Fill

FILL: Place half of the chopped leeks and cheese in the hot quiche shell and pour enough quiche batter to cover. Add the remaining leeks and cheese and fill the shell to the top (Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles Times)

The custard is deep and luxurious, ivory colored and liberally studded with bits of filling -- pale leeks, tawny mushrooms or bright green spinach. Maybe a curling ribbon of ham. The top is a mottled mixture of gold and brown. The crust is crisp and a little flaky, just sturdy enough to contain it all. You cut it with a fork and the custard quivers, seemingly on the verge of returning to cream. The crust shatters against the plate.

I'd forgotten how memorable a great quiche could be. But I've been working hard at getting reacquainted. Over the last several weeks, there has always been at least one in my refrigerator.

Quiches make elegant appetizers for a dinner party, and they're perfect for everyday eating. They are good hot, at room temperature or cold. If I bake a quiche on Sunday, I've got a couple of the week's meals lined up -- a satisfying dinner (with a green salad, a glass of Riesling and a Laker game), a sack lunch my daughter can pack to work, and a great snack for me to nibble straight from the fridge.

For something that seems so fragile, a quiche is surprisingly durable. Once it's baked, it can be stored in the refrigerator, tightly wrapped, for up to a week. Whack off a piece, plop it on a cookie sheet and bake it until it's heated through -- 10 or 15 minutes. You'd never guess it wasn't freshly made.

I have Thomas Keller to thank for my reintroduction. While looking through his new "Bouchon" cookbook over the holidays, I noticed that there was an entire section devoted to the dish. America's greatest chef in love with the quiche? Who'da thunk it?

Keller, who serves quiche regularly at his Bouchon bistros in Yountville and Las Vegas, practically lights up when he talks about the dish. "I still remember the first time I had a real quiche. Just understanding that that was the way a quiche should be, suddenly it all made sense. It was one of those moments of sheer pleasure.

"When I see a well-made quiche, it gives me a sense of comfort, a sense of grounding," he says. "Good food is not about fashion; it's about quality of product and execution. A dish that is good lasts forever."

Keller is far from alone in his affection for the dish. Here in Southern California, Josie LeBalch has attracted a cult following for the mushroom quiche she serves as a complimentary appetizer at her Santa Monica restaurant Josie. What began as an emergency fill-in has now turned into an 80-pie-a-week habit.

LeBalch's quiche is a twist on one her father served at his '70s Valley bistro Chef Gregoire. She started making it because in the rush to open Josie, she didn't have time to think of anything else.

"At first we were planning on serving it just until we got caught up with everything, but then the quiche caught on and now we can't take it off the menu," LeBalch says.

In addition to the sliver of mushroom quiche that goes out to every diner in the restaurant, LeBalch also offers others as occasional specials.

One of her favorites is another twist on the traditional Lorraine, this one made with diced potatoes and Morbier. The ham is in a single sheet, pinched into a ruffled little bow so that the browned ends poke through the puffed brown cheese on top.

Variations on a theme

It is interesting comparing Keller and LeBalch's quiches. The differences show just how flexible the dish is. Keller's crust is flaky; LeBalch's is more like a cookie. Keller's filling focuses on the custard; LeBalch's is all about the cheese. Still, they are both delicious.

That says a lot about the eternal appeal of the quiche, despite whatever has been done to it in the past. And as any diner can tell you, in the wrong hands a quiche is not a pretty thing. Too often, careless cooks have turned it into a kind of dumping ground for tired ingredients -- a curdled casserole in a soggy crust.

And then there was that whole reputation thing.

"The quiche just got a bad rap," says LeBalch. "It was too frou-frou or whatever. 'Real men don't eat quiche.' Ha! I'll tell you what: All my men love my quiche, are you kidding me?"

The most basic quiche is the original from the French-German province of Lorraine. In its simplest form, it is merely a savory custard baked in a pastry crust (though the "Larousse Gastronomique" reports an even earlier version baked in bread dough). The more familiar version of quiche Lorraine adds thin slices of blanched bacon and Gruyere cheese.

Today, there is all manner of quiches containing different kinds and combinations of vegetables and even seafood. In "Bouchon," Keller includes fillings made with spinach, leeks and Roquefort, mushrooms, and ham and long-cooked onions.