateful that there was so much interest in lefse and lutefisk books in this slow off season, and that people were expressing their gratitude for a chance to receive the books that I was glad to ship out. It was one grand gratitude fest, people thanking each other for thanking each other. I was especially gratified that most requests were for the book I have a special place in my heart for, my lefse novel, Final Rounds: On Love, Loss, Life, and Lefse. Very cool!
So I end with the only thing I can say, simply, to my customers in Lefse Land.
At considerable risk, I run the first ever Lefse Limerick Contest throughout the rest of the month of April.
Let’s get right to the risk. Wikipedia defines a limerick as “a form of verse, usually humorous and frequently rude,” in five-lines. The first, second, and fifth lines rhyme, and the third and fourth lines, which are shorter, have a different rhyme.
The form originated in England in the 18th century and became popular in the 19th century. Wikipedia says, “Gershon Legman, who compiled the largest and most scholarly anthology, held that the true limerick as a folk form is always obscene … . From a folkloric point of view, the form is essentially transgressive; violation of taboo is part of its function.”
Wikipedia cites the following example is a limerick of unknown origin:
The limerick packs laughs anatomical Into space that is quite economical. But the good ones I’ve seen So seldom are clean And the clean ones so seldom are comical.
A Clean Lefse Limerick
So you see the risk of running a Lefse Limerick Contest. To be true to form, a lefse limerick, it appears, should be “obscene” and “frequently rude” and a “violation of taboo.” Oh, dear!
Well, following the exact form of a limerick will never do in here Lefse Land. We have our fun with lefse and certainly lutefisk, but we are never rude or obscene. No, no, no!
And yet, it is possible to dance along the borders of the true limerick to create an entertaining lefse limerick. Check this out:
There once was a Norsky named Niles He endured a rough month with the piles He ate lefse — was cured! So please rest assured On those who love lefse, God smiles.
There, that wasn’t so bad! I dance along the border of the true limerick with mention of “piles” in the second line, but I never cross the line. You must admit, the limerick could have gone decidedly south after that. But it didn’t, and we end up with smiles.
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.