A traditional Norwegian flatbread offers a glimpse into one baker's rich family heritage.
I assumed quite wrongly that all Scandanavian flatbreads were some variation on lefse until I watched Solveig Tofte, owner of Sun Street Breads in Minneapolis, demonstrate harring kake for a group of bakers this summer.
“It seems that each region in Norway has its own special flatbread—some are hard, some are soft, some are yeasted, some use rye flour. Really, anything goes,” Tofte later told me.
Lefse, the most widely known Norwegian griddled flatbread, is made with potatoes, flour, and often milk or cream, with no leavening agent. Tofte’s grandfather was famous for his lefse, though it was eventually revealed (to the family’s chagrin) that his well-regarded recipe contained pre-made frozen mashed potatoes. “He was the king of shortcuts,” Tofte quipped.
The lesser known harring kake hails from Tofte’s father’s side of the family, from a small island called Halsnøy, off Bergen, Norway. It’s made using unbleached white flour, buttermilk, baking soda and “quite a bit of oil, or else it never browns,” Tofte noted. She grew up eating harring kake (HK) at Thanksgiving, but after her grandparents died, no one in her family made it anymore. She got the formula from her aunt and learned to make it through trial and error to keep the tradition alive.
“I made it for a family gathering and checked with everyone to see if it was close to what we all remembered. Then I tweaked it a bit and repeated that process. I have very deep memories of this stuff and feel very confident that it’s true to form.”
The sticky, batter-like dough is mixed until stretchy, then chilled for at least 30 minutes. The dough is then rolled out on a very well-floured surface and docked to prevent air pockets from forming. While a standard docking tool or grooved rolling pin will do the job, ideally one would dock the dough with a handcrafted, notched rolling pin that's preferably several hundred years old. Tofte said it was common for families and regions to craft their own rolling pins with unique docking patterns, lamenting that not many of the old pins have survived here in the States, including her family’s.
“I do know that families made their own pins so I’m not sure if those were regionally agreed upon or if each family had their own style. Since (my) family pin fell apart the HK just isn’t the same. There’s a company that makes some grooved and patterned pins, but they’re not right for the HK. The pattern of the pin changes the texture of the bread—kind of like a docking tool changes things. They do matter.”
After griddle-cooking the HK until brown spots appear on both sides, they are cooled until hard then rehydrated under running water and then wrapped in damp dishtowels for several hours until they become soft and chewy. “When it’s hard it’s a pretty uninteresting cracker,” Tofte said.
Spending an hour or so watching Tofte demonstrate HK and a few other Norwegian baked products while she regaled us with stirring, funny stories of learning to replicate these edible heirlooms struck a familiar chord with me—curiosity about one’s roots. Almost everyone can identify with the desire to know where we came from. It took me months to track down the original 3-in. by 5-in. note cards containing my Bavarian grandma’s heirloom recipes for spaetzle, rouladen and stuffed cabbage. Now I’m thrilled to have scanned versions in her handwriting, containing wonderfully vague descriptions like “bake until done.”
This little snippet of Tofte’s family history via kitchen trial and error reinforced the common experience of so many Americans: that of being displaced. But we have wonderful avenues—especially in the food industry—for reconnecting with the past. Indeed, because Minnesota has a large concentration of people with Scandinavian heritage, customers often approach Tofte with stories and traditions of their own to share.
“Most food for me is about memory—either creating new ones or holding on to old ones. I like making this particular bread because it helps me remember growing up on the North Shore of Lake Superior, my grandparents cooking mountains of food, all of my aunts and uncles gathered around the long table … I’m quite pleased I can dig up some of these old foods and introduce them to my daughter and hopefully bring back some fond memories for my parents and uncles."
Contributed by Solveig Tofte, Sun Street Breads, for WheatStalk 2012
100% unbleached flour
0.50% baking soda
Mix baking soda and flour. Mix together wet ingredients plus sugar and salt; stir to dissolve. Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients and mix well with paddle.
Roll out ½-cup portions to 12-in. diameter on an extremely well-floured surface. Dock well with fork or notched rolling pin.
Cook on griddle until light brown spots appear. Cool. They will become hard.
To rehydrate, run each sheet under water and wrap the stack in a wet dishtowel. Let sit 4-8 hours before serving.