IF YOU would like to usher in the Chinese New Year with fortune cookies this year, you can improve on both the cookies and the fortunes by making your own. Unlike their store-bought counterparts, homemade fortune cookies have a buttery taste and melt-in-your-mouth texture. And they can be filled with bits of your own cleverness or personal wishes rather than factory wit.

Think up your fortunes first. Then type or print them on strips of plain paper. Tailor them to your consumers: For a group of writers, you might want to include such fortunes as "Your next book will break the record on The New York Times Bestseller List" or "Carl Sagan will ask you to collaborate on a sequel to 'Cosmos.'" Kids would be glad to hear that "You will be off from school all next week" or "An 'A' on your next test is assured." And former Democratic Hill staffers might like to know "The job offer you've been waiting for is coming next week." FORTUNE COOKIES (Makes 45) 3 egg whites 2/3 cup sugar 1/8 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon vanilla 1/2 cup melted butter 2 tablespoons strong tea 1 cup flour

Prepare fortunes, fold and set aside.

In a medium bowl, combine egg whites, sugar, salt and vanilla. Stir in melted butter and tea. Mix well. Stir in flour until batter is smooth. Chill batter at least 30 minutes.

For each cookie, place a rounded teaspoonful of batter on a greased baking sheet. With the back of a spoon, spread out batter to form a thin circle about 3 inches in diameter. Bake no more than 2 or 3 cookies at one time, because they must be folded before they begin to cool and harden.

Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 3 to 5 minutes or until edges of cookies are brown. Remove baking sheet from oven and carefully remove one cookie with spatula.Lay cookie flat on a clean plate and place a fortune on top. Working quickly, fold the cookie in half to form a semicircle and enclose the fortune. Lay the semicircle across the rim of a glass and press the folded edge against the glass, half inside and half outside. The curved edge should be left to flare out, to give the cookie its characteristic "nurse's cap" shape. Set completed cookie in the well of a muffin tin to hold the shape while it cools. Repeat procedure with subsequent cookies.

Note: As cookies must be shaped when hot, handle with care.