Years ago it was fashionable to lunch or take afternoon coffee at a tearoom, where a dazzling array of small muffins, loaves, cakes and biscuit-like things was offered on a tea cart. You would choose, perhaps, a slice of fruit bread, a small sweet cake or a petite grainy muffin.

These quick breads, or tea breads as they are poetically known, accompanied soup or salad. Served with a hot or iced drink, quick breads were a light refreshment consumed in mid-afternoon. These were oven-fresh breads, served unadorned save a little ramekin of softened sweet butter or jam. Oftentimes, small sandwiches were constructed on the savory seasoned biscuits and muffins, making for a more substantial snack.

Now, as we return to hearty homestyle cooking, these quick breads are back in favor because of their wholesome, comforting taste.

A quick bread is so named because it is leavened with fast-acting baking powder or baking soda (and sometimes a combination of both), rather than by yeast. The batter or dough can be assembled in minutes, spooned into a pan or individual tins and baked immediately.

Best savored while warm and fresh, they can be made ahead and reheated gently in a warm oven; enclose the bread in a square of aluminum foil, seal and place the package on a cookie sheet to heat through at 300 degrees.

A good quick bread, be it sweet or savory, has a moist crumb and a light texture. The baked bread should be well risen -- generally rising to twice its original volume -- and flavorful -- tasting of pure ingredients. Muffins should be plump, with rounded tops, and loaves should rise full and tall. Occasionally, a sweet quick bread will crack down the center as it rises in the oven; the crack actually allows the steam to escape during baking and in no way will affect the quality of the finished loaf (a lengthwise crack is almost traditional).

Quick breads are easy and effortless to put together, but it is important to observe these two points:

Dry ingredients (flour, leavening, spices and sometimes sugar) should be combined thoroughly as each recipe indicates, either by stirring or sifting. The procedure of sifting or stirring serves to mix and aerate the dry ingredients, thus yielding a light bread.

When the flour mixture is combined with a blend of liquid ingredients (such as eggs, milk, melted butter or oil, plus flavorings), it should be done quickly, with a minimum of strokes, leaving a few small lumps in the batter; this ensures a tender texture, and the tiny lumps disappear into the batter during baking.

Warm from the oven, the following breads are delicious spread with softened sweet butter, whipped and flavored cream cheese, a fruit butter, marmalade or preserve.

The sweet loaf, cakes, and muffins are particularly good "morning" breads; they are gently spiced and nourishing, good with coffee, tea or milk. The tea cakes and the gingerbread muffins, still warm from the oven, can also be used like shortcake, that is, split, buttered and topped with sweetened berries or sliced fresh fruit and whipped cream. Either of the savory quick breads, the cornbread or the herbed pull-apart, would be a fine companion to hot or cold soup, a main course salad, and all manner of grilled food. APPLE-WALNUT LOAF (Makes one 10-inch loaf)

This lightly sweetened loaf is dotted with currants and bits of walnuts, and loaded with thin shreds of apple; the apple shreds seem to "melt" into the batter, making for a moist and flavorful bread.

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup walnuts, lightly toasted and coarsely chopped

1/4 cup moist, dried currants

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened at room temperature

3/4 cup sugar blended with 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice, and 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

2 extra-large or jumbo eggs, at room temperature

3 tablespoons light (table) cream or evaporated milk

1 large (6 ounces) tart cooking apple, peeled, cored and shredded using the large holes of a hand grater

Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt together onto a sheet of waxed paper. Combine the walnuts and currants in a bowl, add 1 tablespoon of the sifted flour mixture, and toss well; set aside.

Cream the butter in a large mixing bowl. Beat in the sugar mixture. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, blending well after each addition. Beat in the light cream or evaporated milk. Blend in the shredded apple. Add the sifted dry ingredients in 2 additions, beating slowly until the particles of flour have been absorbed. Fold through the floured walnuts and currants.

Pour and scrape the batter into a buttered and floured 10-by-3 3/4-by-3-inch loaf pan. Bake the bread on the lower third level of a 350-degree oven for about 50 minutes or until well-risen, plump, and a toothpick inserted into the center of the loaf withdraws clean.

Transfer the bread to a cooling rack and let stand for a minute or two before turning out onto a second rack. Turn the loaf rightside-up and let cool completely.

To serve, slice the bread thinly and offer a bowl of whipped butter (lightly spiced with ground cinnamon and nutmeg) for spreading, if you like.

BACON-FLECKED CORNBREAD (Makes one 8-inch square cake)

The buttermilk enriches this cake-like cornbread. The soft batter, interrupted by shards of crispy bacon, bakes to a golden conclusion in a plain 8-inch square pan.

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup yellow cornmeal, preferably stone ground

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme leaves (optional)

1 cup buttermilk, at room temperature

1 extra-large or jumbo egg, at room temperature

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled

2 tablespoons solid shortening, melted and cooled

1/3 cup crumbed crisply fried bacon

Stir together the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda, salt and optional thyme in a large mixing bowl. Whisk together the buttermilk, egg, melted butter and shortening in a medium-size bowl. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients, pour in the whisked buttermilk-egg mixture and scatter over the crumbled bacon. Using a wooden spoon, quickly combine everything with a few brief strokes to form a soft batter.

Pour and scrape the batter into a lightly buttered and floured 8-inch square baking pan. Bake the cornbread on the lower third level of a 425-degree oven for about 20 minutes or until the cornbread is firm to the touch. A toothpick inserted into the center of the bread will emerge clean and dry when the bread has baked through.

Transfer the bread to a cooling rack, and let stand 1 minute before inverting onto another rack. Invert again to turn the bread right side-up. Serve the bread warm and cut into thick fingers or squares.

GINGERBREAD MUFFINS (Makes about 15 2 3/4-inch muffins)

These are good-for-you muffins, packed full of all the spices and flavorings found in old-fashioned gingerbread. Serve the muffins with whipped cream cheese flavored with minced candied or preserved ginger.

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup whole-wheat flour

1/4 cup granulated sugar

1/4 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed

1 teaspoon ginger

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon allspice

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon cloves

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup buttermilk, at room temperature

1/2 cup plain, tasteless vegetable oil

2 large or extra-large eggs, at room temperature

1/4 cup light molasses

Sift together the all-purpose flour, whole-wheat flour, granulated sugar, brown sugar, ginger, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, cloves, baking soda and salt into a large mixing bowl. Whisk together the buttermilk, oil, eggs and molasses in a small mixing bowl. Make a large well in the center of the dry ingredients, pour in the egg-buttermilk blend and quickly combine everything together with a wooden spoon to form a batter. (The batter will be slightly lumpy.)

Spoon the batter into about 15 lightly buttered and floured 2 3/4-inch muffin cups (the number of cups is approximate as the depth of muffin tins varies from manufacturer to manufacturer); fill each cup 2/3 full.

Bake the muffins on the lower third level of a 400-degree oven for about 15 to 18 minutes or until risen and plump. A toothpick inserted in the center of a muffin will emerge clean and dry.

Transfer the muffins to a cooling rack, let cool for about a minute, then remove them to a bread basket. Serve the muffins warm.

Variation: To bake the batter in small, 1 3/4-inch, gem-size muffin cups, divide the batter between 24 to 30 buttered and floured muffin cups, filling the cups 2/3 full. Bake the muffins in a 400-degree oven as above, reducing the baking time to about 10 to 12 minutes, or until risen and plump. Cool and serve as directed above.

WHOLE WHEAT-CURRANT MUFFINS (Makes about 12 2 3/4-inch muffins)

Freshly made, these muffins are a special treat to serve at breakfast or teatime. The muffins have a fine-textured crumb even though they are made with whole-wheat flour. Partner the muffins with sweet butter that has been whipped with a generous sprinkling of ground cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg.

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon allspice

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 3/4 cups whole-wheat flour

1/2 cup moist, dried currants

1/2 cup solid shortening

1/4 cup sugar

1 extra-large or jumbo egg, at room temperature

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 cup milk, at room temperature

Sift together the all-purpose flour, baking powder, nutmeg, allspice and salt into a large mixing bowl. Stir in the whole-wheat flour and set aside. Put the currants in a small bowl, and stir in 2 teaspoons of the flour mixture.

Beat the shortening in another large mixing bowl, add the sugar and beat for 2 to 3 minutes or until lightened. Beat in the egg and vanilla. Alternately add the sifted flour mixture in 3 additions with the milk in 2 additions, beginning and ending with the sifted mixture. Fold through the currants.

Divide the batter between 12 lightly buttered and floured 2 3/4-inch muffin tins, mounding the batter toward the center.

Bake the muffins on the lower third level of a 450-degree oven for 15 minutes or until the muffins are well-risen and plump, and a toothpick inserted into the center of a muffin emerges clean and dry. (The muffins will also pull away slightly from the side of the tin.)

Transfer the muffins to a cooling rack, let stand for about a minute, then remove them to a bread basket. Serve the muffins warm.

Variation: To bake the batter in small, 1 3/4-inch, gem-size muffin cups, divide the batter between 20 to 25 buttered and floured cups, filling them almost full. Bake the muffins in a 450-degree oven for about 8 to 10 minutes or until well-risen, and a toothpick inserted in the center of one muffin emerges clean and dry. Cool and serve as directed above.

FRESH RASPBERRY TEA CAKES (Makes about 16 2 3/4-inch cakes)

These are soft and delicately textured small cakes, full of fresh raspberries winding their way through a spice-scented batter. Serve these small muffin-like cakes with softened sweet butter or a tangy lemon curd spread. Warm tea cakes can also be split open and topped with sliced fresh fruit or more berries and whipped cream, to be served as a special kind of shortcake.

2 cups all-purpose flour

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

3/4 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup sugar

2 extra-large eggs, at room temperature

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

1/2 cup plain, tasteless vegetable oil

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled

1 cup fresh, plump raspberries, picked over

Blend together the flour, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and salt in a large mixing bowl. Whisk together the sugar and eggs in a small bowl until light, about 2 minutes. Blend in the vanilla, oil and butter.

Make a large well in the center of the dry ingredients, pour in the egg-sugar blend, and combine the 2 mixtures quickly until a batter is formed. Fold through the raspberries.

Spoon the butter into about 16 buttered and floured 2 3/4-inch muffin cups, filling them 2/3 full. Bake the muffins on the lower third level of a 400-degree oven for about 20 to 22 minutes or until well-risen, firm to the touch, and a toothpick inserted in the center of a muffin emerges clean and dry.

Transfer the tea cakes to a rack, let cool for a minute, then remove them to a cloth-lined basket. Serve the tea cakes warm.

CHERRY-ALMOND TEA CAKES (Makes about 14 to 16 2 3/4-inch cakes)

These are refreshing small cakes, lightly sweetened and buttery. Chopped fresh cherries punctuate the batter, and a mixture of slivered almonds and granulated sugar top off the cakes before they are sent into the oven. Plump blueberries, or coarsely chopped nectarines (peel them first), may be substituted, cup for cup, for the cherries.

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon allspice

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted sweet butter, softened at room temperature

2/3 cup granulated sugar

2 extra-large eggs, at room temperature

1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

1 cup roughly chopped pitted fresh cherries

FOR THE ALMOND TOPPING:

3 tablespoons slivered almonds tossed with 1 tablespoon granulated sugar

Sift together the flour, baking powder, allspice and salt onto a sheet of waxed paper. In a large bowl, beat the butter until light; beat in the granulated sugar in two additions. Beat in the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Blend in the vanilla and cherries. Stir in the sifted mixture, mixing only until the particles of flour have been absorbed.

Spoon the batter into 14 to 16 buttered and floured 2 3/4-inch muffin cups, filling each cup 2/3 full. Sprinkle a little of the almond-sugar topping over each cake.

Bake the cakes on the lower third level of a 350-degree oven for about 20 to 25 minutes or until well-risen and golden, and a toothpick inserted into the center of a cake emerges clean and dry.

Transfer the tea cakes to a rack, let stand for a minute, then remove them to a napkin-lined bread basket. Serve the tea cakes warm.

HERBED BISCUIT "PULL-APART" (Makes one 8- to 9-inch round)

The soft dough for this savory bread is enriched with buttermilk, seasoned with minced fresh herbs and given a little kick with grated parmesan cheese. Mounds of biscuit dough are spooned into a plain round cake pan and baked. What emerges from the oven is a lightly crusty, golden pan bread which, when pulled apart, reveals a soft, herb-speckled interior. This bread is good spread with lots of sweet butter.

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley leaves

2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme leaves

2 teaspoons minced fresh tarragon leaves

2 tablespoons freshly grated parmesan cheese

1/2 cup solid shortening

1 cup buttermilk, at room temperature

TO FINISH:

1 tablespoon freshly grated parmesan cheese

1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted and cooled

Stir together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cream of tartar, salt, parsley, thyme, tarragon and parmesan cheese. Cut the shortening into the flour with 2 round-bladed knives until the shortening has been reduced to small flakes.

Make a well in the center of the flour-shortening mixture and pour in all of the buttermilk. Stir the 2 mixtures together until a soft dough is formed, then knead the dough in the bowl with a wooden spoon for about 10 seconds.

Drop large mounds of the dough evenly around the inside of a lightly buttered and floured 8- to 9-inch cake pan, letting each mound touch the next. Sprinkle the tablespoon of parmesan cheese evenly over the top, then drizzle the melted butter over all.

Bake the "pull-apart" on the lower third level of a 425-degree oven for about 15 to 20 minutes or until risen and light golden in color. A toothpick inserted into the center of one of the mounds will emerge clean and dry.

Let the "pull-apart" cool on a rack for a few minutes, invert onto another rack and then invert again onto a round serving plate. Serve the bread warm, with sweet butter, letting each person break away -- or pull apart -- his or her own hunk of bread.