A family bakes, a business begins
By LAURA CARLSON
STORY CITY – “Yes, please!”
These are words exclaimed often in the room when Kaare Mehl carries plates loaded with his signature potato lefsa rolled with butter and sugar.
“Ja, people love the potato lefsa,” said Mehl, sitting at his dining room table full of baked Norwegian goods he and his daughter, Jeanie Stephens, offer at J & K Lefsa & More.
“This fall, Dad told me his 30-year-old dream to open a bakery, and less than a month later I delivered the first order of products to Story City Market,” Stephens said. “Within two hours, the shelves were empty. We had no idea it would be so popular.”
Mehl arrived in America 63 years ago. His wife, Martha, soon joined him from their home country of Norway, and they made their home in Story City following Kaare’s six years of service in the United States Army.
“I was a cook, and they teach you everything,” Kaare Mehl said. “My mother baked in Norway, but I learned to cook in the army.”
Mehl became a United States citizen in 1957.
“I am proud of my Norwegian heritage and want to focus on protecting the heritage with our bakery,” he said.
The Mehls raised two children in central Iowa, participating in school and church events. After retiring as a carpenter following a 30-year career, he worked as a public school custodian for 17 years and retired again.
“I’m on my third career now with this baking,” he said.
Martha Mehl enjoyed caring for their home and children, gardening and canning produce.
Stephens lost her job this past August after 20 years with an insurance agency.
“We’re working to get me to full time with the bakery,” she said. “I am so lucky to get to spend time with my parents and hear stories about their lives in Norway. Not many people are fortunate to share time with their parents like this.”
“We made about 3,000 hard lefsa a week every week up to the holidays,” said Mehl. “People south of Highway 20 insist upon hard lefsa and people north of the highway eat the soft potato lefsa. Everyone can learn a little something. We don’t know how many potato lefsa. Too many to count.”
Lefsa can be described as a Norwegian flatbread, like a flour tortilla, that is made with a flour or potato dough. It is rolled out and baked (or grilled) on a flat griddle. Lefsa is rolled out with a textured rolling pin that prevents air pockets from bubbling up while baking. It is flipped over with a special wooden paddle, which looks like a longer version of a paint stir stick. While much thinner and longer, it requires some practice to flip without breaking the delicate rounds of lefsa or flipping them on the flour.
Mehl explained the hard lefsa is quickly rinsed with warm water and then placed between white tea towels for about 30 minutes to soften it up prior to Sunday dinners and special events.
“It will last a year in the package. You might call it hard tack,” he said. “The soft lefsa is made with potatoes and flour and has to be used or frozen within a few days.”
Lefsa can be rolled up with sliced meat, cheeses, and cream cheese for lunches.
“I remember as a child in Norway the kids would line up at the festivals for a hot dog with mustard rolled up in the lefsa. It was a real treat,” said Mehl. “The soft lefsa is used as a bread in many meals.”
“Your imagination has no limit,” Stephens added. “I make salmon wraps, a hot dog with cheese, or jelly and peanut butter. Oh, there are so many ideas. We make the traditional cone shaped krumkake but also make them in cup shapes to be filled with puddings or ice creams. I can see these used in so many ways for birthday parties and meals.”
Krumkake is a sweeten cone-shaped crisp that can be filled or eaten plain.
“Mostly served at tea or coffee time,” said Mehl.
He still speaks fluent Norwegian, as do his wife and children and will incorporate Norwegian foods into their meals often.
“You take the leftovers and put them between two hard lefsa and have a good lunch,” he said. “Mashed potatoes and meat work well because the lefsa get softer and doesn’t break apart to eat.”
“Bete is like a Lunchable,” his daughter added. “You can put anything in a lefsa; pieces of cheese and meat, jelly, whatever you want.”
J & K Lefsa & More operates out of a licensed kitchen in their Story City home.
“We drove to Colorado to get this machine,” Mehl said. “It rolls three potato lefsa on the rotating boards then we flip them over to the griddles to bake.”
“Except the hard lefsa, those have to each be hand rolled, Dad,” Stephens said.
With the decline in families making homemade meals and baked goods, the new business has started with a success.
“We receive calls from people who no longer bake the Norwegian items and want to continue to serve them at meals,” Stephens said. “We are more than happy to provide for them. We enjoy working together.”
J & K Lefsa & More can be contacted for orders via their Facebook page called J & K Lefsa & More and by directly to Mehl at (515) 460-7088 and Stephens at (515) 231-0144.
8 cups flour
1/3 cup sugar
1 cup shortening (Crisco)
3 teaspoons salt
4 cups water
Blend flour, sugar, and salt in large bowl.
Bring water and Crisco to rolling boil.
Pour boiling water over the dry ingredients.
Stir together and mix with your hands (careful as this is hot). Make into balls, a1/4 cup size. Take each ball and roll out with a lefsa rolling pin (krata kjelve) on a floured board. (Norwegians and experienced locals use the round wooden boards covered with a tight cloth sprinkled with flour.) Try to roll them into a circle shape. Roll very thin (you can read the print on the rolling cloth through the dough). Flip over to the griddle and bake until lightly browned, flip over for another 30 seconds. Remove from griddle and cut in half. Cool and then stack. These may keep for up to a year properly stored.
Krumkake is a crisp wafer-thin sugar cookie, rolled up prior to cooling to make a cone. You can make them any flavor, dip in melted chocolate or fill them with whipped cream or ice cream.
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1 cup white sugar
1 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon butter flavoring, optional
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
Heat krumkake iron on stove over medium heat. (also can use an electric krumkake.)
Cream together the butter and sugar in a bowl.
Add the eggs, one at a time, and mix well. Do not overbeat.
Slowly add the milk, flour, vanilla, and butter flavoring; mix well.
Place a teaspoon of the batter on the preheated iron. Close the iron. Cook until browned, about 30 seconds per side, watching carefully as each iron varies.
Remove from the iron and very quickly roll up around a stick, place in a cupcake pan, or around a cone before they cool off and harden.
Full disclosure, as a of Story City resident, this author enjoys the Mehl’s lefsa at church dinners and participated at lefsa making sessions at Immanuel Lutheran under Kaare’s guidance.
I’ll plead the fifth on the contents of the grocery sack I may have been seen carrying following a tour of the kitchen.
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