Laufabrauð: The Unique Icelandic Christmas-bread

In centuries past, the average Icelander seldom saw wheat to bake bread. Wheat was an imported good, and rarely so, only the wealthiest families had access to this simple ingredient.

So, before Christmas, most people made the so-called laufabrauð (leaf-bread). The name comes from the fact that it is rolled out extremely thin. The origin of the bread is unknown, but it is thought likely that the know-how, that is, to roll out dough with liquid and meal and fry it in fat, came with the settlers in the 9th and 10th centuries.

History of laufabrauð

Laufabrauð, Iceland Christmas tradition
Photograph: Elín Mjöll Jónasdóttir

The first written source of laufabrauð is in the oldest known Icelandic recipe book from the late 18th century. It was likely it was written for wealthy people since the recipe calls for wheat flour, cream, and butter – three things most Icelanders had no access to. Rye flour or barley was likely used instead of wheat flour and fat instead of butter.

However, the author of that recipe book also thought laufabrauð was so well known that there was no point in writing anything more about them. It can be assumed that laufabrauð was eaten all around the country. But by the end of the 19th century, the tradition of eating laufabrauð had almost died out because wheat flour had become more readily available by all.

It wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century where laufabrauð became popular again; today, it’s an integral part of the Icelandic Christmas tradition.

What is laufabrauð?

Laufabrauð, Iceland christmas tradition
Photograph: Elín Mjöll Jónasdóttir

Like we said above, it’s an extremely thin type of friend bread. Today tallow or oil is generally only used for frying, but that is the last stage (before eating, of course). Before frying, beautiful patterns are cut into the bread. They are both traditional and individual. Some are elaborate, while others are simple. But cutting the designs is what makes laufabrauð the unique Christmas tradition it is. Originally a pocketknife was used to do the cutting, but by the middle of the 20th century, a special laufabrauð’s cutting knives were manufactured. They’re usually made from copper.

Most people today buy ready-made dough from the supermarket. It has already been rolled out into and is each, and one of them has its own baking paper for easy access. Then all that is left is to cut it and fry it – which can take hours!

How do you eat laufabrauð?

Laufabrauð, hangikjöt, Icelandic tradition
Photograph: Kjarnafæði

Laufabrauð is traditionally eaten with hangikjöt (smoked lamb), white sauce (or Bechamel sauce) with potatoes, green peas, and pickled red cabbage at the family get-together on the 25th or 26th of December. There isn’t a lot of variation in how you eat leaf bread. Some put butter on the bread others don’t. Some love caraway seeds in their laufabrauð; others don’t.

But for most, even if they don’t eat it, they want to have it on offer because it is tradition.