ARE BRIOCHES breads or cakes? When Marie Antoinette said, "Let them eat brioche!" she was speaking of a cake, not a bread. To this day, if you serve a Frenchman brioches in his breadbasket, he will wrinkle his nose in disgust.

Why are brioches never used as dinner rolls in French breadbaskets? The reason is a complex social one, but the French aversion to sweet, buttery, fluffy pastries with a meal runs deep. The mere thought of mixing sugar with salt or butter with beef grease sends shivers up a Frenchman's spine.

Brioches are cousins of the German Kugelhupf, the Polish Babka and the Italian Panettone. All are eggy, yeast doughs into which butter is mixed.

Before chemical leavening, bakers were limited in the varieties of cakes they could produce. They resorted to whipping eggs for lightness or to making rich, yeast doughs. Electricity and mixers were unknown and sugar was dear. Encouraging a few million yeast cells to produce carbon dioxide was a lot easier than whipping up an egg foam.

The brioche dough was often mixed with raisins and nuts and soaked with syrups flavored with liqueurs or extracts. Or they were served as they are now -- plain with butter and jam on the side.

On the other hand, brioches have bread-like properties, too. Their crumb has an elasticity and solidity reminiscent of breads. They are only slightly sweet and their salt content renders them appropriate to be part of Beef Wellington, Coulibiac de Saumon or Pain Brioche au Foie Gras.

Aside from their daily use in elements of haute cuisine, Sunday is the day for brioches. Sunday is the day of relaxation and celebration, of receiving friends and family.

Richer and more expensive than croissants, brioches are considered affordable on Sunday.

The key to a successful brioche dough, one which is light and has a fluffy texture, is the proper incorporation of ingredients, particularly the eggs. It is easy to mix the dough too dry before whipping in the butter. The gluten does not develop well and the resulting texture is rough and crumbly. When the butter is whipped in, the dough looks dull and lumpy. When it is done right, the dough takes on a beautiful sheen. BRIOCHE DOUGH (22 servings) 2 cups bread flour 2 cups high gluten flour 3 eggs 1/4 ounce dry yeast (1 packet) dissolved in 1/4 cup of water with a pinch of sugar 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar 1/2 tablespoon salt 1/2 cup ice water (or more) 10 ounces cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes 1 egg

*Note: high gluten flour is bread flour with a little more gluten. It is not gluten flour.

If you cannot find it, use 1 pound bread flour. Do not use all-purpose flour. The Mixing Process

Place flours, eggs, yeast, sugar, and salt in a mixing bowl.

Mix the dough on slow speed.Use the paddle, not a dough hook. Add half the water. If the dough appears dry, add more water until its consistency resembles that of a soft bread dough. Knead this dough five minutes. It must be smooth and homogeneous before adding the butter. Be sure to scrape down pieces of dough adhering to the dough paddle.

Add the butter in thirds, waiting for each increment to be absorbed before adding more. Once all the butter has been incorporated and the dough is shiny, cover the bowl with a towel. Let the dough rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk. Punch it down and refrigerate six hours or overnight.

At this stage, the dough is ready to form into individual rolls or into one large one. The individual rolls should weigh 2 ounces (for use in standard size pans).

To round up, pick up the dough, whatever shape it may be, and roll it around on the board. As a professional baker rolls the dough in circles, he pinches the dough ever so slightly between the edges of his palms and the board.the simultaneous action of rolling and pinching the dough under causes the edges to work in toward the center of the ball.

Once you have formed all the balls, the first ones should have softened slightly. Dip you fingers in flour and grasp the top part of the ball, pinching in as you pull it up and push deeply into the center of bottom part.

On rising, the top-knot will emerge. If it sits too high, it will flip out and hang down the side of the brioches.

During the entire forming operation, keep the dough cold. If you are slow about it, keep most of the balls in the refrigerator and take them out one by one.

Let the brioches rise in a humid, warm place, like an oven with a pan of boiling water in it. Do not cover them. Let them rise well above their molds -- at least double in bulk.

Make an egg wash (whip one egg thoroughly with a fork), and paint it onto each brioche with an extremely soft, pliable brush (a large, camel's hair paint brush is best). Keep the eggwash from dripping down the sides between the dough and the pan otherwise during baking it will form a perfect bond which cannot be broken without destroying the brioche.

Bake at 375 degrees about 20 to 25 minutes. They should be golden brown and firm along the sides. When testing for doneness, always touch the area which feels the heat last. In a brioche, it is the edge of dough around the mold.

Allow to cool at least five minutes before unmolding. Otherwise, they are liable to tear.