A family bakes, a business begins
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, smiling as he sat at his dining room table full of beautifully 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. Within two hours, the shelves were empty,” said Jeanie Stephens, Mehl’s partner and daughter. “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. 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.”
Martha 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. 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,” Stephens said.
“We made about 3000 hard lefsa a week every week up to the holidays,” Mehl said. “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. Lefsa is flipped over with a special wooden paddle. The stick or paddle 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 said 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.
“Your imagination has no limit,” Stephens said. “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.”
Krumkaka is a sweet cone-shaped crisp that can be filled or eaten plain.
“Mostly served at tea or coffee time,” Mehl said.
“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, who still speaks fluent Norwegian, as do his wife and children. “The soft lefsa is used as a bread in many meals.”
J&K Lefsa & More operates out of a licensed kitchen in their Story City home.
“We drove to Colorado to get this machine, it rolls three potato lefsa on the rotating boards then we flip them over to the griddles to bake,” Mehl said.
Stephens interrupts her father’s tour.
“Except the hard lefsa, those have to each be hand rolled, Dad.” Both nod and flex their wrists. “Ja, the krata kjelve (textured rolling pin).”
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!”
JK Lefsa & More can be contacted for orders via its Facebook page called J & K Lefsa & More and by directly to Mehl at (515) 460-7088 (calls only); and, Stephens at (515) 231-0144 (both calls or texts). As their storefront says, “Always Open.”