THIS CASE calls for a persistent detective with a gnawing appetite, maybe Columbo. Imagine Peter Falk, a few specks of beaten egg white in his hair and on his raincoat, eating his way through "The Mystery of The Fallen Souffle."

"It didn't happen, not in my kitchen!" testifies the suspect as they lock him up. "Souffles never fail!"

The jury tries to hide its disbelief. They believe it takes a magician in the kitchen to produce those puffed-up scrambled eggs with a French name. So does Falk-Columbo, who has a suspicion that there must be a guy behind the stove manning a bicycle pump.

After a commercial, he sets out to deflate the souffle myth.

First he visits Escoffier, the legendary king of chefs and chef of kings:

"The decoration of souffles is optional and, in any case, should not be overdone," states the great man.

Not much help, but at least he doesn't seem to be in awe of them. Columbo moves forward in time and talks with the late Helen McCully, a straight-from-the-shoulder food editor if ever there was one.

"Once you've mastered one souffle, you've mastered them all," she says.

"The secret is in the egg whites," adds Julia Child. They "must remain shiny, smooth and velvety.

"Better several small souffles than one large," chimes in Frieda Arkin in "Kitchen Widsom."

Columbo flies to England to consult Elizabeth David.". . . before venturing upon a souffle for a dinner party," she tells him, "it is wise to carry out a few experiments, noting the time and the temperature of the oven for the most successful."

So there is danger. Maybe souffles belong only in the hands of chefs.

Back in New York, he stops in for a chat with James Beard. He has found his witness.

"Somehow the souffle has acquired a reputation for being a difficult, temperamental dish," the great man says, repeating his words in "the James Beard Cookbook."

"This reputation in unjustified. The souffle is simple to make and not fussy about the way it is baked. I have cooked souffles at different temperatures and without temperature control. I have even dared to peek in the oven at a souffle. No bad results."

Pressed for details, he agrees with Child. "The secret of a good souffle is in the egg whites: in how they are beaten, how they are folded into the cream base." For success, he adds:

Be sure the eggs are at room temperature before beating.

Do not beat to the "stiff, dry stage." They should be firm but moist.

Mix whites and base quickly but firmly, cutting through the mixture and folding, not stirring or beating.

The "criminal acts" that ruin a souffle, it seems, are committed while either beating or folding the egg whites or by cooking it too long or too short a time. Making loud noises, walking about in heavy boots and even opening oven doors are minor and forgivable sins. A properly prepared souffle can wait before cooking (up to 2 hours covered with a bowl, according to Julia Child), but must be served almost immediately after it comes from the oven.

Once you know how to make one souffle, you can make another. You won't fail. Case dismissed.

For those who don't know, here is some background and a master recipe, followed by some intriguing variations from famous cooks.

The souffle we are discussing is an oven-baked concoction of a thick base (white sauce or veloute) leavened by beaten egg whites. Call them what you will, gelatin-supported mixtures and frozen, shaped ice creams are, as one chef put it, "false souffles." Omelet souffles, egg-based creations cooked in frying pans, are outside our current vista as well, however charming they may be.

True souffles, Escoffier ruled, have either a cream or a fruit-puree base. The latter are sweet and used only for desserts. The former, which don't have to contain cream (or milk) just to confuse the issue, can be either sweet or savory. The following formula is for a savory souffle. Serve it with salad following a cold vegetable (asparagus or artichoke) or soup first course. A fruit dessert or sherbet would make a satisfying dessert.

Butter a 1 1/2-quart, heat-resistant mold and shake a couple of tablespoonful of bread crumbs or grated cheese over the surface. Place in the refrigerator or freezer.

Separate 4 room-temperature eggs and preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Melt 3 tablespoons of butter in a saucepan, add 3 tablespoons of flour and stir over heat without browning for 1 minute. Add 1 cup of milk (or broth) and stir until a thick sauce has formed. Remove from heat. Add 1/2 cup grated cheese (cheddar or gruyere), 1 teaspoon salt or to taste and then stir in egg yolks, one by one. Beat whites with 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar until firm but not grainy. (For a lighter souffle -- and to compensate for a weak mixer -- use 1 to 2 extra whites). Stir a spoonful of whites into the sauce, which should be reheated unless it is still warm. Then quickly fold in the remaining whites. Don't worry if there are a few patches of white. The object is to deflate the whites as little as possible.

Pour into the mold evenly and place in the oven. Allow 30 to 35 minutes, depending on how firm you want the souffle to be. If desired, sprinkle some grated cheese atop the souffle for the final 5 minutes of cooking.

For spinach or carrot souffles, omit the cheese. Add 1 more tablespoon flour to the base and mix in 1/2 cup vegetable puree plus some chopped or grated onion and nutmeg.

While texture, not height, is the ultimate measure of a souffle's success, you can guide the mixture upward by wrapping a buttered (or oiled) foil collar about the dish and pinning or tying it in place with string. It should extend upward for 2 to 3 inches. To help prevent overflow, you can draw a circle 1/2-inch deep in the batter around the edge of the bowl. If the souffle is rising unevenly, it probably means there is a draft in your oven. Open the door and, with gloved hand, rotate the souffle.If a souffle collapses, you probably have not cooked it long enough or used too wide a dish. For a firm souffle, allow an extra 5 minutes once the top is brown. SOUFFLE ARLEQUIN 1 cup milk 5 tablespoons sugar 4 eggs, separated 1 1/2 tablespoons flour 1 to 2 tablespoons strong coffee or coffee extract 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Grease well and sugar a 1-quart souffle mold. Pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees.

Heat the milk in a saucepan; bring to boil then remove from heat.

Put the sugar in a bowl; add the 4 egg yolks; whisk well. Add the flour and whisk it in. When well blended, add some of the milk; whisk well and pour all back to saucepan.

Beat the whites in a copper bowl or mixer. Pour base equally into 2 bowls.

Add the coffee to one and blend. Add vanilla to the other. Add 1/2 the egg whites to each bowl and blend rapidly. Starting with the coffee, put the mix into separate halves of the mold (it can also be mixed or swirled if you wish). iLevel off, from the middle, with a spatula. Bake about 15 minutes. Top with powdered sugar. SHRIMP SOUFFLE (4 to 6 servings) 1/2 pound shrimp 3 tablespoons flour 3 tablespoons butter 1 1/4 cups milk 1/2 teaspoon paprika 1/4 cup grated gruyere cheese 4 eggs, separated Salt and pepper

Grease a 1 1/2 quart souffle mold or Pyrex bowl well with butter. Sprinkle the inside with grated cheese. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Shell the shrimps. If they are large, cut them into pieces.

Bring the milk, with the shrimps and shells in it, to a simmer and let steep for 5 to 10 minutes off the heat. Strain the mild. Reserve the shrimps, discard the shells.

Melt the butter in a saucepan. After it foams add the flour and stir constantly for at least 1 minute without browning. Add the milk and stir until a thick white sauce has formed. Off the heat add the yolks, one by one, stirring in vigorously. Add the remaining cheese, the paprika, salt and pepper to taste. Return to flame and heat through without boiling.

In a copper bowl or with an electric mixer beat the egg whites stiff. If using a mixer, add 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar to the whites and don't allow them to become dry.

Reheat the sauce if it has cooled and pour it into a mixing bowl. Working quickly with a spatula or a large spoon, cut the whites into the sauce. Pour some of the mixture into the mold. Sprinkle in shrimps. Repeat until the mold is filled and level off the top.

Place the mold on the center shelf of the oven and cook for at least 20 minutes. It should be cooked through in 25 minutes. Serve at once. CHEFS' BASIC SOUFFLE 1 cup flour 1/4 pound (1 stick) butter 3/4 cup sugar 3 1/2 cups milk 8 eggs, separated Flavoring (1 tablespoon vanilla or 3 ounces melted semisweet chocolate or 3 ounces chopped candied fruit or 2 tablespoons cherry brandy as desired.

Mix flour, butter, and 1/4 cup sugar to a smooth paste. Heat milk to simmering point in a saucepan and add flour mixture; stir slowly until thick sauce is formed, then cook and stir rapidly for 4 to 5 minutes. Remove from heat; cool for 5 minutes. Add the egg yolks, stirring rapidly, then add the flavoring.

Whip egg whites with 1/2 cup sugar until stiff. Fold into the above mixture, the pour into a buttered and sugared souffle mold (two 6-inch or one 10-inch). Place into a hot water bath and bake in a preheated 400-degree oven (25 to 30 minutes for 6-inch molds; 50 to 60 minutes for 10-inch mold). -- From "The Culinary Olympics Cookbook" BUTTERLESS CHOCOLATE SOUFFLE (6 servings) 7 ounces German sweet chocolate, broken into small pieces 3 teaspoons powdered instant coffee 1/3 cup flour 2 cups cold milk 1/2 teaspoon vanilla 4 egg yolks 6 egg whites Pinch of salt 1/2 cup sugar Confectioners' sugar

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Combine chocolate, instant coffee, and 5 tablespoons of water in the top of a double boiler, and stir until the mixture is completely smooth.Set aside over hot water to keep warm.

Put the flour in an enameled saucepan and slowly add cold milk, stirring vigorously with a whisk until smooth. Add vanilla, set over moderate heat, and stir constantly until the mixture is thick and free of lumps. Continue to stir for a minute or so. Then blend in melted chocolate and remove from the heat.

Stir in 4 egg yolks, one at a time, into the chocolate mixture. Beat the 6 egg whites with the salt until they are white and frothy; then slowly beat in the sugar to make a meringue-like mixture. Warm the chocolate mixture. Stir in 2 large spoonfuls of meringue to lighten; then lightly fold in the remaining meringue.

Pour the souffle mixture into a buttered 2-quart souffle dish with a 2-inch foil collar and bake in the center of the preheated oven for 25 to 30 minutes. Sprinkle the finished souffle with confectioner's sugar, and serve immediately, removing the collar only after the first helping. ORANGE SOUFFLES IN ORANGE SHELLS (8 servings) 8 large navel or temple oranges 8 lumps of sugar plus enough granulated sugar to equal 1/2 cup 4 egg yolks 1/4 cup orange liqueur or Benedictine 1/2 teaspoon vanilla 6 egg whites Salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Wash and wipe the oranges and rub each one with a lump of sugar to absorb the orange essence contained in the rind. Add enough granulated sugar to the lumps to make 1/2 cup and set aside in a small enameled saucepan.

Slice off 1-inch circles from one end of each orange; grate the orange rind from them and discard.

Squeeze 4 tablespoons of orange juice and reserve for the souffle. Then, using a small spoon, scoop out all the flesh from each of the oranges, being very careful not to damage the skin. Put the orange shells in the oven to dry out for 10 minutes.

Put the 4 eggs yolks in a saucepan. Set aside.

Add 4 tablespoons of orange juice and the grated orange peel to the reserved sugar, set over heat, and boil to the soft ball stage or a temperature of 230 degrees. Immediately pour the syrup in a thin stream into the egg yolks, beating vigorously with a whisk until smooth and creamy. Add the liqueur and the vanilla, return to the saucepan, and heat, beating with the whisk, for 2 minutes to lightly thicken the mixture. Remove from the heat and continue to beat until cool. Set aside.

Beat the 6 egg whites with a pinch of salt until they are stiff but not dry.

Fold a quarter of the egg whites into the yolk mixture to lighten it; then lightly fold all back into the remaining egg whites. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Fill the orange shells 2/3 full with the souffle mixture.

If some of the oranges are not steady, you can make little "saucers" for them by cutting 1/2-inch slices from an extra orange or two and scooping out the pulp to make hollow circles on which to set the unsteady oranges.) Bake for 12 to 15 minutes. After about 8 minutes dredge them with confectioners' sugar and return them to the oven. A few minutes later, when the souffles will have risen well above the edge of the oranges, dredge them once again with sugar.

After they have risen about 1/2-inch above the edge of the orange and the sugar on the top has caramelized, remove them from the oven. Place each orange on the "saucer" cut from the top, which will keep the orange steady. Serve at once. SEPPI RENGGLI'S RIESLING SOUFFLE (6 servings) 4 1/2 tablespoons butter 4 1/2 tablespoons flour 1 1/4 cups scalded milk 6 eggs, separated, plus 2 egg whites 4 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature 2 tablespoons not-too-dry riesling wine 1/2 cup granulated sugar Powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Melt butter in a saucepan and blend in flour until smooth. Add milk and cook, stirring constantly, until thick. Add yolks and beat in well. Cook briefly. Cream cheese in a bowl with a whisk, then beat in wine a little at a time. Combine cheese and souffle base and stir well.

Beat egg whites until they form soft peaks. Add sugar gradually and continue beating until they form stiff peaks. Fold into the mixture. Grease a 2-quart souffle dish and dust it with sugar. Pour in mixture and bake in a 375-degree oven for 35 minutes, or until puffled and lightly brown. Dust souffle with powdered sugar.

Note: Chef Renggli serves this with a sauce of melted vanilla ice cream mixed with a little whipped cream.