IT WASN'T ALL bean sprouts and tofu in the late '60s. As it turned out, the legacy of the hippie movement can't be stuffed in the pocket of a pita. There were legendary croissants born of that era, and a culinary invention called Morning Buns that has gone so mainstream that nowadays it is even being served on airlines.

In Madison, Wis., a whole new wave of French restaurant elegance was spawned not by jet-setters on expense accounts but by a post-flower-child group of the early '70s called Phoenix Academy of Cultural Exploration and Design, whose mission was cultural change not foreign exchange.

To back up to those mythical days of the '60s, a woman--whereabouts unknown by now--named JoAnna Guthrie was the guru of this particular story. World traveler, philosopher, lecturer and interior decorator--that's how her disciples describe her. She gathered a coterie of students in Chicago for the "eclectic study of understanding of life," as one of them, David Yankovich, recalls it. She was in her 40's, and a group of 30 or so students in their 20's gathered regularly in houses or in public halls to listen to Guthrie talk of improving and beautifying American culture. They vowed to implement her ideas--but via what medium?

Then around 1970 Guthrie decided to leave Chicago and relocate in Madison, and her group followed. "We found ourselves in a new city with no income," explained Yankovich. Virtually all of the group were unskilled, but one girl was a good cook. The answer, it seemed, to their economic as well as their ideologic problems, was a restaurant, where all but the cooking could be done by semiskilled or unskilled workers. So they opened a nine-table restaurant in the basement of what had been a beauty parlor, and they called it the Ovens of Brittany.

"It was classical French," boasts Yankovich, who now runs an alternative school with his wife, Karen, and is only peripherally still involved with the restaurants.

"With a dash of natural foods," adds Karen, who was also one of the founders.

At that time, they explain, downtown Madison was considered dangerous, and indeed broken windows were a commonplace hazard. And there was nothing faintly resembling a French restaurant in Madison, certainly not their kind of French restaurant, and definitely no croissants.

They rebuilt the premises themselves into a country-style French restaurant and opened for lunch and dinner, specializing in croissants. By 1972 they added an upstairs room and started serving the breakfast food that was to take Madison by storm--Morning Buns and Karen Buns. A Morning Bun is a kind of giant cinnamon bun made of croissant dough; Karen Buns taste halfway between a croissant and a doughnut, and were originated to use up the dough scraps that couldn't be reused to make a first-quality croissant. One of the restaurant's early bakers had a wife named Karen and the problem of what to do with the scraps left from hand-cutting the croissant dough. So he rerolled them, cut them into rounds and glazed them with orange honey, then baked them in a convection oven. And immortalized his wife.

As for the Morning Buns, nobody can remember how they began, but they are croissant dough also, rolled about 1/8-inch thick, brushed with egg wash and sprinkled with brown sugar and cinnamon, then rolled up jelly-roll style and cut so that when put in muffin tins they stick up about 1/2 inch above the top of the tin and puff enormously in the baking. After baking, while they are still hot, they are rolled in cinnamon sugar. They are also sold unsugared, but as David puts it, "By that time you might as well have them sugared."

A single Morning Bun weighs "three croissants," according to David; over the years they have gotten bigger and bigger, though if they get too big they don't bake well.

Have Morning Buns reached their apex?

"Yeah," says David. "I think they've gone over their apex," counters Karen.

Even so, each of the Ovens of Brittany's three locations sells thousands of Morning Buns a day. Nobody seems to know exactly how many, but the smallest of the Ovens, Monroe Street, sells an estimated 3,500 on weekdays, more than 4,000 on weekend days. And they are sold wholesale to groceries and a hospital, as well as to Northwest and Frontier airlines. When the Yankoviches took a vacation to Denver, "We thought we'd get away from it all," they say, but breakfast on the plane was--you guessed it--Morning Buns.

Morning Buns have caught on so strongly in Madison that David once saw a fistfight over the last Morning Bun. "There is such an emotional attachment to them," he says, that people routinely take them as gifts to hospitals and to mothers with new babies.

The buns' success worries the Ovens' managers because once they leave the bakery for a grocery store or airline, these fragile pastries are left wide open to mistreatment. They shouldn't be kept long or stored in cold places, and they should be reheated before serving, as the Ovens do for their sit-down customers. The croissants, Morning Buns and Karen Buns last only 4 to 5 hours before they toughen, unless they are frozen.

At the restaurants, the baking of croissants and Morning Buns--not to mention a large repertoire of other breakfast pastries from muffins to danish--begins at 4:30 a.m., and the first batches are ready at 7 a.m. The Morning Bun production doesn't stop until 11 a.m., so even at lunch they are fresh out of the oven; they aren't sold past 5 p.m..

Since the opening of the Ovens of Brittany, Madison has had a minor French restaurant explosion--including such restaurants as L'Etoile, The Creperie, Chez Michel. How many of them spun off from the Ovens of Brittany? "All of them," chime in the Yankoviches, who explain that most of the new restaurants were started by people who had worked at the Ovens. At least one other bakery in Madison is making mock Morning Buns, and a couple of bakeries in Milwaukee are also direct influences of the Ovens. Furthermore, in 1977 David counted that 35 new restaurants had opened within a two-block radius of theirs within the five years since they started. If nothing else, the Ovens showed Madison that a potential market was waiting to be fed. "The Ovens has had such charisma all along," says Karen; there were lines waiting to get in from the beginning.

The Ovens also recognized this potential, and started branching out; a fourth restaurant is about to open. Each branch has its own distinctive menu and atmosphere, but the Ovens' strongest identity is in its baked goods, so all have the same line of baked goods, which are baked in each location. Two of the restaurants have open kitchens, where patrons can watch the croissants being rolled and cut. One branch, Shorewood, is less French and concentrates on contemporary and eclectic, light and healthy foods. The smallest, Monroe Street, with only about 14 tables, has a more complete bakery than the others and emphasizes pastry-wrapped dishes such as pot pies and empanadas.

At the original branch on State Street, seating has been expanded to 95 seats, dinners are still classical French, and the bakery (smallest of the chain) still rolls the croissants by hand. The newest branch will have about 100 seats and the largest bakery of all. It will be the first of the restaurants to be built new; Sherwood was a supermarket, Monroe Street a bakery before the Ovens took them over.

The Ovens still hire inexperienced help, which is obvious if you watch through the State Street bakery windows the slow and painstaking rolling and cutting of the croissants. They found that experienced bakers cooked "too institutionally," say the Yankoviches.

The restaurants still try to hold their original "home cooking" values. "We didn't know about buying restaurant shortening," explains Karen Yankovich. So they used all butter in their croissants--and still do, though it makes handling the dough more difficult. From the beginning the Ovens used home ingredients and cooked in small quantities. "It was a real blessing in disguise," says Karen.

If there is one common complaint about the Ovens of Brittany it is that they are too popular, that there are usually lines starting from croissant and Morning Bun time, for these big, buttery, flaky, outlandishly rich repositories of carbohydrates. Which is why one University of Wisconsin professor calls his hometown restaurant chain the Covens of Gluttony.

Here is the Ovens' recipe for croissants, Karen Buns and for its original croissant-dough breakfast pastry that is gobbling up Madison, Wis., the Morning Bun. CROISSANTS (Yield 30 croissants) 4 1/4 cups warm water 1 1/3 tablespoons dry active yeast 2 1/2 tablespoons sugar 1/2 cup dry milk solids 1 1/3 tablespoons salt 9 1/3 cups unbleached white flour plus 1/2 cup 1 pound unsalted butter

Combine the warm water, yeast and sugar in a 5-quart mixer. Let yeast become activated and foam, then add the milk solids, salt and flour. Mix with dough hook until flour is just incorporated. Avoid overmixing. Overmixing causes rapid toughening of dough. Place dough mixture in airtight container with room for rising, and refrigerate at 38-40 degrees for 12-24 hours, punching down occasionally if dough rises too much.

Rolling butter into dough: Place 1 pound unsalted (or lightly salted) butter into 5-quart mixer. Mix with paddle dough hook, gradually adding 1/2 cup flour. Mix until butter is moderately soft but not creamy in texture. Too soft butter will not layer properly in dough.

Remove dough from refrigerator and turn out onto well floured surface. Spread dough with hands into a 6-by-8-inch rectangle. Shape soft butter into 3--by-4 inch rectangle. Place butter into middle of dough. Envelope butter with dough, bringing dough from sides into middle without overlapping; then dough from top and bottom into middle, again without overlapping. Press envelope of dough down evenly with hands preserving rectangular shape.

Set aside to rest 15-20 minutes (You may want to refrigerate the dough during the first rest period if butter is very soft).

Turn envelope of dough and butter onto its "tummy" with seams down. Using a large rolling pin, roll rectangle of dough down to 3/8- 1/2-inch thickness uniformly. Fold in thirds.

Turn the dough 90-degrees and place seam down on your rolling surface to rest 15-20 minutes more. Finally roll dough down again to 3/8- 1/2-inch thickness. Fold in thirds. Place in a large plastic bag carefully preserving its folded shape. Refrigerate 12-14 hours, again at 38-40 degrees.

At this point you can use the dough for croissants, Karen Buns or Morning Buns.

Shaping and rolling croissants: Roll finished dough down to 1/4-inch thickness. Lift dough with hands from either side to relax it. Then cut with croissant cutter (standard measurement is 5-by-5 1/2-by-5 1/2-inches). Scraps of dough can be added into individual croissants during shaping or reserved for shaping into Morning Buns.

To shape croissants ("C's") stretch triangle lengthwise. Place down on table surface. Roll the wide ends of dough toward the point. Draw sides of the "C" around to front to act as "feet" to hold the "C" up on a greased or lined tray. After rolling all the "C's" for your tray, spray with water, and cover with a plastic sheet. Set aside at room temperature (70 degrees) for 1-2 hours to let rise.

Croissants are best baked in a convection oven at 350-degrees. Baking time will vary depending on how many trays are in what size oven at any given time. Spray "C's" again with water just prior to baking. Overall baking time will range between 20-25 minutes, longer in a regular oven.

Remove from oven when golden brown. KAREN BUNS (Yield about 30 buns) 7-8 pounds dough (see above recipe) For the glaze: 1 cup honey 1 teaspoon orange extract Juice and rind of 1/2 orange

Using finished dough (from above recipe), roll to 3/8- 1/2 inch thickness. Spray top of dough surface with water. Fold in thirds. Let rest 5-10 minutes.

Roll dough to 5/8-inch thickness. Relax it by lifting with hands. Let rest 15-20 minutes. Cut dough with 3-inch round biscuit cutter. Bake immediately in 350-degree convection oven until golden brown (20-25 minutes), or in regular oven about 30 minutes or until golden brown.

Remove Karen Buns from oven and glaze with mixture of honey, orange extract, juice and rind. Serve within 4 hours or freeze. MORNING BUNS (Yield 24 Morning Buns) 7-8 pounds croissant dough (see recipe above) 1 teaspoon beaten egg mixed with 1/3 cup water 1 pound brown sugar mixed with 2 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon 1 pound granulated sugar mixed with 2 1/4 tablespoons cinnamon Butter for greasing muffin tins

Roll croissant dough into rectangle 12 inches wide and 1/8-inch thick. Relax by lifting with hands and letting it contract on table surface. Length of dough determines the number of morning buns ultimately cut.

Wet exposed surface lightly with mixture of egg and water (proportions are roughly 1 egg per 1 quart of water).

Spread brown sugar and cinnamon mixture (in proportions of 2 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon to 1 pound brown sugar) over entire surface of dough.

Note: Too much moisture from either water or melting brown sugar can overwhelm the dough during the baking process. Water mixture is only to help sugar and cinnamon adhere to dough. The butter in the dough will melt into the sugar.

Crimp long edge of dough closest to you as you begin to roll the dough up like a jelly roll into a tube. After having rolled your tube of dough, cut off slices 2 inches wide or to stand above your greased muffin pans by 1/4- 1/2 inch when placed in them cut side down.

Bake immediately or refrigerate overnight before baking. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 35-50 minutes or until puffed and dark brown. Check for doneness in center of buns. They should spring back. (It is possible to invert buns onto flat tray and finish last few minutes of baking upside down.)

Garnish buns by rolling them in white sugar and cinnamon in proportions of 1 pound granulated sugar to 2 1/4 tablespoons of cinnamon.

Serve warm, within 4 hours, or freeze immedately to serve warm later.