This recipe is based on handwritten notes and memories; it is my grandmother’s recipe handed down to my mother. The German name is colloquial and describes the process of making the cookies.
Translated, Ausstecherle means, “cut out of” or “unplugged.” “Aus” mean out and “stechen” means to place or put. The “erle” at the end means “little ones.”
So, Ausstecherle translated from German means “little cut-outs.” I guess associating the butter cookie to the name comes from usage and tradition. My mother was under the impression that this term was used merely by her mother at home, and was quite surprised to learn that when I searched for Ausstecherle on the Internet, I found other recipes for traditional German butter cookies.
Butter cookies are, of course, made with loads of butter, sugar and eggs, a classic combination that produces a soft, chewy, richly flavored cookie. My mother used to decorate these cookies with lightly beaten egg white brushed on top, sprinkled with sugary chopped nuts. You can also brush them with lightly beaten egg or egg yolk, and then sprinkle the cookies with tinted sugars. Decorated either way, these cookies are always a cheerful and welcome addition to the holidays.
“You should make your grandmother’s recipe,” my mother suggested. Hmmm, OK, why not? I agreed to give it a try. Ruth made Ausstecherle for my brother and me when we were wee ones – even before she made her first batch of Lebkuchen. I am happy to report that my family is consuming my Ausstecherle at a satisfyingly rapid rate. My grandmother Voellm’s original recipe is a big hit, even today.
The recipe offered here makes about 50 to 60 cookies, depending on the size of the cookie cut outs used. The amount of dough produced by this recipe filled up the bowl of my standing mixer, with flying flour making somewhat of a mess on the counter, and I finished combining all the ingredients by hand with a wooden spoon. You can always halve the ingredients, making a more manageable amount of dough to handle. But be ready for these cookies to fly out of the tin, much like the flour escaping the rotating mixing bowl – they are tasty in a good old-fashioned way.
Recipe for Ausstecherle
Makes 50 to 60 cookies, depending cookie cutter sizes. Active time: To mix dough, about 20 minutes; each sheet takes about 13 to 15 minutes in the oven.
¾ pound butter (three sticks), softened
3 cups sugar
8 egg yolks
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
4 ½ cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
Decoration: 1 or 2 eggs (using whites and/or yolks); tinted sugars; or, finely chopped nuts mixed with sugar
Sift together flour, baking powder and salt in a small bowl and set aside. In a large bowl of a standing mixer, cream the butter until lighter in color. Add the sugar; mix butter and sugar until well combined. Add egg yolks and mix until combined. Slowly add dry ingredients. Mix on low speed until most of the flour is integrated. Do not over mix. You may need to mix in the last additions of flour by hand using a wooden spoon.
Gather dough into a ball and divide into 4 disks. Refrigerate for about 30 minutes to an hour. You can refrigerate dough longer or even overnight, but the dough will need to come back almost to room temperature to roll out.
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Roll out dough to about 3/8ths of an inch. Re-combine and re-roll scraps.
Place cut out cookies on unbuttered cookie sheets. Decorate cookies: (1) Brush tops of cookies with lightly beaten whole egg or egg yolk and sprinkle with tinted sugar. Or (2) brush tops with lightly beaten egg whites mixed with a little sugar, and using a teaspoon, drop the finely chopped nuts, pre-mixed with a little sugar, onto center of cookies.
Bake for 13 to 15 minutes, depending on cookie sizes. Edges should slightly golden but not brown. Let cool for about 5 minutes on baking pan and the transfer to rack to cool completely. Store in airtight container.