Laufabrauð, or “Leaf Bread,” are thin cakes fried in oil or mutton fat. They have intricate designs carved into them using special tools or a pocketknife. The designs tend to look like little leaves, hence “leaf bread.”
Laufabrauð is an Icelandic Christmas tradition that originated in the north of the country. The bread possibly has a much older origin, but references to it in written sources appear around 1736 as the Icelanders “candy.” It’s often called “snowflake bread” in English because of the cut-through patterns.
Originally, Iceland was less wealthy, so items like flour, sugar, and salt were difficult to come by, especially in the winter. Before the 18th century, Icelanders had no means to mill their own flour. The flour and ground corn that was important was expensive and only the exceptionally rich were able to afford it. In addition, the imported stuff was often moldy because the Danish monopoly merchants weren’t particularly concerned about the quality of flour they acquired for Iceland.
During the period of enlightenment in the 18th century, the Icelandic people imported querns (stone tools used for grinding). They were also taught how to build querns and their own watermills. Now they could import whole corn instead (which was cheaper) and grind the grain themselves. However, grain stayed scarce. People still had to make do with what grains they had, so the ingredient was reserved for festival times and special occasions. To stretch the grain as far as they could, the dough was rolled quite thin. Each cake was elaborately decorated to make up for the meager portions as well as to emphasis the importance of the bread.
In the late 19th century the tradition of frying bread was confined to the northern part of Iceland, but now it’s being done all over the country and is a national Christmas tradition.
Many families have their own personal traditions surrounding the bread. They gather together in the beginning of December, usually on the first Sunday of Advent, and make a full day out of it. Groups of 12-15 can make several hundred cakes at a time. At the end of the day, the cakes are split evenly between all and are stored in cookie tins until Christmas. Recipes are passed down from mother to daughter and there are also designs passed down through generations.
(That’s a long video, but it’s pretty cool. I also can’t understand a word they’re saying.)
Traditionally, this was the only time of the year when men took any part in the cooking. They would roll the dough out, which takes considerable effort because of the required thinness, and/or cut patterns into the bread with their pocketknives. Thin bread, which used to be a necessity, is now the sign of a good laufabrauð. If you can read newspaper headlines (or even the articles) through the rolled out dough, you’ve done it right.
Dough is kneaded by hand, rolled into a long cylinder, and wrapped, usually in a tea towel, and allowed to rest. Today, bakeries will sell pre-kneaded and cut dough that only needs to be decorated and fried, but where’s the fun in that?
The dough can be made with pretty much whatever flour you’d like – regular white, whole wheat, rye, whatever. Sometimes caraway seeds are added in. Icky.
The cylinder is cut into about 40-50 pieces. They are flattened by a rolling pin as thin as they can possibly be. The dough dries out quickly and must be kept wrapped. Once a slice is cut off for decorating, the cylinder of dough is immediately wrapped up again, usually in a tea towel. Scraps and cutoffs aren’t re-kneaded because they will just dry out, so they are fried and eaten as a warm treat.
A plate is placed on top of the rolled out dough and a circle is traced using a kleinuhjûl (a knife that resembles a pizza cutter). Today, the bread is usually decorated with a special knife called a laufabraudsjárn, but some families’ still use pocketknives. In that case, each circle of dough is folded into a half moon and small slantwise cuts are carved into it. Once this is done, the half moon is unfolded and every other “leaf” is flipped back. Younger children often just cut faces into the bread, which, frankly, seems kind of creepy.
There are some common patterns, besides the ones that are passed down through families. The advanced ones are:
Light of Wise Men
The Star of Bethlehem
Norther Lights, and Winter Flower. (I couldn’t find pictures for these two)
A simpler pattern is called Farmer’s Cut and consists of five vertical cuts.
It’s also a popular practice to carve the first letter of the names of everyone in the family into a cake, S being the hardest. That means, if I were a parent in Iceland, I would have seven children and call them Sigríður, Sæfinnur, Sveinbjörn, Steinólfur, Sigurveig, Sindri, and Sif. Because I’m mean. And they also seem like they’re really hard to pronounce.
To keep the dough from air bubbling too much during frying, the cakes are pricked with a fork several times. They’re allowed to brown on one side and then are flipped for a few seconds. When they’re pulled out of the oil they’re laid on a paper towel to absorb excess fat. The cakes must be pressed immediately after frying to keep them flat. Most Icelanders use a round wooden plate with a handle called a laufabraudshlemmur. Kids often make these for their parents or grandparents in carpenter classes at school.
(Ignore the first 30 seconds.)
The bread will keep for months and not look like this:
It’s served on Christmas day with traditional hangikjöt (smoked lamb), rjúpa (ptarmigan, a small grouse) or smoked pork.
Phew. Now, on to Day 2.
Keep eating and asking, my friends.
-Bowler, G. Q. The World Encyclopedia of Christmas. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2000. 130. Print.
-“Iceland’s Christmas Foods.” The FOOD Museum. Web. 01 Dec. 2011. <http://www.foodmuseum.com/ISyuletidelads.html>.
-Gísladóttir, Hallgerður. “Hallgerður Gísladóttir – Substitutes for Corn – Iceland.” Grýla Og Jólasveinar – Jólavefurinn 2003. Christmas in Iceland 2000. Web. 01 Dec. 2011. <http://jol.ismennt.is/english/corn-hallgerdur-gisladottir.htm>.
-“Laufabrauð – “Leaf Bread”” Grýla Og Jólasveinar – Jólavefurinn 2003. Jo´s Icelandic Recipe Book. Web. 01 Dec. 2011. <http://jol.ismennt.is/english/laufabraud-joe.htm>.
-Rögnvaldardóttir, Nanna. “Leaf Bread for Christmas.” Gestgjafinn.is. Web. 01 Dec. 2011. <http://www.gestgjafinn.is/english/nr/353>.