Flavors: Fruitcake, Lefse and Latkes for the Holidays

Dec 17, 2016

The holidays are upon us and this is the time of the year that food traditions from years past are recreated and savored.  For Lori Smith, it is fruitcake, Carolyn Holmlund leftse, and Chef Jeffrey Cooper latkes.

Fruitcake evokes sentiments of love or hate. For those who are enamored with this aged, dried fruit laden spirited cake, there is a sense of pride in cherishing this tradition. 

Lori Smith is one of those enthusiasts. From her grandmother passed on to her mother and now to her children, Smith begins creating this treat in the late fall. However, she is keeping the recipe a secret, but shares the magic sauce may be the addition of touches of brandy.  Her recommendation for best enjoying the delicacy: a spot of tea with a slice of cake and anytime of the day.

Lori Smith’s tradition fruitcake served with a spot of tea.

Carolyn Holmlund has associated lefse with Christmas since she was a child.  This thin potato-based pancake or flatbread, originating in Norway, is the wrap for jam, butter, and lutefisk - the gelatinous textured air-dried fish. Mashed potatoes form the base of this bread but recipes vary from using butter to shortening to the addition of cream or canned milk. The potato can even come in the form of instant mashed potatoes.

These days Holmlund serves up the pancakes with a roast during the holidays. The tradition is carried on when her children arrive for the holidays and makes stacks of these for celebration eats. Holmlund adds Crisco shortening into her lefse recipe. She utilizes specialty equipment such as the lefse griddle, a rolling pin sock, a pastry cloth, and the long lefse stick that is a lengthy wood spatula usually with a handle adorned with flower carvings. Because the lefse are usually over 12-inches in diameter, a long spatula is needed to lift the cooked breads off the griddle or pan.

Lefse Recipe from Carolyn Holmlund

Makes about 16 lefse

Carolyn Holmlund’s  biggest hint for this recipe is to keep the lumps out and this why the cooked potatoes should be riced and not mashed. Also sifting the flour results in a smooth dough. Holmlund starts making the dough in the morning and then cooks the lefse right after she has lunch. She says, “Lefse is just a Scandinavian version of a taco.”

4 level cups of riced potatoes (“You want all of the lumps out,” she says)
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 ¼ cups sifted flour
½ cup Crisco shortening

Stir together potatoes, salt, sugar, and flour into a crumbly mixture. Then add melted shortening. (“You can mix by hand with a spoon or use a food processor, but the dough should together very easily,” Holmlund shares. “The dough will come together in one lump.”)

Then roll out dough into small round balls and place into refrigerator until ready to use. (“I give myself lunch and then make them in the afternoon.” Holmlund uses a flat rolling pin with a sock to make her lefse.)

Roll out lefse to a thin round and then cook them on the baker grill. Once small brown spots start to form on the bottom, turn with a lefse spatula. (Holmlund claims to own six spatulas.) Once cooked, place lefse on a platter lined with a cloth and then cover with a cloth while cooking the rest.

Any extras can be frozen with wax or parchment paper inserted between each lefse.

In the northeast corner of Montana, in Opheim, Granrud’s Lefse has been making homemade style Norwegian style lefse. Evan and Myrt Granrud have been mashing up 84,000 pounds of red and white potatoes each season since 1977 and these days, their packets of lefse are found nationwide.

The key ingredient and method of “mashing” potatoes through a ricer.

I learned how to make lefse two Christmases ago at the Luthern Church of the Good Shepherd in Billings. My friend Margit Thorndal invited me to join them for their two-day affair making hundreds of flat breads for their annual bazaar.  I shared my experience in an article I wrote for Last Best News.

The recipe I included in the article was adapted by Kelly Kaiser Borning from Etta Risley’s Recipe and more details can be found at Last Best News.

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.

Chef Jeffrey Cooper from Sodexo, Montana State University Billings.

Caption: Chef Jeffrey Cooper from Sodexo, Montana State University Billings.

“When you walked into my grandmother’s house, it was not “Hi, how are you?” but “Hi, are you hungry,” Chef Jeffrey Cooper shares. According to the Executive Chef for Sodexo at Montana State University, Billings, “Food and being a Jew go hand in hand.” For Hanukkah, alongside a beef brisket and onions are potato pancakes or latkes accompanied with applesauce and sour cream. These potato pancakes are made with grated potato combined with egg and matzo meal and then deep fried. Cooper continues by sharing that if they were good kids, then his grandmother made them jelly filled donuts.

Hanukkah celebrates the miracle of the oil that burned for eight days when the Maccabees, the leaders of the Jewish rebel army, rededicated the holy Temple in Jerusalem after their victory over the Syrian-Greeks. Fried foods such as doughnuts and potato pancakes (“latkes” in Yiddish and “livivot” in Hebrew) are treats fried in oil and hold a reminder of the reasons for celebration.

The following recipe was provided by Chef Jeffrey Cooper:

Potato Latkes for a crowd

Makes Latkes for 12

5 pounds of russet potatoes peeled and shredded
You may use a food processor or the old fashioned way with the square metal cheese grater
1 large onion shredded the same as the potatoes (or equal to 1 cup)
7 large eggs lightly beaten
½ cup of flour or matzo meal (for Hanukkah)
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons ground black pepper
Vegetable oil for frying (I recommend peanut, canola, or corn)
2 tablespoons of lemon juice to stop excess browning of potatoes


Grate potato and onions add to bowl, add all ingredients except oil into the bowl and mix together gently.

Place a full heaping tablespoons carefully into hot oil cook on both sides for 3 to 5 minutes a side, cook until golden brown and layer cooked latkes on a sheet pan with paper bag or towel between the layers, and place in a 200 degrees F oven to keep warm. You can stack these up to 4 layers.

Serve with sour cream and applesauce - traditional sides in my family.

May your silent nights be filled with the jingling of bells along with the start of new delicious traditions or with the continuation of flavorful customs.  Happy Holidays to all.