With the changing of the seasons to colder weather, thoughts often turn to the upcoming holidays. This year, holidays may be a little different for all of us due to COVID but that doesn’t mean we can’t partake in some of our favorite traditions.
Growing up in north central Iowa, one of my favorite traditions was making Norwegian Lefse with my grandmother. My paternal grandfather passed away when I was in fourth grade but my grandmother did a wonderful job of keeping his memory and Norwegian heritage alive with us grandkids. The family story goes that my grandfather was among the first generation born in the United States so we are relative newcomers on that side for coming to America from Norway. In Norway, we came from a family of farmers but land was scarce and expensive, so our family migrated to the U.S. in search of more land, much like other Norwegian immigrants at the time.
Norwegians began arriving in Iowa during the 1830s and by the 1850s the number increased dramatically. Many of these immigrants settled in northeastern Iowa around Decorah which is why you see such a strong Norwegian heritage in that community today. In 1880, more than 82 percent of the Norwegians living in Iowa were farmers. (Source: Iowa PBS)
While farming didn’t end up being the future for our family, Norwegian traditions still played a part in our upbringing – and one of those was lefse.
What is Lefse?
Lefse is a traditional, soft Norwegian flatbread. Some lefse is made with potatoes but true Norwegians (LOL) know the better version is made with flour. In fact, the original lefse made in Norway was actually made from flour – not potatoes. It wasn’t until potatoes were introduced in Norway more than 200 years ago that people started adding them to lefse. Batches of flour lefse could last a household through the long winter months as it was more of a flat bread or like a tortilla when it dried. The lefse was stored in wooden boxes and dipped in water to soften it when it was needed for use. My family puts butter and sugar on the lefse and then rolls it up for eating. But, other Norwegians have been known to use the lefse like a tortilla and wrap beef, mashed potatoes and peas in it like a burrito, or some put butter and jam on it.
Before we dive into the making of the lefse, let’s take a look at where the ingredients for lefse come from. There are many different types of lefse but the particular one that my grandmother made is quite simple. To make our family’s Norwegian lefsa you’ll need flour, sugar, salt, water, and lard.
Flour is a powder made by grinding different types of grains. Wheat is most commonly used to make flour. Mills use high protein or hard wheat species to make bread flour and lower protein or soft wheat to produce cake and pastry flour. All-purpose flour is made of medium protein. Watch how wheat is grown, harvested, and used in baking products.
Sugar is a type of sucrose derived from sugarcane or sugar beets. Most cane sugar comes from countries with warm climates due to the plant’s intolerance to cold. Sugar beets grow in cooler temperatures but do not tolerate hot climates. In the northern hemisphere, most of our sugar comes from sugar beets. The beet root is composed of 17 percent sucrose. In the spring, farmers plant the seeds and then the sugar beets are harvested in the fall. In the United States, sugar beets are most commonly grown in three regions: Upper Midwest (Michigan, Minnesota, and North Dakota), Great Plains (Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, and Wyoming), and the Far West (California, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington) according to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center. Statista’s Sugar Beet Production Report notes that approximately 28.6 million tons of sugar beets were produced in the United States in 2019.
Salt isn’t thought of as an agriculture product but it is an important component to many recipes. Salt is one of the most widely used and oldest forms of food seasoning. It is processed in several ways – from salt mines, evaporation of seawater, and through mineral-rich spring water in shallow pools.
Lard is a semi-solid white fat product made by rendering the fatty tissue of a pig. While some might think it’s the same thing as Crisco, it’s actually not as Crisco is made of vegetable oils. In the 19th century, lard was used in replacement of butter in North America. But, lard lost its favor in the late 20th century due to its less healthy reputation vs vegetable oils.
All the ingredients are mixed in a large bowl. You’ll need a long wooden turning stick, a pastry board, a special rolling pin with deep grooves and a large, flat griddle. (Pictures courtesy of lefsetime.com)
6 cups flour
½ cups sugar
1 tsp salt
2 cups of boiling water
3-6 tablespoons of soft lard
1. Mix with spoon first since the water is boiling hot then mix with your hands
2. Roll out the lefse as thin as possible
3. Cook on dry skillet until it bubbles
4. Place lefse in between thin towels to cool (each lefse separated by a towel or they’ll stick together). Once cool, the lefse can be wrapped in aluminum foil, placed in a freezer bag and be pulled out later for use.
5. To make it soft again, drip warm water on the lefse and place them separated by towels until ready to eat.
Food is often at the heart of family, holiday traditions. As we sit around our tables this holiday season, maybe we can all take a moment to thank those who make our family traditions possible – farmers. Without farmers, we wouldn’t have the food to enjoy on our holiday tables.
What are some of your family’s holiday traditions?
Iowa Pathways: Norwegians
Exploring our Fluid Earth: Weird Science – Salt is Essential to Life
Cane Sugar: How It’s Made
Beet Sugar: How It’s Made
All About Sugar and Baking
How It’s Made: Flour
U.S. Sugar Industry
Make Your Own Lefse – Lefse Equipment