THOUGH THE most common variety may be over-the-counter hot fudge, whooshed with aerosol-whipped cream and dispensed in a plastic cup, homemade sundaes can be an original and fancy finale for a dinner party. Sundaes can be sophisticated enough for Saturday night.

Toppings may be as simple as a translucent caramel, borrowed from creme caramel and laced with rum, or as rich as mocha chocolate, spiked with orange-flavord liqueur and latticed with candied julienned orange peel. Instead of chopped peanuts, the favored nut garnish of ice cream shops, sundaes created in the kitchen can be sprinkled with toasted pine nuts or sliced almonds, macadamia nuts, pistachios or even sunflower seeds.

The original sundae was a simple marriage of vanilla and chocolate invented around the turn of the century. According to ice cream chroniclers, sundaes were first served in Virginia where it was illegal to sell ice cream sodas on Sunday because they were thought to be too "stimulating." A wily apothecary, the story goes, sidestepped the law and created a new treat that could be served on Sunday -- hence sundae -- by pouring chocolate syrup over vanilla ice cream and eliminating the offending fizz.

Actually, sundae-like desserts had certainly been assembled much earlier. Dolley Madison, who is said to have popularized ice cream, may have served one of the first fruit "sundaes" in this country. At her husband's second inaugural ball in 1812, she apparently vowed Washington with ice cream topped with strawberries from her own garden.

Dolley notwithstanding, the idea of combining ice cream with fruit, nuts, syrups and whipped cream probably originated in France. There, sundaes are called coupes , from the name of the long-stemmed, champagne-style glasses in which they are usually served. According to Larousse Gastronomique, the "classic sundae" is coupe Jacques , made with lemon ice cream, strawberry ice cream, fresh fruit that has been soaked in kirsch, candied cherries and halved almonds. The great chef Escoffier created countless coupes , including Marie Therese (kirsch-soaked bananas and strawberry ice cream), Helene (vanilla ice cream, pralined violets, whipped cream and grated chocolate), Melba (vanilla ice cream, peaches poached in vanilla syrup and raspberry puree), created for opera star Nellie Melba, as well as coupes Adelina Patti, Emma Calve, Mireille, Odette and Yvette. Lucky for sundae lovers that he knew so many women.

For your own coupes , or sundaes, try some of these ice cream toppings:

Pureed fresh fruit, sweetened with sugar and flavored with liqueur.

Favorite cookies or candies, crumbled -- macaroons, oatmeal-raisin, chocolate chip or peanut butter cookies, peanut brittle, peppermint sticks or pralines.

Good quality preserves, mixed with chopped nuts and a little rum, brandy or bourbon.

Chocolate candies, melted over low heat and thinned, if necessary, with a little cream.

Dry expresso coffee, ground to a powder in a blender or food processor, then sprinkled with a little Scotch (an idea from Marcella Hazan's "The Classic Italian Cookbook")

Though the above toppings are delicious on vanilla ice cream, try other flavors as well. For desserts that look as well as taste wonderful: lemon ice cream with raspberry puree, banana ice cream with chocolate or strawberry sauce, pepermint ice cream drizzled with chocolate.

No matter what flavors you choose, use top quality ice cream only, and make the presentation attractive.Serve your homemade sundaes in long-stemmed dessert dishes or goblets set on pretty plates. If you don't have tall serving dishes, present the ice cream the nouvelle cuisine way: first spoon the sauce onto a plate, then set a scoop of ice cream in the center. (Try, this only with a cold sauce or you'll wind up with soup instead of sundaes.) RUM CARAMEL SUNDAE WITH TOASTED PINE NUTS (makes about 1 cup) 1 cup sugar 3/4 cup water 1 tablespoon rum Toasted pine nuts (or substitute pecans or almonds)

Put sugar and 1/4 cup water in a heavy saucepan and stir to blend. Turn heat to high and cook just until sugar caramelizes, without stirring. (The mixture should become a dark golden brown; be careful not to let it burn.) Off heat, add 1/2 cup of hot water, starting with just a few drops and adding the rest a little at a time. (Adding it more quickly will cause the hot syrup to splatter.)

Return to heat and cook over medium heat for 1 to 2 minutes more. Pour into a small glass serving bowl or container and refrigerate until cool. Stir in rum. Sauce should by syrupy; if too thick, thin with a little water. Serve other vanilla ice cream and top with toasted pine nuts.

NOTE: To toast nuts for this recipe and those that follow, place on a cookie sheet and bake at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes. Watch carefully and stir occasionally. APPLE SUNDAE WITH BRANDY-SOAKED RAISINS (4 servings) 1/3 cup raisins 1/4 cup brandy 3 medium all-purpose apples (Golden Delicious, Johathan, McIntosh), cored and peeled 3 tablespoons butter 3 tablespoons sugar

Put raisins and brandy in a shallow bowl and let stand for 2 to 3 hours. Meanwhile, cut apples into thin slices and cut slices in half.

When ready to prepare sundaes, melt butter in a medium skillet. Add apple slices and sautee until barely tender. Sprinkle sugar over apples and cook for a few more minutes, stirring. Add brandy-soaked raisins and stir to mix well with apples. Serve warm over vanilla ice cream. MOCHA-ORANGE CHOCOLATE SUNDAE WITH CANDIED ORANGE PEEL (makes about 1 1/4 cups) 3/4 cup (6 ounces) semi-sweet chocolate bits 1/4 cup hot strong coffee 1 tablespoon unsalted butter 1/4 cup light cream 1 tablespoon orange-flavored liqueur (or more to taste)

Place chocolate and coffee in a heavy saucepan and heat very gently until chocolate melts. Stir in butter. Remove from heat, add cream and liqueur and stir to blend. Spoon over vanilla ice cream and garnish with candied orange peel (recipe follows). CANDIED ORANGE PEEL 1 large orange 1/2 cup sugar 3 tablespoons water

Peel orange in wide strips, leaving on the orange as much of the white underside as possible. Place peel in saucepan, add water to cover, bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 20 minutes. Drain and rinse. Cut peel into julienne strips about 1 1/2 long.

Place sugar and three tablespoons water in a saucepan and heat gently, stirring, until sugar dissolves. Bring syrup to a boil and cook to the thread stage (about 230 degrees). Take off heat, add peel and let stand for about an hour. Drain on paper towles. Store in a covered container. Butterscotch Almond Sundae (makes about 2 cups) 3/4 cup brown sugar 3/4 cup dark corn syrup 1/2 cup light cream 3 tablespoons butter 1/2 tablespoon almond extract Pinch salt Toasted sliced or chopped almonds

In a heavy saucepan, combine sugar and corn syrup. Bring to a boil and cook over high heat for about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in cream, butter, almond extract and salt. Serve warm over vanilla ice cream and top with toasted almonds.

NOTE: Sauce may be made ahead. Refrigerate in saucepan. When ready to serve, place pan in bowl of very hot water and beat until sauce is warm. APRICOT SUNDAE WITH TOASTED PECANS (makes about 1 1/2 cups) 1 cup (approximately 5 1/2 ounces) dried apricots, coarsely chopped 2 cups water 2 slices lemon 1 piece (1 inch stick) cinnamon 1/4 cup brown sugar, packed 1 tablespoon bourbon Chopped toasted pecans

Place apricots in a saucepan with water, lemon and cinnamon. Bring to a boil, then simmer gently until apricots are very tender, about 25 minutes. (Apricots should have a sauce-like consistency when ready. If they are too dry, add a little more water.)

Take off heat and discard cinnamon and lemon. Add brown sugar and bourbon.

Serve warm over vanilla ice cream and top with pecans.