CERTAIN sentimental occasions -- a significant birthday or friends' impending marriage -- connote celebrations more steeped in tradition than a cocktail party or brunch. It is on such occasions that Catherine Morrison, director of public policy for The Conference Board, revives her version of the afternoon tea.

The concept is not as novel today as when Morrison began this mode of entertaining many years ago. Afternoon tea, with a glass of champagne or sherry, is becoming an increasingly popular alternative to meeting for cocktails.

The setting and protocol for the proper tea has become a business in Los Angeles for Samantha Just, a transplanted Englishwoman who consults with restaurants and individuals who want to bring proper authenticity to the occasion.

"What people in this country have a tendency to call high tea is really afternoon tea," Just said. "High tea is really an early dinner and always includes some sort of hot dish such as a Welsh rarebit. High tea was the dinner for the working class, while afternoon tea was for the upper class since they dined much later."

Rather than seeking the traditional, Morrison will tailor the menu for her tea to the guest of honor, making his or her favorite sweet ("I've found that almost everyone asks for childhood things") and also including a few trays of traditional cucumber, watercress and smoked salmon sandwiches. But from experience she knows they will be all but ignored, so most of her energy and attention go into the desserts.

She believes that the buffet table must look as opulent as the window of a pastry shop, and visualizes the table before selecting the recipes. She inverts baskets and places pedestaled cake plates to create a still-life of heights on the table, and then will start by selecting one spectacular construction appropriate to the season -- a French crocumbouche from hundreds of miniature cream puffs around Christmas or a tall meringue-shell, filled with strawberries macerated in Grand Marnier for spring.

Some of the cakes can be simple loaves of pound cake to be topped with fruit from the fresh fruit salad always included as one of the offerings. She has a minimum of two chocolate desserts, since she finds they are everyone's favorites, and then fills in with other cakes and pastries that can be served at room temperature.

In addition to the fruit, she will frequently make some cold souffl,es or mousses during the summer since they serve as a mid-point between fresh fruit and the richer options.

Some of her recipes bring back memories from many years of baking. Two of her favorite cake recipes (one included here) were brought overfrom Vienna almost 50 years ago, and she thinks of the friend who shared them with her every time she makes them.

For serving, she will cut things ahead, or cut a few slices to indicate the best way of slicing, such as a chocolate roll cut on a diagonal or squares of plum cake. Since excess is part of the reason for the party, Morrison will put out dinner plates rather than dessert plates.

"I don't like different sauces to run together on the plate, and this way people can try a few desserts at once and not have it look as if their plates are full," she said.

While all of the food is located on the dining room table of her Victorian town house in Georgetown, she positions ice buckets with champagne in the living room and brick-floored garden as well to entice people into other areas and avoid congestion around the table. The tea service is mainly a prop since most people drink champagne.

She thinks her guests like the afternoon tea for several reasons. "Tea doesn't involve their total day the way a luncheon or brunch tends to do, and I've found that people really do go to some effort to dress for the theme. Most of the women actually wear hats and gloves, if only for their entrance, and dress in very feminine dresses during the summer that look like flowers in the garden," she said.

One problem with giving a tea: "You have to canvass your friends to borrow cake servers, unless you're one of the few people who owns about a dozen," says Morrison. CHOCOLATE CHERRY

CAKE EVA (Makes 1 cake to serve

8 to 10)

13/4 sticks unsalted butter

11/4 cups sugar

4 eggs

1/3 cup flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 cup chocolate chips, melted

2 1-pound cans sour pitted cherries, drained

Confectioners' sugar Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

In a mixing bowl, beat the butter with the sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, and continue to beat well.

Mix together the flour and baking powder, and add to the batter, along with the melted chocolate.

Pour the batter into a nine-inch springform pan, and cover the top with the cherries, arranging them in an even layer.

Cover the top of the pan with a double layer of tin foil, and bake in the center of the oven for 45 minutes. Reduce the heat to 325 degrees, remove the foil from the top of the pan, and bake the cake an additional 30 minutes.

The cherries will now be at the bottom of the pan. Cool the cake on a rack, remove the sides of the pan, and dust the top of the cake with powdered sugar before serving.