CRAIG Claiborne is turning 62 on Sept. 4, finishing 25 years of writing about food for The New York Times and publishing his autobiography, "A Feast Made for Laughter," which tells all. That warrants a party. In his home town of Sunflower, Miss., such an occasion would probably call for a covered dish supper, and that's exactly what Claiborne has planned--the most extravagant covered dish supper ever, with eight chefs and 20 cookbook authors from all over the Western Hemisphere invited to bring a dish to his East Hampton home.

Maida Heatter is bringing dessert. Four chocolate-covered walnut tarts, four loaves of "The Best Damn Lemon Cake" and Pecan Squares Americana, all from her fourth and newest cookbook on desserts.

It would only be more fitting if she brought an elephant omelet.

The origin of that dish goes back to 1968, when the Republican National Convention took over Miami. Heatter and her husband (now also her agent), Ralph Daniels, decided to keep their restaurant, which ordinarily closed in the summer, opened to take advantage of the GOP influx. But Heatter, who not only made the desserts for the restaurant, but had worked enough years in the New York fashion world to know about public relations, suggested they'd better get some publicity in order to make the move worthwhile. And that would take a gimmick.

Republicans. Elephants. Elephant omelet! Heatter called her daughter in New York and had her check Bloomingdale's food department to see if it carried canned elephant meat. It did. Then she called the distributor and found that he had a warehouse full of unappreciated elephant meat and was happy to send her case loads. Newspapers all over the country ate up the idea. And for a brief while, the restaurant basked in the national limelight.

Craig Claiborne was going to Miami to cover the gustatory side of the convention, so he called Heatter and asked to interview her. Never one to misplace an opportunity, Heatter had her dining table covered with "all of the most gorgeous desserts I could think of making" when Claiborne arrived.

By then, after four years of creating desserts for the restaurant, she had a voluminous repertoire. An obsessive baker, Heatter now says she coaxed her husband into opening the business in the first place because she found herself running out of ready consumers for her brownies.

She limited her restaurant contributions to desserts, she explained, because she was staying home to nurse her father, Gabriel Heatter, whom she had never left at home alone a night in eight years. The baked goods could be made from home, she pointed out, unlike items like broiled chicken or homemade mayonnaise. Besides, "I wouldn't let Maida in the kitchen," said Daniels, a tall, rangy Texan who started in the business with plenty of experience as a pilot but none with food. A restaurant kitchen is too tough for a lady, he insisted. But Heatter wasn't too fragile to win first prize for originality in Miami's cooking olympics the next year, with a large basket of about 500 meringue mushrooms surrounded by innumerable anchovy-filled pastry fish swimming around the basket and an olive tree, all edible. The pastry fish are still in her freezer.

In spare moments between nursing her father, making jewelry and silk scarves to sell to major stores around the country, and selling her oil paintings, Heatter was recording her recipes to have them ready for customers who requested them.

So she was halfway there when Claiborne suggested she write a cookbook.

Even then it took her five more years.

But she got her manuscript typed, put it in a box and shipped it off to Alfred A. Knopf, figuring that since it was the house that published Julia Child, it must be good.

After two weeks Heatter was angry because Knopf was slow to reply. She had no idea that the publisher accepted only about four cookbooks a year, and those primarily from superstar authors such as James Beard, M. F. K. Fisher and Marcella Hazan. Thus, when the publisher called and offered to buy her cookbook, Heatter said she'd think about it.

What tipped the scale for this major publisher to choose her book from among the hordes? For one thing, recalled Heatter, it was just sent in a box, which she said impressed Nancy Nicholas, the editor, who was wary of manuscripts elaborately bound for submission. Knopf's famed cookbook editor, Judith B. Jones, who edits most of the company's cookbooks, was on vacation. Nicholas, who has chosen and edited only about eight cookbooks in the last 10 years (half of them Heatter's), read the book and wanted it simply because, "It was so good." Knopf, she explained, tries to do the classic teaching books in its "small and quite exclusive line."

But, as Heatter was still to learn, writing and publishing a book is only the beginning. What happened when Maida Heatter's "Book of Great Desserts" came out in 1974?

"Nothing," said the author.

There was no publicity tour then, reminisced Heatter, who was recently in Washington as part of a six-week publicity tour for her fourth book. There were only a few newspaper advertisements. But there were good reviews, from important newspapers. "Food editors have told me that they really pay attention when they get a book from Knopf," Heatter said. And Claiborne gave it a full page in The New York Times Magazine, having already printed her recipes in several earlier stories--which she duly noted with each of those recipes in the book. So the book sold well and now sells more copies than ever.

Her second book, on cookies, did better; and her third, entirely on chocolate desserts, was a phenomenon, selling 100,000 copies the first year. For that one, though, Knopf poured out money for "lots of advertising," according to Nicholas, and a 15-city tour. For the newest of her books, "Maida Heatter's New Book of Great Desserts" ($17.50), even more is being spent for advertising, and the first printing was 50,000 copies.

But due to the lack of a heavy publicity campaign for the first book, it was crucial to get the word around in other ways, said Heatter. Fortunately, her home town paper, the Miami Herald, is part of the Knight-Ridder chain so that full-page stories about her went out over the wires, and Woman's Day magazine bought rights to the book. And what helped to sell her first book--and the others--Heatter is convinced, were the covers, beautiful photos of all the desserts she considered most important.

By her own admission, Heatter is an obsessive baker--known to bake night and day, even as she is packing up and closing her house for a six-week trip. And as her first dessert book was being edited, she frequently called with changes and additions.

One day it was too late. "Save it for your next book," said her editor. And that is how the next book got started. And the next. And the next. The fifth is already beginning to pile up, willy-nilly, on the dining table. The just-released fourth book started with French Chocolate Loaf Cake, which Heatter finally perfected after 40 years of experimentation, but one week too late for the manuscript of the chocolate book.

While few recipes take 40 years, Heatter has often tested recipes 15 to 20 times. Even so, when the first book was ready to go to press, Heatter discovered that her oven was off by 35 degrees, so she had to retest and change all the recipes. She now makes a point of always insisting that readers check their oven temperature. And even so, the oven temperature was accidentally left out of two recipes in the newest book.

What most excites her is working out a recipe herself from something she has seen or tasted. It is not so difficult, she claims, "if you don't mind wasting a lot of butter and chocolate and eggs. I never did." There are plenty of test runs to distribute to friends and neighbors, and one awful brownie recipe even was thrown to the seagulls outside Heatter's window.

Heatter's obsessions include not just baking but also eating, so her current tour started with her trying to lose 17 pounds before she went on the Today show. She's gone from smoking five packs of cigarettes to none, but she still can't resist her own desserts and drives herself from their clutches by thinking "in terms of 'I have to be thin by Friday.' " And still, she says, "Whatever I eat I think is the best thing I ever ate in my life."

Anything she tastes might send her on a search for the recipe. The pastry books of Dominique d'Ermo, of Washington's Dominique's restaurant, were useful for meringue-making techniques, and he was in a roundabout way responsible for her discovering the Pecan Squares Americana which appeared in her first book (and are revised slightly in her current book). Whatever restaurant or bakery she investigates might turn up something for her books, she said as she delicately picked her way through dinner, clearly saving room for dessert.

Heatter finds it an advantage, though, to be living in Miami rather than smack in the middle of the New York food world. "I never wasted time talking," she said of her past 10 cookbook-writing years; she characterizes herself as "a loner except Ralph's sharing everything with me." For her, cooking is--not just figuratively--therapy: "I know an awful lot of people who were going to shrinks and doctors . . . and I said, 'If you'd only go into the kitchen and cook, you'd feel better.' "

And so in the eight years since her first book was published, Heatter has become perhaps the country's best-known dessert person. Her books are thorough, comprehensive, so painstaking that it is difficult to reprint her recipes. With their anecdotal introductions and their meticulously detailed instructions, her recipes commonly take three to five closely printed pages.

After two specialized dessert books, why another general dessert book? Heatter was itching to write chapters on ice creams made with churns, on pies; she wanted to write things that were considered impossible to explain in print. Pie crust, for instance; "I didn't care if it took five pages," she explained. "I wanted to say everything I'd learned by trial and error." It took 5 1/4 pages.

"In the first book I was afraid of writing," said Heatter. Now she has loosened up enough to say anything she likes. "I just got more talkative."

Daniels used to tell her, "Say every single thing you know. Don't leave anything out." This time she followed that advice. "I do more of it than anyone else who writes recipes," she recently said of her lengthy descriptions and tips and directions.

The newest book repeats a few recipes from her other books, either because she had revisions or because they were a component of one of the desserts. In general, though, this book includes more light desserts and more desserts with whole-wheat flour and honey, though "plenty with white sugar and white flour." It also has several cracker recipes, among the most delicious and unusual of the book's entries, which Heatter couldn't resist including.

This book is also heavily sprinkled with exclamation points, innumerable recipes that are "one of my favorites," several recipes that "should be photographed for the cover of a food magazine," countless ones that are "fantastic" or "heaven." Still, having tested over a dozen of the desserts, we found only four of them uniquely delicious, the rest perfectly good and attractive, but nothing that would send us begging for the recipe.

"I do exaggerate," said Heatter. "I always exaggerate." She considers the pie recipes in the book very, very important, as well as the ice cream recipes, and adores the simple dishes--the stewed peaches, the bran muffins, the baked custard. When it was suggested that while most of the recipes seemed to be good, only a few had been found to be special, Heatter replied that if she finds a cookbook that has even one special recipe, she considers it worthwhile, and added that "a lot of places have made their reputation on my hot fudge sauce."

And now that her own reputation is made, she is looking to make her fortune. Heatter was hired to develop a recipe to publicize Frusen Gladje ice cream, and is negotiating with the company over a commissary that will produce desserts under her name for national distribution. "We're very interested," she added as dinner ended and the waiter rolled up the dessert cart. Then her attention was diverted by chocolate raspberry cake, chocolate truffles, chocolate-covered orange peel. The Today show was still several days and 17 pounds away. FRENCH CHOCOLATE LOAF CAKE (10 servings)

This cake may be made ahead of time and may be frozen for a month or so. It is possible to serve it directly from the freezer--it will not be too hard to slice--but it is more tender and more delicate at room temperature. It is a very plain-looking loaf, which may be covered with optional chocolate curls (easily made with milk chocolate), and may be served alone or with whipped cream and berries. 3/4 cup sifted cornstarch (sift before measuring and do not pack down when measuring) 8 ounces semisweet chocolate* 1 tablespoon instant coffee 1/4 cup boiling water 6 tablespoons ( 3/4 stick) unsalted butter 1/2 cup granulated sugar 4 eggs (graded large), separated 1/8 teaspoon salt

Adjust rack one-third up from the bottom of the oven. You will need a loaf pan with a 6-cup capacity; mine measures 8 1/2-by-4 1/2-by-2 3/4 inches.

To line the pan with foil: Place the pan upside down on the work surface. Measure the bottom of the pan. Cut two strips of foil; one to fit the length (bottom and sides) and one to fit the width (bottom and sides) of the pan. If the foil is not measured carefully and if it is too wide, it will wrinkle when it is placed in the pan. Carefully place one piece over the upside-down pan, center it, and fold it down on the sides of the pan. Remove the foil and set it aside. Repeat the procedure with the second piece of foil, folding it down on the remaining two sides of the pan. Remove the second piece of foil. Turn the pan upright. Carefully place one piece of the foil in the pan, press it into place, and then place the other piece in the pan and press it into place. There will be two thicknesses on the bottom. The sides of the foil may extend about half an inch or so above the pan, and may be folded down over the rim. (Since the pan flares at the top, the upper corners of the pan will remain unlined--it is okay.) Brush the foil carefully with melted butter or set the pan aside until you are ready to pour the batter in, and then spray it generously with Pam or any other vegetable cooking spray.

After sifting and measuring the cornstarch, resift it three more times and set it aside. Break up or coarsely chop the chocolate and place it in a heavy 4-cup saucepan. Dissolve the coffee in the water and pour it over the chocolate. Cover, place over low heat, and let stand for a few minutes until the chocolate starts to melt. Do not overcook. Stir (preferably with a small wire whisk) until smooth, and then transfer to a small bowl to stop the cooking and set aside to cool slightly.

Meanwhile, in the large bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter until soft. Gradually add the sugar and beat for 2 or 3 minutes, scraping the bowl occasionally with a rubber spatula. Add the yolks one at a time, scraping the bowl and beating after each addition until incorporated. Then continue to beat for a few minutes until the mixture is pale and creamy. On low speed add the chocolate. Scrape the bowl and beat only until smooth. Then add the cornstarch, scrape the bowl, and beat only until smooth. Remove from the mixer and set aside. In a small bowl, using clean beaters, beat the whites and the salt only until the whites just stand up straight when the beaters are raised--do not overbeat. Add about 1 rounded tablespoonful of the whites to the chocolate mixture and stir to mix. Repeat with a second spoonful, and then with a third. Fold in about half of the remaining whites without being too thorough, and then fold in the balance of the whites, folding gently but completely. If you are using vegetable cooking spray, spray the pan now, rather generously. Pour the batter into the pan. Lift the pan in both hands and move it gently from left to right and front to back in order to smooth the top of the batter. Place the cake pan in a larger pan (which must not be deeper than the cake pan; incidentally, if the larger pan is made of aluminum, sprinkle about 1/2 teaspoon of cream of tartar in the pan to keep it from discoloring). Pour boiling water into the large pan until it is about an inch depth.

Bake at 350 degrees for 50 to 55 minutes until a cake tester gently inserted into the middle, all the way to the bottom, comes out just barely clean and dry. Test very carefully several times to be sure. There will be a thin crust on top; the middle of the cake will be soft. Do not overbake. Turn off the heat and open the oven door a few inches; let cool that way for 20 minutes. Then open the oven door all the way and let the cake stand for about an hour until cooled to room temperature. (If you need the oven, let the cake cool in the oven for only half the time, and then let it finish cooling in the kitchen.) Remove the cake pan from the water and dry the pan. Cover the cake with a flat serving plate or a board. Turn over the plate or board and the cake pan, remove the pan and the foil. Serve the cake upside down. (The cake may now be frozen.)

Before serving, the cake may be covered with chocolate curls, and then sprinkled generously with confectioners' sugar sifted through a strainer held over the top. This may be served as it is, but it is better with a spoonful of softly whipped cream (sweetened only slightly with confectioners' or granulated sugar, and flavored slightly with vanilla extract). And with a spoonful of fresh raspberries or strawberries, or with just barely thawed and partially drained frozen raspberries. Make the portions small.

*Note: I especially like Lindt Surfin, Lindt Excellence and Tobler Tradition, all of which are labeled "bittersweet," which is the same as semisweet; just use the best semisweet you can get.

Correct oven temperature is critical for this cake; if the oven is too warm and the cake overbakes even slightly, it loses its wondrous texture and quality. GINGER-MARMALADE YOGURT (4 servings)

This is probably most appropriate as a summer dessert, but I could eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner; as an appetizer, entree and/or dessert. 1/3 cup orange juice 2 teaspoons lemon juice 1 envelope unflavored gelatin 1/3 cup sweet orange marmalade 3 to 4 tablespoons fine chopped crystallized ginger, firmly packed* 3 tablespoons light or dark brown sugar, firmly packed 2 cups unflavored yogurt

Place the orange juice and lemon juice in a custard cup. Sprinkle the gelatin over the top. Let stand for 5 minutes to soften. Meanwhile, place the marmalade, ginger and brown sugar in a bowl and stir to mix. Set aside. Place the yogurt in another bowl and stir until it is softened and smooth. Set aside. Now place the cup of gelatin mixture in a little hot water in a pan over low heat. Stir occasionally with a metal spoon until the gelatin is dissolved. Then add the gelatin to the marmalade mixture and stir until thoroghly mixed. Gradually add the gelatin mixture to the yogurt, stirring well after each addition until well mixed. Place the mixture (preferably in a metal bowl because it chills faster) into a larger bowl of ice and water. Stir constantly and gently with a rubber spatula until the mixture thickens enough to keep the ginger and the marmalade from sinking. Transfer to a wide-mouthed pitcher and pour into four 6-ounce glasses or dessert cups. Refrigerate for 2 to 3 hours or all day.

This does not need any topping; it can be served as is. But if you want to make it more colorful and festive, top each portion with a very thinly sliced strawberry, or with a thin slice of peeled kiwi fruit cut into four or six pie-shaped wedges. These may also be unmolded. Prepare them in custard cups. When they are firm, cut around the sides to release. Then dip the cup in hot water and hold it for 2 or 3 seconds, cover with a flat plate, turn the plate and cup over; the molded yogurt should slip right out. It is pretty surrounded by a border of very thinly sliced strawberries.

*Note: This will have a good gingery flavor with 3 tablespoons of chopped ginger--but if you love ginger as I do, you will want to use 4 tablespoons. THE BEST DAMN LEMON CAKE (8 to 10 servings)

This is better when it is not too fresh--it is still wonderful after several days. Butter and fine bread crumbs for pan 1/2 cup blanched almonds 1 1/2 cups sifted all-purpose flour 1 teaspoon baking powder 3/4 teaspoon salt 8 tablespoons unsalted butter 1 cup sugar 2 large eggs 1/2 cup milk 1 ounce (4 tablespoons) lemon extract Finely grated rind of 2 extra-large or 3 medium-size lemons Glaze: 1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar 1/3 cup fresh lemon juice

Adjust a rack one third up from the bottom of the oven. Butter an 8 1/2-by-4 1/2-by-2 3/4-inch loaf pan with a 6-cup capacity*. Dust it all with fine, dry bread crumbs, invert over a piece of paper, and tap firmly to shake out excess. Set the pan aside.

The almonds must be ground very fine. It can be done in a food processor, a blender or a nut grinder. Then set them aside. Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt and set aside. In a small, heavy saucepan over low heat, melt the unsalted butter. Transfer it to the large bowl of an electric mixer. Add the sugar and beat a bit to mix. On low speed, beat in the eggs one at a time, beating only to mix well. Then, on low speed, add the sifted dry ingredients in three additions alternating with the milk in two additions, scraping the bowl with a rubber spatula and beating until mixed after each addition. Mix in the lemon extract. Remove from the mixer. Stir in the grated rind and then the ground almonds. It will be a rather thin mixture. Turn it into the prepared pan.

Bake at 350 degrees for 65 to 75 minutes, until a cake tester carefully inserted into the center of the cake, all the way to the bottom, comes out just barely clean and dry. (If the pan is long and narrow the cake will bake in less time than if it is short and wide. During baking, the cake will form a large crack or two on the top; the crack, or cracks, will remain light in color--it is okay.)

Two or three minutes before the cake is done, prepare the glaze. Stir the sugar and lemon juice in a small, heavy saucepan over moderate heat only until the sugar is just dissolved; do not boil the mixture. When the cake is removed from the oven, let it stand for 2 or 3 minutes. Then, with a brush, brush the hot glaze very gradually over the hot cake; the glaze should not be applied quickly--it should take about 5 minutes to apply it all. Let stand until tepid, not quite completely cool. Then, gently invert the cake onto a rack. (If the cake sticks in the pan, cover it loosely with foil or waxed paper, turn it upside down onto your right hand, tap the bottom of the pan with your left hand, and the cake will slide out.) Turn the cake right side up.

When the cake is completely cool, wrap it in plastic wrap or foil and let stand for 12 to 24 hours before serving. Or place it in the freezer for about 2 hours, or in the refrigerator for about 4 hours, before serving.

*NOTE: For this cake, do not use a nonstick pan, or a black metal pan, or a glass pan; it should be aluminum, preferably heavy weight. And do not double the recipe and bake it in one larger pan, it is not as good--it is better to make two or more cakes in the specified 6-cup loaf pan. CORN MELBA (Makes 96 crackers)

Corn melba keeps well for a week or more. If you have only one pan, and therefore bake only one pan at a time, be prepared to spend several hours near the oven. But if you bake three or four pans of it at one time, it can all be completed in about 1 1/2 hours. Butter for pans 2 cups double-or triple-sifted all-purpose flour* 2 teaspoons double-acting baking powder 1/2 teaspoon salt 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature 2 tablespoons sugar 2 large or extra-large eggs 1 cup milk, at room temperature 1 cup water, at room temperature 1/2 cup white water-ground cornmeal (substitute yellow, but cracker will be less thin and crisp)

This is made in jelly-roll pans that measure 10 1/2-by-15 1/2-by-1 inch. The crackers will be cut into squares in the pans, therefore you should not use pans that have a nonstick finish or you will cut through the finish. You can bake six pans at a time if you have that many pans and oven racks, or you can bake only one or more at a time (the remaining batter should stand at room temperature). Adjust oven racks for as many pans as you have, or adjust a rack to the center for only one pan. Butter the pans**.

Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt, and set aside. In the small bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter until it is soft. Beat in the sugar and then the eggs, one at a time. On low speed add the sifted dry ingredients in three additions alternating with the milk and water in two additions, scraping the bowl with a rubber spatula and beating until well mixed after each addition. Add the cornmeal last and beat only until mixed. The mixture will look curdled during the mixing and might still be lumpy after the mixing. Strain it through a strainer set over a bowl to remove any lumps. It will be a thin mixture. You will have 4 cups of batter with which to make 6 panfuls of melba; for each panful you should use 2/3 cup of batter. Measure it in a glass measuring cup. Pour the measured amount along one long side of the buttered pan, scraping out the cup with a rubber spatula. Tilt the pan as necessary for the batter to run into a very thin layer completely covering the bottom of the pan. Hold the pan almost vertically, turn it one way and then another, and have patience--the batter might run slowly. If, after a reasonable length of time, you see that you simply cannot get the batter to cover the pan, use an extra spoonful or so as necessary.

Bake at 375 degrees. You can put a second pan in after the first one has started baking. After about 5 to 7 minutes the batter should be firm enough to be cut; remove it from the oven and, with a small, sharp knife, cut the long way to make 4 strips, and then cut crossways to make 16 rectangles. Return the pan to the oven and continue to bake for about 25 minutes more or until the melba is crisp all over--part of it might be golden brown or even darker, and part of it may be lighter (although it is best when it is all an even golden color). During baking, reverse the pan top to bottom and front to back as necessary to ensure even browning. The crackers will shrink as they bake, and some of the crackers may still look wet and buttery in places but they will dry and crisp as they cool if they have been baked enough. The crackers will not all be done at the same time; some may be done in 20 to 25 minutes, others might take as long as 45 minutes. Remove them from the oven as they are done. With a wide metal spatula, transfer the baked crackers to a paper towel to cool. When you run out of room it is all right to place some of them on top of others. Wash, dry and butter the pans each time you use them. Corn Melba is fragile--handle with care. Store it in an airtight container but don't worry about this getting limp--it stays crisp. It may be frozen if you want to keep it for many weeks or months.

*Notes: If your sifter has only one screen, resift the flour before measuring; if it is sifted only once, you will be using a little more flour, and the mixture will be a little too thick.

The pans should be buttered normally, not extra heavy and not extra thin, using room-temperature butter spread with crumpled waxed paper.

You can add cayenne to this recipe; try it first by adding 1/4 teaspoon of cayenne to 2/3 cup of the batter and making one panful.