Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The Saga of the Lefse Lineage

The Thanksgiving holiday has come and gone and as we charge up the ramp to Christmas, I can say that a family tradition was demonstrated and our bellies benefitted.

Being somewhat Scandinavian, I hold in my possession old family recipes for that addictive annual appetizer know as lefse. I may call it an appetizer, but in reality it is a food of many callings. It is a Norwegian potato flatbread, made with cream and butter, that can be a snack before the turkey is out of the oven, can unite with turkey and cranberries as a main course, can sop up the gravy and dressing when the turkey and cranberries are gone, and can be buttered and sugared for dessert. Every midwestern-origin Scandinavian spawn can wax poetic on all the iterations of the loved lefse and finish the sentence with "but... it's a lot of work."

It is a lot of work. And, as I found out recently, can result in surprise and family politics when discussing the genesis of recipes. Last summer, I was in California visiting family when I saw my now 99 year old godmother. Viola lives on her own in a delightfully decorated duplex at the Lutheran Retirement Home. She still leads Bible studies, takes all her meals in the dining room and is proud owner of her fourth pacemaker. I don't exaggerate when I say she sparkles. Her mother and my daughter share the first name Augusta, which is just a happy coincidence and not by design. She and her husband, Hildor, began their lives in the Midwest and were part of the mid-1950s exodus to the promised land of the Golden State of California. My father, also from North Dakota, was part of that cross-continent drift as well and became a pet project of Hildor and Viola when they were all teaching in the Woodlake schools and he the bachelor chemistry teacher.

My mother, not Norwegian in origin but of Iowa English extraction, had passed on to me the two lefse recipes that have resided in her recipe box since marrying my father the half-Norwegian-quarter-German-quarter-Irish-off-the-boats-from-North-Dakota-by-way-of-Canada in 1965. One of the recipes is my grandmother Mary Madigan's, a distinctly not-Norwegian, but probably passed from, maybe, paternal great-grandmother Ingaborg Justad. Got that? It's that recipe with the cooked potatoes, lots of butter, lots and lots of cream and some flour. I've tried that recipe and it didn't work all that well. I overcooked the pototaoes, probably didn't use the right technique with the potato ricer and wound up with something closer to a oversized saltine cracker. The other recipe I have is attributed to Viola and uses (gasp!) dried potatoes. But it worked previously and was good. I have pictures of my daughter snacking in the high chair on lefse, so I know I'd made it at least once in the last few years here. I've passed the recipe on to a friend here, so I know the recipe and its use of dried potatoes has been a topic for discussion, but probably out of ear shot of the text book Norwegians.

I saw Viola for lunch in August. It was during that lunch that I told her, quite happily, that I'd used her recipe with the Butter Buds for lefse and found it to be a success here. You would have that I was questioning the parentage of that baby born in a manger by the reaction I got. I was told in no uncertain terms that it couldn't have been her recipe because she would have never, ever have used dried potatoes. I quickly changed the subject to tortillas, which actually worked, because we were eating at a nice Mexican restaurant with its own tortilla machine chugging away across from us.

With the memory of the lefse-tortilla-luncheon controversy fresh as hydrating potatoes still in my mind, I began looking for the recipes the day before Thanksgiving. I couldn't find them. Now, my house is small and disorganized, but I really should be able to find two recipe cards. But, after shoving this, stashing that and still failing, I couldn't locate them. I was ready to retreat, but I'd offered to bring lefse to the Thanksgiving dinner we were to share with my children's godparents. I looked on the box of Butter Buds in the off-chance that the recipe might be there; no dice but I did find some lovely instructions in Spanish that I was intrigued to try. Finally, I went to the computer. I went to BettyCrocker.com, but a search for lefse was not fruitful in their gazillilon recipe database. I went to my old pal Google, bastion of obscure, untested and often wrong recipes to find THE BUTTER BUDS LEFSE recipe! There it was, in all its Midwestern resourcefulness and glory, on a blog. Hallelujah for the blog! The recipe was credited to two Minnesota Lutheran church ladies, so I figured that chances were high that is was a legitimate recipe and not submitted by some Samoan looking to win a cross-cultural recipe contest. I went to work.

I boiled my water, melted the butter, dumped in the Butter Buds and fluffed to an ideal consistency. No overcooked potatoes, no ricer, and, thanks to a handy tip in the Googled recipe, no condensation from the cling wrap to make for soggy cold potatoes. Thanksgiving morning, my not-Norwegian husband took over the potatoes, adding the flour with the help of the dough hook on the stand mixer and rolled out a gorgeous dough that was griddled to perfection and flipped without much tearing with the help of the lefse stick that resides on our kitchen wall most of the year. The children sat at the counter, rolling and patting their own lumps of dough. Being a good techno-Mom, I captured most of it all on digital video and I've now uploaded the edited four minutes to Vimeo. Later that day, a heavenly match of smoked turkey, cranberry-pear sauce and lefse made its way to my delighted palate.

And, when the time comes, as I present myself to that particular saint at those particular gates, I will proudly say "I USED DRIED POTATOES!"


Lefse from Justine Larsen on Vimeo.

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