Fargo woman has perfected her lefse-making skills, likes to teach others
By Lisa Ridder
Anyone who knows Darlene Ellefson of south Fargo knows that if she’s wearing her denim blue apron with the phrase “Lefse, Ya Betcha!” embroidered in big red letters, it’s lefse making day at her house. Darlene has been making lefse for over 60 years. She’s not only been making it, but she’s been perfecting her craft and technique.
Darlene has fond childhood memories of her grandmother frying lefse.
“I can remember my grandmother making it on her wood burning kitchen stove,” said Darlene. “It always struck me how she knew just exactly how much wood to use to get the stove to the right temperature. She would repeatedly add small wood sticks to the fire. I now know that the ideal temperature is 500 degrees.”
Darlene lived with her grandparents until she was seven, when her grandmother passed. She remembers watching with fascination at her technique and skill, never dreaming that one day she too would be an accomplished lefse maker.
“I just liked to watch and l loved eating the lefse,” she said.
Darlene has often wished she had learned the Norwegian language. Her grandparents spoke it when they didn’t want her to know what they were saying.
Some of her biggest learning experiences were at her church, Bethany Lutheran in Red Lakes Falls, Minnesota, when lefse was made for the annual smorgasbord. Ladies were given 10 pounds of potatoes to prepare the lefse. A few days later they would meet with the lefse dough. There were stations set up where some ladies rolled and others fried, whichever they were more adept to.
“It was a wonderful learning experience!” she said.
Darlene had an opportunity to perfect her lefse due to a gift from her in-laws. “They gave me a lefse grill when I was first married,” said Darlene. “I used it to cook a number of other things and I do not recommend that. I suggest people who wish to make lefse have a dedicated lefse grill.”
With the new grill, she started preparing lefse for her family and for holiday gatherings. “I make lefse any time of year, but especially for the holidays and when I know there will be guests,” said Darlene. “I became known for my lefse and it was always assumed that I would make the lefse. My family liked it as part of a meal or as a snack. They enjoyed eating it as they gathered and visited.”
Lefse would often disappear before meals. “I ran out of hiding places. The last hiding place I remember using was the microwave,” she said.
Darlene grew up in time when she remembers products being hard to get. Items were rationed and she was not one to waste things.
“I often used my leftover potatoes before I had a recipe, probably not to the delight of everyone, but I would use them to make lefse,” said Darlene. “Everyone seemed to enjoy it. I always joked that the taste for lefse must be in the genes, because everyone in our family loves it.”
Darlene and her husband had five children. Two of her children are deceased. She expects her children and grandchildren to make their own lefse and share the tradition with their families. She has given lefse making lessons to seven of her eight grandchildren and one of her 14 great-grandchildren so far.
Over the years Darlene has shared her craft with others, demonstrating at businesses at West Acres Mall in Fargo, teaching children of various ages in schools, homemakers groups, church groups and others. She won a competition with a lefse entry and another with a braided bread entry. She laughed as she recalled another time a contest entry never quite made it to the competition.
“I was going to enter a loaf of bread at the county fair,” said Darlene. “I loaded up all the kids and when I got to the driver’s side of the car, my toddler had bitten a hole on the plastic wrapped bread.”
Darlene likes making breads, cookies and desserts, but her favorite is lefse. She admits it’s not hard, but there are many tricks one learns with practice and with practice comes perfection.
“The method of cooking potatoes is crucial,” she said. “One common mistake is that most people boil the potatoes rapidly and that’s not how to do it. You want to get as little moisture into the potatoes as possible.”
Darlene has made many of her own tools that she uses when she makes lefse. She believes strongly that for her technique they are superior to what she can find in the stores.
“I make my own rolling boards,” she said. “I cover them with duck cloth. I make my own sticks for turning. I am also careful to wash all my related cloth items together, not mixing with other laundry, washing with a mild detergent and not using bleach. It is very important not to use any bleach-related products or it will come through.”
Technique is another crucial element to making lefse. It is important for the dough to be cold and if it appears too soft, add a little flour. Over time people learn how it should look and feel.
“Rolling is very important to the quality of lefse,” Darlene said. “It takes practice. You start in the middle and roll out in all directions like you would a pie crust, adjusting the flour underneath. The goal is to have thin lefse, but it’s not a goal for a beginner, as it takes practice. The rolling is really the hardest part and it’s probably even harder than getting the potatoes cooked correctly. The rolling out of the dough seems to be what people hesitate on the most. I use a double sleeve over my roller.”
Does it matter what kind of potatoes are used?
“Some people like red, others like golden and some like russets,” said Darlene. “There’s no real difference in the taste, but with golden potatoes you will get a golden color lefse. You can even use potato flakes. Drier potatoes work better. The color and kind of potato doesn’t matter as far as taste, but it is does impact the rolling process.”
Other useful pointers from Darlene….
You have to have the ball just the right consistency prior to rolling it out, but that’s something you learn in time with practice.
“The steaming and cooling processes are important as well,” she said. “I make my own steamers from quilted fabric. Stagger each lefse as you add it to the steamer.”
Darlene suggested using two lefse turning sticks, using one to transfer the rolled out dough to the griddle and the other for turning and removing from the griddle. The latter mentioned will get warm and create stickiness.
Darlene indicates there is some cost in getting started. Once you have all of your supplies and if you care for them properly, they will last for years.
Darlene is proud of her Scandinavian and Norwegian heritage. She had a chance to go to Norway and meet some of her relatives. She did not make lefse while she was there, but noted they ate some and it was different than what is served in the United States.
“The one thing that is the same is the tradition of serving lefse during holidays,” she said.
Darlene is an avid reader, researcher and instructor of her craft. She’s also achieved some writing, having penned two books on lefse and several books related to her family history.
Her first lefse book sold out. Before the supply of her first book became exhausted, she wrote another with still more tips. It also had illustrations with each step.
Darlene did not make lefse during the pandemic. “I didn’t have anyone to make it for,” she said.
Darlene has donated a lot of lefse over the years to various fundraisers. From time to time she would sell some lefse but the demand became too great.
Darlene enjoys spending time with her family. She follows her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, keeping up on their activities and accomplishments. She took up adult coloring during the pandemic and loves it. She is also very fond of visiting in groups where she lives.
Darlene enjoys every experience she gets to be a part of. Her devotion to her faith and commitment to positive experiences are truly a labor of love, especially when they involve lefse.