Watch this audio slideshow on how to make laufabrauð ('leaf bread'), traditional Icelandic Christmas bread served with hangikjöt, smoked lamb. These are round, thin and crisp unsweetened cakes, which are decorated with triangular cuts in all sorts of patterns. A few weeks before Christmas families across Iceland gather to make laufabrauð.
Photos by Páll Stefánsson, narration by Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir.
Click here to download the slideshow.
Laufabrauð (known as “leaf bread” or “snow-flake cake” in English) is the most unique Icelandic Christmas tradition of all.
While decorated bread is also a tradition in other countries, round, leaf-thin, deep-fried cakes with patterns created by making cuts through the dough are not known anywhere else than in Iceland.
The tradition, first mentioned in sources dating back to 1736, is north Icelandic, although its popularity is beginning to spread across the country.
Many families gather a few weeks before Christmas to make leaf bread, which is served with hangikjöt, smoked lamb.
There are many variants of leaf bread recipes, but the basic ingredients are the same. The following recipe originates from Kelduhverfi in Northeast Iceland:
8 c flour
¼ c sugar
1½ tsp baking powder (traditionally ½ tsp hartshorn and 1 tsp baking powder)
Dash of salt and caraway
2 c milk
1/3 c butter
Heat the milk, butter and caraway in a saucepan (do not let boil). Add to dry ingredients and mix in a mixer. Then knead the dough by hand. Roll the dough into a long cylinder and wrap it up in a tea towel.
After letting the dough rest for a while, cut the sausage into roughly 40 three-centimeter wide pieces, flatten them out with a rolling pin and use a plate and a kleinuhjól, a special knife resembling a pizza cutter, to create round cakes with a rugged edge.
Kneading and flattening laufabrauð dough is hard work, which is why this task was usually undertaken by men—one of few chores they ever had in the kitchen. Nowadays people often skip that part and buy the cakes ready for carving at bakeries.
Traditionally, the triangular cuts are made with a pocketknife and are known as leaves—hence the name “leaf bread.”
The cakes were thin, preferably so thin that one could read the Bible through them, because flour was sparse. The decoration was meant to make up for the meager state of the bread.
The cakes are folded, sharp slantwise cuts made with a thin blade and then the cake is carefully unfolded so the leaves don’t get tangled. Then every other leaf is pressed back.
The leafbread wheel, laufabrauðsjárn, is an invention from around 1940 which replaced the pocketknife and has become a household staple, especially in north Iceland.
After carving, the raw leaf bread is placed in boiling sheep fat (alternatively lard or oil). It is flipped once with the aid of two forks to fry each side evenly. After only a few seconds, when the cake has acquired a golden color, it is fished out of the fat.
Quickly, before the leaf bread cools too much, it is pressed on top of tissues to drain out the fat with a plate or a custom-made tool called laufabrauðshlemmur, a wooden board with a handle (often made by children at carpentry lessons).
Laufabrauð is served (sometimes buttered) with hangikjöt, boiled potatoes, green peas, red cabbage and sweet béchamel sauce—a traditional dish on Christmas Day in Iceland.
Click here to read a feature on leaf bread making.