You don't have to make your own ice cream to make your own ice cream desserts. Commercial ice cream of good quality -- high in butterfat, low in air -- can be used to make festive, homemade desserts that appeal to all degrees of sophistication.

Such ice cream confections are easy to prepare ahead of time, to wait for days in the freezer, and require little skill and no special equipment. No need to buy an ice cream maker -- just a pint or two of ice cream -- to create the right dessert for any occasion.

Classic ice cream desserts fall into certain limited categories, but imaginative combinations can lead to new concoctions that defy classification. Keep to tradition or follow your fancy. Either way, they'll "all scream for ice cream" at your house.

The standard ice cream sundae is an Americanization of what the French call a coupe, named for the cup-shaped silver or glass dish in which the dessert traditionally is served. American soda fountains serve sundaes in taller, narrower glasses with fluted rims. We call them sundaes, ice cream lore has it, because in Illinois, once upon a time, laws prohibited the sale of ice cream on the sabbath. After some enterprising soda jerk got the idea of covering the frozen stuff with fruit and nuts, the lawmakers relented, making sundaes legal on Sundays.

These desserts combine ice cream with candied or pure'ed fruits, chopped nuts, sauces (hot fudge and butterscotch the most popular) and whipped cream topped off with a maraschino cherry. Nowadays it is not only ice cream parlors and children's birthday parties that offer seemingly endless toppings for make-your-own sundaes. Any summer party ends well with a sundae bar that includes chopped cookies, candy, flaked coconut, granola and other cereals, wet (in syrup) and dry nuts.

If you feel innovative, try crushed pineapple or applesauce on ice cream or chunks of fresh fruit such as figs, peaches, apricots and nectarines. Spoon on liqueurs in complementary or contrasting flavors. Cre me de menthe, triple sec, cre me de cacao, anisette and raspberry, cherry or peach brandy taste particularly pleasing.

Sauce possibilities are virtually unlimited. Melt jams with sugar and liqueurs, pure'e stewed dried fruits or canned fruits, crush and cook fresh blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, rhubarb, currants, oranges. Flavor fruit juice with lemon, heat and thicken with cornstarch. And maple and caramel syrups right out of the bottle taste fine, too.

Flavored whipped cream makes another great topping on the sundae bar. Beat chilled heavy cream with fruit liqueurs, pure'ed fruits, almond or vanilla extract, cocoa or instant coffee powder.

Banana splits, those hedonistic indulgences of banana slices, scoops and scoops of ice cream, chocolate and marshmallow sauces, nuts, whipped cream and cherries once so popular, seem to have gone the way of red meat and other cholesterol-filled goodies.

But melbas, named for the famous Australian opera singer Nellie Melba, are as popular as ever, simple to assemble and taste wonderful. Top a scoop of vanilla ice cream with a fresh peach, cover with raspberry sauce (the performer's favorite), garnish with whipped cream and sprinkle with toasted almonds for the real thing. Or use stawberries, pears or other fruit for melbas by another name.

If sundaes are too rich, remember that a simple dish of store-brought ice cream comes alive when garnished with a perfect strawberry dipped in melted chocolate or sugar icing or a chocolate-dipped whole almond or pieces of candied fruit peel and crystalized ginger. For a showy presentation, marinate raisins in rum, pour over the ice cream and flambe'.

Or pile the ice cream into chocolate cups produced by coating paper baking cups with melted chocolate. Too caloric? Then cut a lid from the top of a large fresh pineapple, scoop out the flesh, sprinkle a little sugar and kirsch or rum inside, chill and then fill with pineapple or other ice cream for a spectacular presentation made in a jiffy. Do the same with orange or lemon shells. When cantaloupes are at their best, cut one in half and fill the center with chocolate or vanilla ice cream for a refreshing combination.

Ice cream in shells, called flans, are another traditional dessert. Made of pie crust, individual tart shells, cookies crumb crusts, meringue rounds, sponge, gingerbread, pound or other cakes, the shells become edible containers for the frozen confection. Waffles are another traditional base.

Easy-to-bake individual meringue shells, natural or flavored with cre me de menthe or almond extract, are also perfect "dishes" for ice cream. Or be ambitious and go all out for a baked alaska -- also known as a surprise omelet or an omelette a la Norvegienne -- sponge cake topped with ice cream, encased in meringue and browned in the oven.

Best of all, bake a vanilla or chocolate jelly roll sheet, brush it with jelly, spread ice cream over the top, roll it up and freeze it. If you don't feel like baking, slice a donut in half, toast it and spread it with ice cream.

Toast any other cake to use in the same way, or scoop out the center of a cupcake and refill it with ice cream. Use cookies to make a chipwich or a graham cracker ice cream sandwich.

Molded ice cream desserts are another sweet idea for ending a meal. Sheets of angel food, ge'noise, white, yellow, chocolate or pound cakes, homemade or store bought, are cut and layered with ice creams of complementary flavors and colors, frozen and later unmolded. When sliced, they reveal their interesting stripes and flavors. The old-time Italian dessert, the zuccotto, calls for chocolate, strawberry and vanilla flavored whipped cream mixed with chocolate chunks and candied fruit to be piled into a mold lined with spirit-laced lady fingers, but who's to say ice cream is not a good substitute?

Ice cream bombes, popularized in the 19th century and ironically named for the instruments of destruction their spherical shape suggested, are molds of two kinds of ice cream. At home a deep bowl replaces the old-fashioned bombe mold. One ice cream flavor spread over the bottom and sides forms a shell for fillings such as another ice cream, sherbet, mousse or fruit.

"Larousse Gastronomique" lists 26 variations ranging from bombe a l'algerienne (tangerine and pineapple ice) to bombe dauphinoise (pineapple ice and chartreuse-flavored whipped cream) to bombe imperatrice (red currant ice and rice pudding with candied fruit) to bombe Ve'ronique (pistachio ice cream with chocolate mousse and candied orange peel).

Another whimsical bombe combines a shell of green ice cream or sherbet -- pistachio, mint or lime -- filled with strawberry or raspberry ice cream studded with chocolate chips. When cut open it looks like a watermelon.

Those bricks of multi-flavored ice creams -- neopolitans or biscuits glace's -- that were so popular years ago are easy to reproduce at home in plastic freezer containers. Cassatas are the familiar Italian version of these ice ga teaux, which are made with layers of different ice creams or ice cream and sherbet.

If molding and unmolding seems too much trouble in the summer heat, use a chilled scoop to form ice cream balls; then roll them in shredded coconut, cookie crumbs, candy sprinkles or crushed candy, nuts, cake crumbs or other goodies and refreeze until needed. A famous example of this idea is the tartuffo, named for its resemblance to the truffle. Buried in the center of a ball of chocolate ice cream coated with grated chocolate is a maraschino cherry. A tartuffo is a gourmet pleasure when eaten at Tre Scalini in Rome, where it was invented, while facing a piazza dominated by three Bernini fountains, but even at home it tastes quite special.

Other possibilities are to customize commercial ice cream by softening it and beating in exotic flavoring extracts, liqueurs, nuts, grated coconut or cookie crumbs, or to make ice cream floating islands. Traditionally, floating islands, called oeufs a la niege in French, which means eggs in snow, consist of poached meringue "snowballs" floating in chilled cre me anglaise or custard sauce. But for the ice cream version, pour the custard into a shallow bowl and ease mounds of ice cream snowballs in on top.

Ice cream drinks solve the thirst, heat and dessert problem all at once. Drop a scoop of a favorite flavor into a glass of carbonated water, cola, ginger ale or root beer. A scoop of chocolate ice cream inhances any of the new low-calorie chocolate sodas for a sort of semi-dietetic, conscience-easing treat. Alternately, beat ice cream with pineapple or other fruit juice for a healthier but still enjoyable beverage.

Plain or fancy, when ice cream desserts are good, they are very, very good.

ICE CREAM ZUCCOTTO (12 servings)

2 3-ounce packages ladyfingers

1/4 cup cherry or strawberry liqueur

1 pint vanilla ice cream, softened

1 cup mixed candied fruits

1 pint chocolate chocolate chip ice cream, softened

1 pint strawberry ice cream

1/2 cup strawberry pure'e

Whole strawberries for garnish (optional)

Line bottom and sides of a deep 3-quart bowl with enough ladyfingers to cover completely. Sprinkle with liqueur. Combine vanilla ice cream and candied fruits and spoon into lined bowl. Freeze until firm. Spoon chocolate ice cream over the vanilla and freeze. Spoon strawberry ice cream over chocolate and freeze overnight or longer. To serve, use a thin knife to loosen edges of zuccotto. Dip bowl in hot water. Place a chilled serving platter on top of bowl and invert to unmold. Drizzle strawberry pure'e over top and garnish with strawberries, if desired.

ICE CREAM FLOATING ISLANDS (4 servings)

This is derived from a recipe in "The Dinah Shore Cookbook" (Doubleday, 1983).

4 large egg yolks, beaten

2 cups hot lowfat milk

1/4 cup sugar

1 teaspoon cornstarch, dissolved in 1 tablespoon water

1/4 cup grand marnier

4 scoops vanilla or other ice cream

Chopped nuts for garnish

*Combine eggs, milk and sugar in the top of a double boiler. Cook over boiling water until the mixture coats the back of a spoon. Mix 3 tablespoons of the egg mixture with the cornstarch mixture and then add to pan and mix well. Do not boil. Pour into a bowl, place bowl in ice water and stir to cool. Add grand marnier and chill. Pour custard into a shallow serving bowl and gently ease ice cream onto top. Sprinkle with nuts.

FARNIENTE ICE CREAM FLOWERS (4 servings)

The title for this recipe from Micheline restaurant in Georgetown was derived by pastry chef Didier Berlioz from the Italian word for doing nothing, farniente, because it is a dessert for a lazy, relaxing summer day.

2 oranges

1/2 pint vanilla ice cream, softened

1/4 cup grand marnier

1/2 pint orange sherbet

8 ounces chilled champagne

Place 4 dessert plates in the freezer until well chilled. Peel oranges and cut around membranes into segments. Chill. Combine vanilla ice cream with grand marnier and freeze until firm. Just before serving, place a scoop of ice cream on each plate. Dip a spoon in cold water and scoop out small ovals of sherbet. Ring each scoop of ice cream with sherbet ovals and place orange segments between the ovals. Pour approximately 2 ounces of champagne over the top of each "flower" and serve immediately.

NEAPOLITANS (8 servings)

Ice cream in 3 different flavors and colors, totaling 1 quart

Whipped cream or fruit for garnish (optional)

Use a square or rectangular 1- or 1 1/2-quart plastic freezer box. Soften one of the ice cream flavors and spread on bottom of mold. Freeze to harden and repeat with remaining ice cream. Freeze until hard. Transfer to refrigerator 1 hour before serving. Just before serving, dip mold in hot water, run a thin knife around top edges and unmold. Slice to show colors and serve with sweetened whipped cream and strawberries or other fruit, if desired.

BAKED ALASKA (4 servings)

7-inch round yellow or chocolate sponge cake

2 egg whites

4 tablespoons sugar

1/8 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 pint very firm vanilla or other flavor ice cream

1 tablespoon confectioners' sugar

Wrap a wooden board or a cookie sheet with foil. Place cake in center. Beat egg whites until soft peaks hold. Gradually add sugar and vanilla and continue beating until stiff but not too dry. Mound ice cream on top of cake and quickly spread meringue to cover ice cream and cake completely. Smooth top. Dust with confectioners' sugar and bake in a 450-degree oven about 4 minutes or until meringue is lightly browned. Transfer to a chilled serving dish and serve immediately.

WASHINGTON MONUMENT SUNDAE (1 serving)

Jane and Michael Stern, collectors of funky food Americana, rescued from oblivion this recipe, printed in a 1947 book of the Dairy Training and Merchandising Institute. It used to be a specialty at Weile's ice cream parlor, for many years an institution in Langley Park.

1/4 cup chocolate syrup

6 scoops ice cream in different flavors

1/4 cup raspberry syrup

2 bananas, 1 cut into disks, 1 cut in half across its width

1/4 cup nuts in syrup

Whipped cream for garnish

Maraschino cherries for garnish

5 small American flags for garnish

Blue and red candy sprinkles for garnish

In a tall glass put 1 tablespoon chocolate syrup and 1 scoop ice cream. Add 1 tablespoon raspberry syrup and a few banana disks. Continue, adding ice cream, nuts and syrups and topping them with a banana half placed upright and held in place by a mound of whipped cream. Arrange a few maraschino cherries around the edge of the glass. Insert American flags and dust with candy sprinkles.

WATERMELON BOMBE (10 to 12 servings)

"Make It Easy Entertaining" by Laurie Burrows Grad (Tarcher, 1984) includes this amusing recipe for watermelon bombe that makes summer entertaining a cinch.

1 quart green ice cream or ices (pistachio, mint, lime, etc.), softened

3 ounces chocolate chips

1 quart pink ice cream (peppermint, strawberry, raspberry, etc.), softened

Line a 5- or 6-cup rounded mixing bowl with plastic wrap, overlapping sides. Layer green ice cream 1 to 2 inches thick on bottom and up sides of bowl. Freeze until hard. Fold chocolate chips into pink ice cream and fill cavity of mold with mixture. Cover completely with plastic wrap and freeze until hard, 1 to 2 hours or longer. To unmold, open plastic wrap to expose top, place platter on top of bowl and invert. Remove remaining plastic, slice in wedge-shaped pieces and serve immediately.