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Reverend Sanderson's Lefse Ministry

Dec 15, 2011

Editor’s Note: This story is revised from the Nov/Dec 2010 issue of  South Dakota Magazine. To order a copy or to subscribe, call 800-456-5117. To view more photos of the lefse-making process, visit our step-by-step lefse gallery.

Sanderson likes the bubbles on his lefse a golden tan, not brown. He was taught the intricacies of lefse-making by one of his parishioners, but says he is still learning and trying new recipes 20 years later.


Rev. Kwen Sanderson calls himself “the shepherd to the Swedes,” a title he earned from 35 years of Lutheran ministry as well as a talent for rolling lefse. Sanderson and his seven siblings were born and raised in Sisseton, and then Brookings where the seven boys became successful wrestlers. Their lone sister, Joy, was a wrestling cheerleader. To qualify for their weight classes, there were times when they had to resist second helpings of their mom’s delicious lefse, which she made as a common side dish.

After his ordination, Sanderson became a lefse expert because it reminded him of happy childhood days, but also because it connected him to churchgoers. “I wanted to be able to discuss with Scandinavian farm women the intricacies of making lefse. It’s a way of talking about the values of the elderly and getting to hear their stories,” he said. “Plus it’s good and tasty.”

He became adept at the art of lefse while serving a church in Minnesota, where church janitor Ruth Hanson tutored him for several years. Eventually, he and Mrs. Hanson perfected a recipe using dried (or instant) potatoes. “It is so much simpler,” he says. “The problem with real potatoes is that the moisture content varies quite a bit. With dried potatoes it’s easier to work with and half the time.”

Mrs. Hanson also taught Sanderson to appreciate the most crucial moment of lefse making: recognizing when the dough has the perfect amount of flour. “That’s the key to making lefse,” says Sanderson. “That amount is known when you are kneading the dough and the dough doesn’t stick to your fingers, then you have the exact amount of flour.”

Of course, lefse-makers are traditionalists by nature so he has had many good-natured discussions with cooks who would rather peel a potato than open a box. He is also willing to argue with potato purists over which variety makes the best lefse. “I personally like Yukon Gold because it has a bit of yellow and adds color and some sweetness,” he says. “Pontiac Reds vary the most in moisture content so they’re tricky.”

Lefse, once a staple for the Sanderson clan, is now a holiday treat at Thanksgiving and Christmas. All the ex-wrestlers now eat it with generous lathes of butter and sugar. Some prefer brown sugar, others like white or powdered. And there are some cinnamon-lovers. All the extra calories haven’t made them heavyweights; the reverend, now 61, looks like he could make his high school weight class of 112 if he missed a meal or two.

Sanderson says lefse is also ideal as a tortilla or pita bread. He likes to stuff it with turkey, ham or mashed potato leftovers from a holiday feast.

For nine years, he was the pastor of Dalesburg Lutheran Church in Clay County, the congregation that hosts the well-known Midsommar Festival every June. That’s where he gained the title of “shepherd to the Swedes.” He helped the Dalesburg youth group prepare and sell lefse to earn money for their annual Bible Camp. Sanderson now lives in Yankton and ministers to inmates at St. Dysmas Lutheran Church, at the Mike Durfee State Prison in Springfield.

Lefse-making seems daunting to those who didn’t grow up in a Scandinavian household, but Sanderson said it is like wrestling, preaching, farming and a lot of other Midwestern activities. It’s something that will improve with time. “That’s the great thing about lefse,” he says. “It’s not an exact science. You’re always learning.”

Kwen's Lefse Tips

  • Keep dough refrigerated until use. Sanderson always lets his dough sit overnight.
  • If the dough sticks to your fingers while handling, add a little bit of flour. But remember, you’re better off having less flour (and adding more slowly) than beginning with too much, because then “you’re up the crick.”
  • Use a corrugated rolling pin covered in an athletic sock to keep the dough from sticking to the pin.
  • Before rolling out each piece, lightly flour the pastry board to prevent sticking. 
  • Sanderson sets his griddle at 475 degrees. “The trick is you want to get it hot enough to bake quickly, but not too quickly. If it is too low, the edges burn.” Burnt edges can also result from rolling the dough too thin. 
  • Frequently wipe off the hot griddle — when flour starts collecting on the grill it hinders the cooking process.
  • After frying, be sure lefse is completely cooled before refrigeration, otherwise condensation will result.
  • Lefse rounds can also be put in the freezer for later consumption. They usually keep up to six months.

Sanderson welcomes questions about making lefse. Call 605-670-9877.


10:29 am - Tue, December 2 2014
Milo Harpstead said:
My brother Dale Douglas Harpstead and I were in 4H in Roberts Co. SD when Kwen was the young son of Elmer Sanderson, our County Extension Agent. Later we each got our MS in Agronomy at SDSU when Elmer was on the Ag Ext. staff in the Agronomy Bldg at SDSU. So we and the Sanderson family go back a long way. We each got a PhD and retired as University Professors. Now in our 80s we are still active internationally; slowing down however. I got Kwen's recipe for lefse from the SD Mag and my son, Karl, and his four children have shifted to it too. We had an excellent batch of it when we visited Karl and his family this past weekend. Dale's wife Mary grew up making lefse at her home in Wilmot, so they and their family are lefst makers too. Milo Harpstead

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