At this time of year, everyone has a craving for a food that they associate with the holidays, whichever holiday you celebrate. Some people crave latkes, other people crave their grandmother’s peirogi. What do I crave? Lefse. For the uninitiated, lefse is like the Norwegian version of a tortilla, though usually they are used in a sweet application, not a savory one. Made out of riced potatoes (strong hands and wrists are required!) or mashed potato flakes, if you are lazy or in a place where you don’t have a ricer, they form the basis of one of my favorite treats during the Christmas season. Some people take them with loads of butter, others with cinnamon and sugar, some with all three. Me? I like them served warm with a healthy dose of cinnamon and maybe a little light coating of sugar. Or sometimes, for breakfast, dunked in maple syrup (that must be the American in me). The sad part is that I don’t have the space, the money or the tools that I need to make them properly, so I am generally reduced to enjoying them only during a few wonderful weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. But then, I suppose that that ensures that they remain special, right?
Now, I have been eating lefse for as long as I can remember and I have had it in a lot of different places; from here in the US to Norway, where it originated. This brings up the question: Where can you find the best lefse? Was it found in Norway, land of its birth? Or was it the potato-flake version that a friend in Malta made one year for a celebration, using only a banged up, scorched frying pan and a stove that couldn’t control heat?
The lefse made in Malta was, let’s just say, edible. It served its purpose. No one would write home to their mother to tell her how much better it was than hers, but it was serviceable. Edible, like I said. The accomplishment was not in the flavor, but rather in the fact that my friend was able to use store flaked potatoes, water and butter, along with the only tools available to her at the time: a small frying pan, turned over to create a larger, flatter surface; a stove that had to be lit using a match and which rarely held a flame for long enough to heat soup, let alone make lefse; a spatula that was more like a rather large spoon and a mixing bowl that was clearly not large enough. It must have taken her a long time to get even one that worked, but I remember watching her, listening to Maltese pop radio in the background, occasionally interrupted by her roommates coming in asking her what on earth she was doing, and smelling the faint whif of charred frying pan. It was beautiful. The steam between that and the tea that was boiling on the stove created was so great that it fogged up the glass doors to the flat, making it look very dubious what was going on in there. Only when we emerged to the party with fresh lefse, covered in melted butter and cinnamon and sugar did people realize the alchemy that could elicit such delicious treats.
Now, I also had it in Norway, in Oslo in fact, while travelling there with my parents a few years ago. We were at the outdoor museum, and they were making it fresh, from scratch, in one of the houses and then handing them out for chump change, given the quality of the product. Warm, almost too warm, with perfect coloring (no scorch marks in sight, but a nice golden color all around) and rolled and filled with any of the previously mentioned fillings that you wanted, they were a joy. The sun was shining, the air was clear, and you could see the beautiful forest in the distance. We were already having a wonderful time there, and this was simply the icing on the cake. You could tell that the quality was the highest possible; well, you would expect nothing less, since this was lefse meant to show off the abilities of the Norwegians to create great food – food for tourists. It was grand, I admit. But, you know what? It wasn’t the best.
The best lefse that I have ever eaten, and which I still reminisce about every year, was made by my aunt, Judy, in her kitchen in North Dakota. Did she have all of the equipment necessary to make them perfect; from the ricer to the pan? You know what, I don’t even remember. What I do remember is that it was the last Christmas that my entire father’s side of the family was able to gather together, my grandmother included, before she finally succumbed to dimentia and moved to a nursing home. It was dark outside, multiple tables had been pushed together in their living room to accommodate everyone, and the tree was lit, with presents beneath it. The house was warm from all of the cooking and baking going on, and everyone was drinking, talking and eating. I by my grandmother and listened to her tell me stories about how Christmas used to be, back when my brother and I were too young to remember and he and I couldn’t wait to open our gifts, and wasn’t it nice that we were now old enough (both adults, by this point) to sit and enjoy dinner and not get distracted by the pretty wrapping and boxes on the floor? The rest of the meal was typical for us; lasagna (it easily fed everyone and didn’t take too much time or effort to prepare) and garlic bread. Then, my aunt brought out the lefse. I don’t think that anyone else really cared very much about it. It wasn’t as if it was something that had never eaten before, bu somehow, for me at least, it was magical. My mother is German and I never grew up eating it except when we went up north to visit my relatives, and even then it wasn’t always there. Lefse is tricky to make well and it takes dedication. So the fact that my aunt made some that year was very special to me. It was perfect. It was warm, served folded, not rolled, and covered in just the faintest hint of cinnamon and sugar and butter. Just enough to add flavor, but not so much that you couldn’t revel in the potato-y goodness underpinning it all. My grandmother and I both ate our fair share, and although I don’t think that anyone noticed, I alter snuck back into the kitchen and took another few pieces, now less warm, but no less perfect.
Following that year, my family got together less and less often, and every time with fewer members. That was many years ago, now that I think about it, but i can still remember it so well. And the lovingly, perfectly made lefse was the cap to it all. eating lefse now, even inferior lefse, never fails to bring back those treasured memories. That’s why, above all others, that lefse was and will always be the best.