Lefse: Mashing, rolling and cooking holiday cheer

Down in the basement of the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd in Billings, holiday celebrations began with the making of lefse.

Just before Thanksgiving, Kelly Kaiser Borning gathered a small group to honor the Scandinavian tradition of rolling and baking the potato-based flatbread. This two-day affair of creating lefse for the annual bazaar was a valuable “passing of the generations,” said Margit Thorndal, a member of the Church Council. But for most Scandinavians, whether they know how to make lefse or not, it embodied good old-fashioned Christmas cheer.

For the third year in a row, peeled and mashed potatoes mixed with margarine and milk were transformed into thin flat breads. Baked on a special griddle, the breads freckled with small brown spots provided the wrappings for flavorful nostalgia.


Stella Fong

Margit Thorndal boils potatoes for lefse making.

Whether filled with sprinkles of sugar—brown or white—or dusted with ground cinnamon, the packages encased delicious memories. While the suggestion of lutefisk as an accompaniment usually brought disdainful expressions, the idea of dousing them with gravy, layering them with mashed potatoes, or slathering them with lingonberry jam elicited enthusiastic responses.

Forty-five pounds of donated russet potatoes encouraged Carol Blackwell and Nancy Morris to bring their own potato peelers into the basement kitchen. Bill Thorndal, Margit’s husband, arrived with his own peeler and a ricer inherited from his mother. Kelly also recruited the help of her 8-year-old daughter, Stephanie.

After cutting the potatoes into large chunks, and then boiling them to fork tenderness, a delicate and even mash resulted from processing through a ricer. Mashing without ricing creates lumps, and whipping with a mixer makes for glutinous potatoes.

While they were still warm, Kelly doubled an old typewritten recipe found in a plastic spiral-bound cookbook. This recipe called for canned evaporated milk and margarine to be added to the still-warm potatoes. After the addition of salt, sugar and baking powder, the mixture was then cooled to room temperature and stored in the refrigerator until ready to use. In this case, it was three days later.

Recipes vary from family to family. “There are people who have preferences but we have yet to figure it all out,” Kelly said, meaning that donated ingredients vary from year to year, and the composition of the dough changes with the kind of potato used. They have used Yukon, red, white and russet potatoes, the latter having the driest texture. The more modern, quick recipes used potato flakes, which produced good lefse, but made the cooks feel as though they had cheated the tradition. However, the consensus for honest-to-goodness lefse is: white potatoes.

Mary Hansen, who taught lefse-making classes in the Midwest, told of how she had asked students to bring cooked and mashed potatoes to class. She believed that “lefse was made from leftover mashed potatoes that was served to the pastor who came over for dinner.” In one of her classes, a woman brought mashed red potatoes with the skins still left on, which proved to be a challenge for mixing and rolling out the dough.


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

The very nearly finished product.

The liquid added varied from canned milk to whole milk to cream, with fat options of butter, margarine, shortening or vegetable oil. Some recipes called for baking powder, others did not. Then, should the lefse be sweet or savory? Finally, when baking, there were preference regarding doneness. How many brown spots and how long? The longer the lefse cooked the less pliable it became.

Kelly carefully finessed the flour into the potato mixture, adding just enough flour to retain a slight stickiness in the dough. Using cooled potatoes made for easier incorporation of the flour with less gummy results. The dough balls, rolled into the size of small fists, were then flattened into 14-inch rounds.

During this day of rolling and cooking, the Stahl family showed up in force. Lyle and Lisa Stahl and their daughter, Lindsay, and father-in-law, Lyle Severance, confidently brought experience into the final rolling and baking stage. Here the success of the process was equipment-driven.

A grooved square-cut rolling pin with a cotton-polyester stretch knit-sock not only imprinted geometric patterns, but made for easy rolling of the dough. Pressing the dough out on a 19-inch pastry board covered with a heavy pre-shrunken cotton cover also promoted success. Once the cover was dusted generously with flour, it became virtually nonstick.

The flatbread was removed from the canvas with a lefse stick that measured about 2 feet long by an inch wide. Beveled at the tip, it slid easily underneath the lefse. Sliding the stick all the way across the flatbread allowed for quick lifting and then unfolding onto the griddle. Needless to say, a practiced wrist movement was required.

As Lisa stood behind Lindsay, they rolled out lefse together with all four hands. Both easily pressed the dough to a 14-inch round that was thin enough to reveal the red lettering of the pastry board cover. Lindsay’s dad and grandpa hovered over five lefse griddles that were set at 450 degrees F. and were lined up along the edge of the center counter. This year, the blessing came with no blowing of fuses from having too many griddles on.


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Lyle Severance gingerly flips lefse on a hot griddle.

The portable electric griddles were made of heavy cask aluminum with a heat range of 100 to 500 degrees F. Their 16-inch diameter provided cooking room for large rounds. Also, because they had no sides, rolled-out lefse could be placed on the cooking surface and removed easily.

Both generations of Lyles worked the griddles in coordinated synchrony. In the opinion of the younger Lyle, lefse was done “when it starts crisping on the edges.” After each flatbread was removed from the griddle, placed on a pile and covered with a towel, the men carefully wiped off any specks of browned flour, leaving a clean new surface to cook on.

“It smells like Christmas,” Kelsie Larson exclaimed as she walked into the church kitchen while lefse baked on griddles. Kelsie, who was working with the Lockwood Boys and Girls Club and Lockwood Schools through the FoodCorps, grew up in Decorah, Iowa, home of the Nordic Fest.

For almost 50 years, this town has celebrated its Norwegian and Scandinavian heritage every July. Kelsie told of how she contributed to lefse making in her family as the dough ball maker, which she did on this day. She fondly remembered eating lefse with sugar, “both brown and white.”

The completed stack of lefse , numbering about 350 and standing nearly a foot high, was to be sold at the bazaar, three for $5. The bazaar was held on the Saturday before Thanksgiving, and an hour into sales, most of the lefse was gone.

The bazaar brimmed with other Scandinavian goodies, including Rommegrot, a sour cream porridge; rosette cookies, light, deep-fried snowflake-shaped cookies; and Krumkakes, thin wafer cookies that were rolled into a cone and often filled with whipped cream.

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Pre-made lefse is available in most grocery stores in Billings in the refrigerated section. Granrud’s Lefse, located just outside Opheim in northeastern Montana, mass-produces lefse. Evan and Myrt Granrud started the company in 1977, now owned by Alice Redfield and Twyla Anderson. Every season they process over 84,000 pounds of red and white dry-land potatoes in their mechanized facility. Mixers, stuffers, rollers and conveyors help a dozen workers process about 560 packages of lefse daily.

Lefse Making Equipment List:
Potato ricer
Grooved lefse rolling pin
Rolling pin “sock”
Pastry cloth
Lefse stick with beveled tips
Lefse grill

Local Retail Source:
Billings Hardware
3175 Grand Avenue, Billings, MT 59101, (406) 652-3877

Bethany Houseware Inc.–This company has been the leading manufacturer of Scandinavian/Norwegian cookware for almost 50 years.

Granrud’s Homemade Style Norwegian Potato Lefse
One pound packages available at Meat and Poultry Palace, Albertsons, IGA, and Lucky’s Market.

Adapted by Kelly Kaiser Borning from Etta Risley’s Recipe


Stella Fong

This is the recipe Kelly Kaiser Borning adapted for lefse making at the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd.

For the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, Kelly used 45 pounds of russet potatoes processed through a ricer and canned evaporated milk. After refrigerating the potato mixture for three days, Kelly mixed the potato mixture with flour for a dough that is slightly sticky. Her dough balls, the size of a small fist, rolled out to thin rounds averaging 14-inches in diameter. Kelly says a pound of potatoes is equivalent to two cups mashed.

6 cups of potatoes, cooked and mashed
1 cup margarine
1 cup canned milk
2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
5 cups flour

Cook and mash the potatoes; while hot add margarine, milk and baking powder, sugar and salt. Cool overnight. Add 4 cups of sifted flour and use the other cup to get the right consistency to roll out into large circles. Bake on a lefse pan.

Stella Fong divides her time between Billings and Seattle, finding new flavors and savoring old. Her articles have appeared in Yellowstone Valley Woman, Big Sky Journal, Western Art and Architecture, the Washington Post, Fine Cooking, and Cooking Light. She teaches the Wine Studies classes for the MSU Billings Foundation.



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