Poor bread!

People who will attempt almost any kind of cooking, from elaborate pastry-clad creations such as beef Welington to 24-ingredient Chinese dishes from some obscure province, are afraid to tackel it. Or more specifically, bread made with yeast.

Since these same, almost-accomplished cooks are often willing to prepare baking powder breads, which rise on their own and don't require naykneading, the bread mystique must have something to do with the vagaries of a living organism (namely the yeast) and the proper technique for kneading.

But other imponderables of bread baking come to mind, too: How do you know when the dough is doubled in volume? What does it mean to "punch down?" What's a "warm place" for rising? What's a stiff dough, or a soft dough? How can you tell when the dough is "smooth and elastic?"

Bread baking is not an exact science, no matter how often recipes specify precise amounts of ingredients. But the only way to deal with the mental block against it is to plunge in and get the feel of the yeast dough. If you are afraid to go it alone, a well-illustrated book on bread baking is helpful. One that is relatively inexpensive with good illustrations and good directions is "The Redbook Breadbook," edited by Redbook food either Elizabeth Alston (Grosset & Dunlop, $5.95). If you decide you really love bread baking after all, one of the finest books on the market is "The Complete Book of Breads" by Bernar Clayton Jr. (Simon and Schuster, $12.50)

Novices may find some of the followings hints on bread baking of sufficient interest to spur them on.

The amount of flour is always approximate because it will absorb varying amounts of moisture depending on the humidity. Because the amount of flour used can never be exact, it isn't necessary to sift it before measuring.

Whole wheat flour can be substituted for white flour in a recipe. The loaf will be denser and will not rise as much. There are two schools of thought on substitutions. One says that finely milled whole wheat flour can be substituted on one-to-one basis for white flour, the other says that 3/4 cup whole wheat flour should be substituted for each cup of white flour and the shortening should be reduced by using 2 tablespoons for every 3 called for. In addition, a bit more liquid may be needed - a couple of tablespoons or more for breads. This second method is more complicated but likely to result in a better product.

Yeast is a living organism and it does have to be treated with some care. Compressed yeast must be refregerated. It can also be frozen for several months and defrosted just before using.Dry yeast keeps in a cool dry place. Except for those available in health food stores, most dry yeasts contain the preservative BHT. Both kinds of yeast should be dissolved in warm water; compressed yeast in lukewarm water! Each package of yeast contains a scant tablespoon. Brewer's yeast cannot be substituted for baking yeast.

Yeast feeds on sugars and produces carbon dioxide which is what causes the dough to rise. It is most active when the temperature is between 78 and 80 degrees. It begans to die when the temperature hits 120 and more than likely is completely dead when 140 degrees is reached.

A little additional sugar in a recipe increases the activity of the yeast. Too much inhibits it. Salt controls or inhibits the yeast action.

Ingredients should be at room temperature: Cold or cool ingredients slow down the rising.

Breads made with water and without fat have crisp crusts! Milk produces a smooth crust.

Fat, whether it's butter or vegetable oil, producers a soft crust and a bread which will keep longer.

Kneading develops the gluten which ensures that the dough will trap the gas given off by the yeast. The best surgaces for kneading are wood, not marble or stainless, which are too cold just the surface lightly with flour; add more flour as needed to keep the dough from sticking.

Kneading is a very firm motion of lifting the edges of the dough toward you and pushing them away with the heel of your hand. Turn the dough as you knead. When the directions say "until smooth and elastic," the description is appropriate. The dough, which has been crumbly, sticky and floury, loses all of these qualities and becomes smooth. It also "bounces back," like an elastic.

A warm place in which the dough can rise would include the back of a turned off oven, the back of a television or radio, the top of a refregerator.In the summer, the sun does a fine job.

Punching down is literally that. You do it several times to the dough that has risen in order to expel the gas bubbles.

The best place to bake bread is in the center shelf of the oven. If you have two loaves, leave a couple of inches between the pans.

To test the load to see if it's baked, remove it from the plan and insert the thin blade of a knife or a cake tester through the bottom. If any dough clings to it, the bread is not baked. Return it to the pan and put it back in ithe oven.

Unless directions say otherwise, cool loaves of bread on wire racks or the water vapor which is given off by the cooling process will be reabsorbed by the bread and make it soggy.

Refrigerating breads hastens staling, but it retards molding. Refrigerated breads can be freshened by toasting.

Breads freeze very well. LAVASH

(Armenian Thin Bread)

(14 pieces) 1/2 package dry yeast 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar 3 1/2 cups unbleached flour

(about) 1/4 cup melted butter, cooled 1 1/2 teaspoons salt

Sprinkle yeast and 1/2 teaspoon sugar over 2 tablespoons water in small bowl. Allow to stand for a couple of minutes so yeast is completely dissolved. Place flour in large bowl and make well in the center. Pour yeast mixture into well with 1 cup warm water, butter, salt and remaining sugar. With spoon blend ingredients into flour. Then knead on floured surface until dough is soft and elastic adding flour as needed. Shape into ball. Place in oiled bowl, turning dough to coat surface. Cover dough with towel and allow to rise in warm draft-free place until dauble in bulk, about 3 hours.

Punch dough down; divide into 14 pieces. On a lightly floured board roll out each part into a cirle about 9 or 10 inches in diameter. Place on baking sheet and prick surface of dough with fork. Bake at 450 about 5 or 6 minutes or until golden brown. Cool on rack. Repeat rolling and baking until all of dough is used. Store in tightly covered container. BRIOCHE

(8 to 10) 1 package yeast 1/4 cup lukewarm water 2 cups flour 3 eggs, plus 1 egg yolk 3/4 cup sweet butter 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon sugar.

Dissovle yeast in lukewarm water. Stir in 1/2 cup flour until it forms a stiff ball. Turn cut on lightly floured surface and knead a little to get a smooth surface. Cut a cross on the top of the ball and drop into a pitcher of lukewarm water! Let ball rise to the top (it will take about 5 to 7 munutes).

Spoon 1 1/2 cups flour onto pastry board. Make a well in the center and break in 2 eggs. Begin to knead the paste, adding the third egg little by little, to make a soft dough. Then pick up and crash down onto board about 100 times. The dough will be elastic when it detaches itself cleanly from the fingers.

Knead the butter with the salt and sugar and then knead it into the dough. Mix it thoroughly by gently. Be sure not to ovrerwork dough or it will lose its elasticity. Remove ball of sponge from water and drain on towel. Add it to dough, cutting and folding in. Add it to dough, cutting and folding in. Form into the ball and put it in flaoured bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and damp towel. Let it rise in warm place until double in bulk, about 2 hours. Turn the dough out onto lightly floured board and punch down. Return ot bowl and chill for 6 hours, or overnight. It will rise a little.

Punch down. Place dough on ligtly floured durface and shape 2/3 of dough into 2-inch balls. From the remaining 1/3 of dough make an equal number of "hats," ashaped like a pear. Place the 2-inch balls in 3-inch fluted brioched molds or plain muffin tins. Cut a cross in the top of the ball or make a depression with your thumb and fit a "hat" into each depression. (Be sure the base does not fill the mold more than half full.) Cover and let rise about 30 minute or until double in bulk. Cut around the base of the "hat" to keep it separate from the body during baking.

Brash surface of brioche with a mixture of the egg yolk and 1 tablespoon water. Bake at 425 degees for 15 to 20 minutes, until golden.

FOR ONE LARGE BRIOCHE: Fill fluted brioche mold half full and make a "hat" with remaining dough, following procedure above. Bake at 425 degrees for about 30 minutes, until golden. PITA BREAD

(24 pieces)

Also known as Arab bread, it comes dark and ligh - made either with white or whole flour. The whole wheat pita has more flavor. 2 1/4 cups warm water 1 envelope active dry yeast 1 tablespoon salt 3 1/4 cups unbleached flour 3 1/4 cups whole wheat graham or whole wheat flour Corn meal Water 2 tablespoons sesame seed (optional)

Combine water and yeast in a larger bowl: let stand 2 minutes. Stir in salt and 3 cups unbleached flour, mix until smooth and then beat for 3 to 4 minutes. Gradually stir in 3 cups of whole wheat flour; add more whole wheat flour if needed to make stiff dough. Turn our dough onto a well-floured surface (use some of remaiining flour) and knead for 5 minutes, adding flour as needed to prevent sticking.

Place dough in greased bowl;trun once to bring greased side up. Cover and let rise until double in volume. Allow 2 to 2 1/2 hours in a cool room, or 1 to 1 1/4 hours if the room is warm.

Punch dough down and turn out onto lightly floured surface. Cut into 24 pieces (2 ounces each, if you have a scale.) Knead each piece briefly, form into a ball and place, smooth side up, on a counter. Cover the balls and let stand for 5 minutes.

Put quarry tiles on bottom rack of oven. Or you may cook bread on floor of oven if no heating element is exposed, put a backing sheet on the bottom rack of the even. Heat on to 450 degrees.

Roll or pat each ball of dough into a cirlce 6 inches in diameter. When four or five cirles are shaped, pick them up with a large metal spatula; or better yet, use a baking sheet that has a flat tiles or heated baking sheet. Bake for 6 minutes. Bread will ballon. Remove from oven and, if desired, brown breifly under a broiler. Cool pita on baking sheets; bread will collapse as it cools. When completely cool, store in plastic bag to keep them soft. Pita freezes well.

-From "The Redbook Breadbook," edited by Elizabeth Alston CORNELL BREAD (2 loaves)

Developed for its high protein content in the 1940s, the bread is named for the university where it was created. 3 cups warm water 2 packages yeast 2 tablespoons honey 1 cup instant non-fat dry milk powder 6 1/2 to - cups unbleached flour 1/4 cup wheat germ 1/2 cup soy flour 4 teaspoons salt 2 tablespoons butter.

Combine water, yeast and honey in large mixing bowl; let stand a couple of minutes. Stir in milk powder and 3 cups unbleached flour, wheat flour, wheat germ, soy flour, salt and butter, beat for 2 minues. Stir in 3 1/4 cups flour. Turn dough out onto flaured board and kead for about 10 minutes, until dough is smooth and elastic. Use more flour, as necessary, to keep dough from stivcking.

Place dough in greased bowl; turn dough to grease! Cover and let rise in warm place until double in bulk, 1 to 4 1/4 hours. Punch dough down. Turn out on floured surface and divide in half. Shape each into load to fit into greased9-by-5-by-3 minutes or until golden. Gool loaves on rack.