Etiquette authority Letitia Baldrige considers breakfast in bed "the most exquisite thing in the world." She's so much a fan of the practice that when she got married 24 years ago, she began each morning by preparing a breakfast tray for her husband, Robert Hollensteiner.

After five days of toast and eggs and coffee, word was handed down. Her husband admitted he hated eating in bed. He hated the crumbs. He hated noshing amidst pillows and blankets. It was the last time Baldrige served him such a spread. "Nor has he served me," sighed the former White House social secretary recently. "I'm always up before he is!"

Just as there are people who fail to cry at the end of "Casablanca," one can reason, there are those who don't like breakfast in bed.

Still -- aside from the making of chicken soup, perhaps -- few culinary acts demonstrate more care and affection than pampering someone with breakfast in bed. And with the possible exceptions of a shared sunset, candle-lit dinner or unlimited quantities of chocolate and champagne devoured before an open hearth, what could be more romantic than a trayful of breakfast food, lovingly prepared and served by the object of your desires?

Given that Valentine's Day falls on a Sunday this year, there's more time for the cook to be creative -- and more time for the lucky recipient to linger under the covers.

Here are a few suggestions for gracefully, safely and deliciously executing breakfast in bed, from those who know the subject best:

Break Out the Bubbly

Freshly squeezed orange juice is a wonderful addition to the breakfast tray. So's freshly ground, just-brewed coffee. But no drink denotes romance better than champagne. And for Valentine's Day, why not think pink?

Few wines are as difficult to make as rose' champagne; the effects of pigmentation are not wholly predictable (producers can end up with blue, yellow, brown or orange bubbly), and partly because of this, champagne producers make it less frequently than they do the classical golden champagnes.

So the good stuff commands high prices. According to Ed Sands, owner of Calvert Woodley Wines & Liquors, a bottle of top of the line rose' champagne will set you back from $83.95 for Taittinger rose' to $91.95 for Dom Perignon's. (Even pricier is the hard-to-find Roederer Cristal Rose', which sells for about $125.)

For less lofty budgets, Sands recommends Charbaut Certificate Rose' ($49.95), or either Charbaut ($21.95) or Bruno Paillard ($19.95). Cheaper still, notes Steve Silver of Pearson's Liquor & Wine Annex, are those French sparkling wines made according to the champagne method, such as Bouvet Brut Rose', available for a modest $7.99.

And a few tips for serving from New York's Champagne News and Information Bureau:

Champagne should be cooled, not frozen. If served too warm, the wine will foam excessively and quickly lose its sparkle. If served too cold, it will lose its fragrance. Place the bottle in the least cold section of the refrigerator (not the freezing compartment) for a few hours before opening.

For a soft "pop" with no loss of froth, handle the bottle gently (shaking activates bubbles). Hold the bottle in one hand, and with the other, unwind and remove the wire muzzle. Hold the cork firmly in one hand, and tilt the bottle slightly, away from you and guests, at a 45-degree angle. Twist the bottle (not the cork) slowly in one direction and pull the bottle down gently and gradually. Eventually, the cork will ease itself out almost noiselessly.

To pour, wipe the brim and the bottle itself. Hold the bottle with your thumb in the bottom indentation and your fingers supporting it along its length. Pour a small quantity into each glass, then fill about two-thirds full after any foam has subsided. To prevent dripping, give the bottle a quarter turn after each glass is poured. Color It Romantic

Don't stop with pink champagne. Jazz up the breakfast tray with colors appropriate to the day, such as red (red caviar, cranberries, apples, cherries, tomatoes, hot raspberry soup); white (pears, white chocolate, milk, goat cheese); and pink (cream of tomato soup, pink peppercorns, pink grapefruit, poached salmon, and pink bagels). Pink bagels? The Chesapeake Bagel Bakery in Falls Church is offering fresh strawberry bagels with strawberry cream cheese ($4.39 for a baker's dozen) Friday through Sunday. To place an order call 534-3533.

Eric Michael, coowner of Occasions Catering, suggests a crudite' assortment teaming jicama with cherry tomatoes and strips of red bell peppers with white radishes, all arranged in a heart shape. Or, Michael's personal favorite, an assortment of strawberries and raspberries macerated in Cointreau.

For a more glamorous and substantial breakfast offering, the local caterer offers the following romantic red-and-white menu, pairing turbot with a lively, citrus-accented coulis:

OCCASIONS' TURBOT QUENELLES WITH PEPPER-LIME COULIS (8 servings)

2 1/2 pounds turbot fillet (sole may be substituted)

2 whole eggs

2 egg whites

2 cups whipping cream

1/2 teaspoon salt

Dash white pepper

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

2 cups fish or chicken stock

2 cups dry white wine

1 sweet red bell pepper

1 1/2 cups pepper-lime coulis (recipe follows)

FOR THE PEPPER-LIME COULIS:

(Makes 1 1/2 cups)

4 roasted red peppers, skin removed

2 whole limes, coarsely chopped

2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

3 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon white pepper

To make the pepper-lime coulis: Roast the peppers under the broiler or over an open flame until charred. Place in a paper bag for 5 minutes to steam. Remove the stem, seeds and charred skin.

In a food processor, pure'e the peppers and the limes. With the machine still running, add the vinegar and olive oil. Strain the coulis through a fine sieve, pressing any solids with a wooden spoon. Whisk in the salt and pepper to taste. (This can be made a day in advance and warmed up before serving with quenelles, or else served room temperature.)

To make the quenelles: Rinse and dry fillets and remove skin with a sharp knife. Pure'e the fish in a food processor and add the whole eggs and the egg whites. Pure'e until smooth. Chill the turbot-egg mixture for several hours (or overnight if desired).

In an electric mixer set on high, whip together the fish pure'e, the cream and the seasonings. Chill this mixture for at least 2 hours or overnight.

Pour stock and white wine into a deep saute' pan and bring to a simmer. Shape the chilled pure'e into egg-shapes using a large soup spoon and a rotating motion. Lower the quenelles into the poaching liquid. Do not overcrowd. Cover the pan and allow to simmer for 10 minutes (do not boil). Gently turn the quenelles and simmer for another 6 minutes. With a slotted spoon, remove quenelles onto a plate and keep warm in a 300-degree oven, lightly covered with foil.

Remove the stem and seeds from the red pepper and with a sharp knife cut into fine julienne strips.

Gently warm the pepper-lime coulis in a small saucepan over medium heat. On a warmed serving platter, pour a pool of the coulis and arrange the quenelles in a star pattern. Spoon a little of the coulis over the quenelles and garnish with the julienne of red pepper.

Minding Your Manners

Ivor Spencer, the head of Britain's premier butlers' training school -- the International School for Butler Administrators and Housekeepers -- calls breakfast "the most difficult meal of the day." After all, it's not much fun having to rouse someone in the morning.

Still, there are ways to smooth the waking up process. Spencer -- who personally orchestrates countless receptions for hosts entertaining the British royal family -- instructs his students to first softly knock, draw the drapes, offer the weather, and only then, turn on the lights. Any messages (read: Valentine's Day cards) should be placed on a separate plate atop the breakfast tray.

Up to that point, sound guidance. Liberated couples might chafe, however, at Spencer's further direction to "run the bath and lay out two sets of clothes" for the master or mistress of the house.

And what about messes?

The manager of one of the area's most exclusive hotels informs us that a crumb-free breakfast is less a problem than discretion when entering a guest's room. He informs his room service staff to "knock, knock and knock again" before entering a guest's bedroom suite.

Problems have arisen in the past, he explained, "when when one voice says 'come in' and the other party is not quite ready to receive" a guest -- no doubt good advice for kids planning to serve breakfast to their parents. Healthful Alternatives

Mothers and nutritionists have drummed into our heads that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Mary Goodwin, chief nutritionist with the Montgomery County Health Department, points out that a third of our daily caloric intake should be at breakfast. By eating breakfast, she adds, you're likely to consume less throughout the day.

An alternative to the trencherman's repast of eggs, bacon, coffee and danish, suggests Goodwin, might include something like raspberries layered with yogurt and served in a tall parfait, fresh fruit sprinkled with oat bran and a layer of yogurt, or, for an even more glamorous effect, a variety of fruit served on a skewer.

Or perhaps the following healthful option to serving pancakes bathed in butter and syrup:

COTTAGE CHEESE PANCAKES (About 4 servings)

1 egg

4 egg whites

1 cup small curd lowfat cottage cheese

1/3 cup unbleached flour

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon grated orange rind

1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar

Fresh berries

In a medium bowl, beat egg and 1 egg white until thick.

Blend cottage cheese in a blender, and to the egg mixture add cheese, flour, sugar and orange rind. Add cream of tartar to remaining 3 egg whites. Beat egg whites until stiff, but not dry. Fold into the cottage cheese mixture.

Make small (about 4 inches in diameter) pancakes, using a nonstick grill or frying pan over medium heat. To finish, place fresh strawberries, raspberries or cherries in the center of each pancake, roll up and garnish with additional fruit and yogurt, if desired.

The Tender Touch

No one knows breakfast like Marion Cunningham, the woman who brought us the revised version of "The Fannie Farmer Cookbook," "The Fannie Farmer Baking Book" and, most recently, "The Breakfast Book," a homey tribute to the likes of baked bananas, raw apple muffins and pulled breads.

Her idea of the perfect breakfast in bed, she says, would have to include the Coach House Bread Pudding: "It's so absolutely perfect to eat, very soft, very tender, so very pure," purrs Cunningham. Made from such uncomplicated ingredients as cream, eggs, butter and bread, "there's nothing that could beat that for romantic." Then again, she jokingly reconsidered, "maybe I'm confusing romantic with fattening!"

And to wash it down? "A cup of hot chocolate with a good piece of chocolate floating in the cup," recommends the author.

THE COACH HOUSE BREAD AND BUTTER PUDDING (10 servings)

This recipe originally came from Leon Lianides, owner of The Coach House in New York. Don't overbake the pudding -- remove it from the oven when the center still trembles slightly.

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, room temperature

12 or 13 slices french bread (not sourdough), crusts removed

5 eggs

4 egg yolks

1 cup sugar

1/8 teaspoon salt

4 cups milk

1 cup whipping cream

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

Confectioners' sugar for sprinkling

Butter one side of each slice of bread and set aside.

Put the eggs, yolks, sugar and salt in a large bowl and beat until thoroughly mixed.

Pour the milk and cream into a heavy-bottomed saucepan and heat until scalded (tiny bubbles will form around the edge of the pan). Remove from heat and, whisking briskly, slowly add the egg mixture. Stir in vanilla.

Have ready enough boiling water to come 2 1/2 inches up the sides of a pot large enough to hold a 2-quart baking dish. Layer the bread, buttered side up, in the baking dish. Strain the custard into the dish (the bread will float to the top). Put the pot of boiling water into a 375-degree oven and then put the custard-filled dish into it.

Bake about 45 minutes, or until the custard is set except for a slight tremble in the center. Remove from the oven and sprinkle confectioners' sugar on top.

This is delicious hot or cold, and perfect with a little unsweetened cream poured over.

From "The Breakfast Book" by Marion Cunningham (Knopf, 1987)

Cereal From Scratch

Americans love cereal -- last year we consumed more than 2 billion pounds of the ready-to-eat variety alone, according to SAMI/Burke, the country's largest syndicated research company. We also like variety, it seems: The research company reports that 142 brands of ready-to-eat cereal did at least a million dollars in sales last year. And that's not even counting the hot stuff.

Valentine's Day calls for something more elaborate than Fruit Loops, Lucky Charms and Wheaties, though. If your beloved nonetheless insists on cereal in bed, try your hand at making it from scratch. You'll never go back to plain old granola after you sample the divine concoction blended by the Park Hyatt's Melrose kitchen:

MELROSE'S NUT AND GRAIN CEREAL (Makes about 3 quarts, or about 2 1/2 pounds cereal)

2/3 cup sesame seeds

1/2 cup slivered almonds

1/2 cup shelled sunflower seeds

1/4 cup melted butter or margarine

3/4 cup unroasted cashew nuts

1 cup unsweetened shredded coconut

1/3 cup light sesame seed oil

4 cups old fashioned rolled oats

1/3 cup or more honey

3/4 cup dried currants

In a large ungreased skillet over moderate high heat, toast sesame seeds until lightly browned, stirring frequently. Turn seeds out into a bowl, and in the same skillet toast almonds until lightly browned, stirring frequently. Add sunflower seeds and continue to toast and stir until mixture is golden brown. Add mixture to the sesame seeds. In the same skillet, melt butter and add cashews; toast until lightly browned, stirring frequently. Add coconut and continue to toast and stir until mixture is golden brown. Add cashews and coconut to sesame seed mixture.

In a wok or the same skillet heat oil over moderately high heat. Add oats, and toast until lightly browned, stirring frequently. Add sesame seed mixture and honey to the oats and heat mixture 5 minutes, stirring frequently. Turn mixture into an ungreased pan and spread it evenly. Bake 10 to 15 minutes at 350 degrees, or until mixture is a rich golden brown color. Remove from oven and stir in currants. Line a second pan with four thicknesses of paper towels and place pan on a wire cake rack. Turn mixture onto the paper towels and spread it out evenly. Cover with four additional thicknesses of paper towels and allow mixture to cool completely. Break it up into chunks and store in jars with tight-fitting lids. The English Emphasis

Jokes about their culinary ineptitude aside, we have the English to thank for high tea. And the grand English breakfast, of course. When guests stay with local bed-and-breakfast proprietor Ann Edwards, a British native residing on Capitol Hill, they are usually treated to the likes of her pleasantly sweet and crisp Welsh cakes and comforting bacon floddies, which resemble savory pancakes. (Which makes us wish we could reserve a room on Valentine's Day. Come Sunday, Edwards plans to break out her aunt's homemade plum and red currant preserves, whip up some heart-shaped waffles, saute' some apples in butter and Bulmers cider, and accompany it all with a pot of steaming English tea -- and demerara sugar, naturally.)

WELSH CAKES (Makes 12 to 15 cakes)

Edwards notes that these were originally served to travelers on their arrival at an inn while waiting for supper.

1 3/4 cups flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter

1/3 cup sugar plus extra for sprinkling

1/4 cup raisins

1 egg

Milk (if dough is too thick)

Sift flour and salt and rub in butter. Stir in sugar and raisins. Beat egg and add to flour mixture. Knead to a firm dough. Roll out to 1/4-inch thickness and cut into 3-inch circles on a lightly floured surface. Preheat a heavy frying pan and cook cakes until lightly browned (no grease is necessary). Turn, and cook the other side until lightly browned. Sprinkle with sugar and dab top with butter.

BACON FLODDIES (Makes 15 to 20 small cakes)

1/2 pound (about 2 medium) potatoes, peeled

2 medium onions

About 6 strips bacon, cooked and finely chopped

1/2 cup flour

Salt and pepper to taste

2 eggs

Drippings, or oil for frying

Grate potatoes and onions. Add finely chopped bacon, flour and salt and pepper if desired. Stir in eggs. In a large skillet heat drippings or oil, and add potato mixture by tablespoonfuls to form small cakes. Gently fry both sides until browned. Serve with bacon or sausage and fried eggs for a hearty winter breakfast.

Thinking Ahead Obviously no one wants to get stuck too long in the kitchen, away from the object of his or her desire. To that end, there are a number of things you might do to make the Sunday morning cooking move along more quickly.

For starters, prepare muffin, pancake and waffle batter a day in advance. Macerate fruit overnight.

Scoop out melons, fill them with berries, cover and chill, then serve them as a quick first course as you're preparing the rest of the breakfast.

For a really impressive wake-up meal, local cooking instructor Marcia Fox offers the following menu of orange and rhubarb compote and a main dish of baked eggs and shrimp, the ingredients for which can be assembled the day before:

ORANGE AND RHUBARB COMPOTE (2 generous servings)

1 juice orange

2/3 cup sugar

Dash cinnamon

2 cups (about 10 ounces) frozen rhubarb

2 navel oranges

1 tablespoon cognac

Remove zest from orange with a potato peeler. Cut zest into long julienne strips. Blanch strips by dropping them in boiling water for 30 seconds. Drain and reserve. Squeeze the orange and pour juice into a small saucepan. Add sugar and cinnamon and bring to a boil.

Place rhubarb in a 1-quart casserole with a lid. Distribute orange zest over rhubarb, then pour orange juice over. Cover and bake 20 minutes in a 350-degree oven, or until tender.

Meanwhile, peel and slice navel oranges, being sure to remove all of the white pith. Slice them crosswise and quarter each slice.

When rhubarb is tender, add orange pieces and cognac, stirring in gently. Cover and allow flavors to mellow overnight. Serve cold.

(Note: Frozen rhubarb is found in the frozen vegetable section of most supermarkets. It is currently available at Giant stores.)

BAKED EGGS AND SHRIMP (2 generous servings)

4 hard-cooked eggs, shelled

6 ounces medium size shrimp, cooked and shelled

1 tablespoon butter or margarine

1 tablespoon flour

1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon half-and-half, hot

1/2 teaspoon prepared mustard

1/4 teaspoon salt

Dash white pepper (preferably freshly ground)

1 tablespoon dry white wine

1 1/2 teaspoons capers, drained

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

1/8 teaspoon thyme

1/4 cup gruye`re or other swiss cheese, shredded

Have all ingredients assembled before starting. Butter a shallow, 1-quart casserole (or 2 individual 2-cup ramekins.) Slice eggs and arrange half of the eggs in the casserole. Sprinkle shrimp over eggs, then top with remaining slices. Melt butter in a small pot and stir in flour. Cook, stirring constantly for 2 minutes, but do not brown mixture. Add hot half-and-half, all at once. Bring mixture back to a boil and cook, stirring, another 30 seconds. Remove from heat and stir in remaining ingredients, except cheese. Pour sauce over eggs. Sprinkle with cheese. If not baking immediately, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

When ready to bake, uncover casserole and bake in a 425-degree oven about 15 minutes, until piping hot and bubbly. Serve immediately.

Looks Count Of course, the way food tastes is every bit as important as how it's presented.

Butter looks and tastes better when whipped together with any of the following: pure'ed strawberries or a combination of orange zest/orange juice and a bit of honey; a blend of Grand Marnier and confectioners' sugar; or a savory melange of herbs, such as parsley, tarragon, chervil and dill.

Perk up a cup of coffee by inserting a stick of cinnamon, which is as practical (use it as a stirrer) as it is flavorful.

For a spicier applesauce, add tiny red hot cinnamon candies to the mixture and warm over medium heat; this not only lends a zippy note, but tinges the sauce pink. Serve warm or chilled.

Untraditional Traditions

Just because you serve a traditional breakfast doesn't mean it has to be prepared traditionally.

At Prospect Hill in Trevilians, Va., near Charlottesville, requests for breakfast in bed "average 80 percent," according to innkeeper Bill Sheehan, who boasts of working fireplaces in nine of 10 guest rooms. Big country breakfasts are the order of the day. But instead of frying bacon, Sheehan prefers to bake it (place strips on a parchment paper-lined cookie sheet, and bake for 15 to 20 minutes til crisp). He also likes to steam his scrambled eggs, which makes for a "softer, fluffier" dish. Here's how:

For two servings, melt a tablespoon of butter in a heavy pan (preferably cast-iron). Lightly beat 5 eggs and stir in a tablespoon of water. Pour mixture into the greased skillet, dot with 3 ounces of cream cheese, and cover tightly. After 1 minute, remove lid and stir. Cover and cook an additional 2 minutes over medium high heat. Remove from stove top, and using a spatula, invert egg on a plate. Sprinkle with fresh chopped chives.

To enhance the flavor of cooked ham slices, breakfast authority Marion Cunningham suggests soaking them in a milk bath, in a 400-degree oven for about 10 minutes.

Have a Heart

How to present it all? Consider transforming those muffins, cakes and cookies into heart-shaped edibles, or serving breakfast from heart-decorated dishes with heart-embellished utensils.

A survey of local cookware shops turned up heart-shaped waffle irons, flan rings, cake pans, doilies, dish towels, copper trays and pitchers at Williams-Sonoma (various locations in the metropolitan area); aprons, refrigerator magnets, mugs, paper plates, napkin rings, cookie cutters, paper baking cups and sturdy white plastic bed trays at Kitchen Bazaar (four locations in the metropolitan area); cookie cutters, mugs, baskets and cake pans at Kitchen Thyme (The Village Centre in Great Falls, 759-4677); cast-iron muffin tins, tea towels, puff pastry cutters and tart molds at La Cuisine (323 Cameron Street in Alexandria, 836-4435); porcelain and copper molds, cookie cutters, cake pans, red-and-white grinders/colanders/and espresso makers, mugs and round rattan breakfast trays at Coffee Connection (1627 Connecticut Ave. NW. 483-8050); cake pans and cookie cutters at Daily Grind (1613 Connecticut Ave. NW. 265-3348); and cookie cutters, cake pans and doilies at The China Closet (three locations in the metropolitan area).