Brioche is a bread of French origin that is similar to a highly enriched pastry, and whose high egg and butter content (400 grams for each kilogram of flour) give it a rich and tender crumb. Chef Joel Robuchon described it as "light and slightly puffy, more or less fine, according to the proportion of butter and eggs." It has a dark, golden, and flaky crust, frequently accentuated by an egg wash applied after proofing.
In France it developed as "a sort of bread improved since antiquity by generations of bakers, then of pastry-makers ... with some butter, some eggs, sugar coming later ... it developed from the blessed bread [pain benit] of the church which gradually became of better quality, more and more costly, less and less bread; until becoming savory brioche". In the 17th century "pate a tarte briochee", "a pain a brioche pauvre [poor] ... [using only] 3 eggs and 250 grams of butter for 1 kilogram of flour" was introduced. The terms "pain benit" and "brioche" were sometimes used together or virtually interchangeably; so, for example, in another 17th-century recipe entitled: "CHAPITRE II. Pain benit, & brioches." It begins with a lighter, cheaper version of blessed bread, calling for "a pound of fresh butter and a soft cheese [but no eggs!] for a pail of flour"; and goes on to describe "the more delicate that we call Cousin", which uses 3 pounds of butter, 2 cheeses, and a royal pint of eggs for the same amount of flour, as well as "some good milk" if "the dough is too firm". However, sourdough and brewer's yeast preparations would both remain common well into the next century, with "blessed bread ... more and more often replaced by brioche" in the 18th century, where "Those from Gisors and Gournay, great butter markets, were the most highly regarded.
For the wealthy "from the time of Louis XIV onwards ... Butter, in widespread use at least in the northern half of France, was the secret of making brioches". "In Gisors, on market days, they produce up to 250 or 300 kg of brioches. The dough is made the evening before (1 kg of farine, a quarter of which for the starter, 10 g of yeast, 7 or 8 eggs; one mixes this together with the starter and 800 g of butter, breaking up the dough, which 'uses up the butter'). The dough is kept in a terrine, and one puts it in a mold just at the moment of baking. Thus prepared, the brioche remains light, keeps well, maintains the flavour of butter, without the stench of the starter." Brioche of varying degrees of richness from the rich man's with a flour to butter ratio of 3:2 to the cheaper pain brioche with a ratio of 4:1 existed at the same time.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in his autobiography Confessions (published posthumously in 1782, but completed in 1769), relates that "a great princess" is said to have advised, with regard to peasants who had no bread, "Qu'ils mangent de la brioche", commonly translated inaccurately as "Let them eat cake". This saying is commonly mis-attributed to Queen Marie-Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI. In the contemporaneous "Encyclopedie" it says: "the taste for luxury and onerous magnificence of much of the world, having slipped into religious practice, the usage was introduced in large cities of giving in place of bread, some more or less delicate cake ... one would not believe what it costs the nation every year for this article alone. We know that there are more than 40,000 parishes in the kingdom where they distribute blessed bread.