FINDING a stash of cookie dough in the refrigerator (OK, even if you put it there yourself) is like discovering a spa gift certificate in your Christmas stocking: It promises near-instant gratification and delicious enjoyment. After all, this season maybe you've already cured and roasted a turkey, baked three pies, whipped up a couple of gallons of eggnog and set up a fantastic brunch for the morning-after crowd. Making refrigerator cookies, so fantastically simple, qualifies as kitchen relaxation therapy.
With dough that you've already prepared in the freezer or refrigerator, cookies are ready to bake whenever you are. You don't even have to bake it all at once -- just slice off as much as you need from cylinders of fresh dough.
Slice-'n'-bake cookies may sound like kid fare (and kids can certainly help out), but these sophisticated versions invoke familiar flavors with a twist. Try playing up the cookies' buttery sweetness with dried apricots and pine nuts, set off with fresh thyme for an unexpected floral note. Chocolate and peanut butter is a classic combination; here the chocolate is bittersweet and the peanut butter chunky. Add chopped peanuts and you get a cookie with fresh, nutty flavor.
Berkeley-based pastry chef Alice Medrich gives a recipe for coffee-walnut cookies in her book "Pure Dessert" that's wonderfully elegant, the walnuts ground up with the flour for a fine texture, plus freshly ground coffee beans for a pleasantly bitter edge. A single whole bean crowns each delicate wafer.
"Sometimes I even make a roll of cookies and give it to someone as a gift," Medrich says. "It's just the easiest way to make cookies if you're pressed for time or doing other things."
Whatever ingredients you choose -- nuts, fruit or chocolate -- make sure to chop them finely so that the dough will not tear when it is sliced. Once mixed, the soft dough needs to be thoroughly chilled in order to cut neat cookies. The dough can be kept in the refrigerator for as long as a week, then frozen for as long as three months. If straight from the freezer, let the dough soften slightly for about 10 minutes before slicing (they might need a couple of additional minutes in the oven).
WHEN you're ready to bake, take one cylinder of dough at a time from the fridge. Time and heat are the enemies of a neat refrigerator cookie, so work quickly to avoid letting the dough soften. Slice it into cookies about one-quarter-inch thick, using a sharp knife and a sawing motion and rotating each log slightly as you go so it doesn't get flattened on one side. If the dough starts to soften despite your speedy maneuvering, don't panic -- just pop it back in the fridge until it firms up again.
Having worked so hard to preserve the perfect cookie shape, don't just toss the raw cookies onto a bare baking pan. The cookies color beautifully and retain those sharp edges best when baked on a silicone pan liner (such as Silpat), The Times' test kitchen found in a test of shaped cookies last year.
Once baked, the cookies keep well in an airtight container for up to a month. And when they run out, just take more dough out of the freezer, or mix up a new batch. Easy as pie? Much, much easier.