Quiche has had a roller coaster ride. It was the popular entree for women's lunches and get-togethers until it got a reputation for fussiness ("Real Men Don't Eat Quiche"). Then, along came cholesterol consciousness and many turned away from a dish that relies on eggs, cream and cheese, and sometimes bacon and ham.

Things have relaxed a bit recently, as people have come to realize that eggs can be nutritious and that a salad and one modest slice of something as rich as quiche can make for a satisfying meal. (Quiche is even a hit with most kids, and a good way to sneak in a vegetable or two.) But who' s got the time to make a pie crust, crack all those eggs or grate all that cheese?

We figured that quiche would be a natural in the prepared-foods department, so we set out to gather up what was available at area markets. We stayed away from the freezer case and concentrated on the dairy section--or in some instances, the deli. We looked for the hallmarks of a good quiche: a rich short crust; a creamy, custard filling; and a taste that says rich. Here's what we came up with, store by store:

EATZI'S

Food that's made and packaged to go is what Eatzi's is all about, so we had pretty high hopes for the broccoli and cheddar quiche from this Rockville outpost. And we weren't disappointed. The small, 8-ounce pie was not only well packaged in sturdy plastic but was also pretty well priced. And, of all the broccoli quiches that we sampled, it was the only one that didn't taste bitter or old.

In fact, it was very rich, ultra-creamy and had just the right crust. But we're still not convinced that broccoli is the ideal vegetable to add to a quiche. Even in this winner, the vegetable turned out to be either tiny flecks that were almost unrecognizable as broccoli or chunks of brown stems. ($3.99 for 8-ounce pie). Available at Eatzi's Market & Bakery, 11503-B Rockville Pike, Rockville.

FRESH FIELDS

What do you say about a pie that looks great and tastes good, but crosses the line from quiche to pizza, or maybe a vegetable pie? Perhaps it was the ingredients themselves that made for the confusion. We tried the three cheese and tomato and the spinach and roasted pepper--all ingredients that can be found on just about any trendy pizza. It was the smoked mozzarella in the three-cheese version that really rang the pizza bell, in addition to the absence of any real custard and a thick crust that was more gummy than short. Ditto for the spinach and roasted pepper, which was crammed with vegetables but too liquid in texture for a quiche. (Both flavors available in 9-ounce pies for $4.49, and 32-ounce versions for $9.99.) Available at most Fresh Fields stores.

GIANT

The quiche Lorraine from Home Made Brand pies was top-notch, with just the right amount of ham, a good cheese taste and a bouncy custard filling. But oddly, the other two pies from this same company were downright dreadful. The spinach quiche was bland and practically flavorless, with a tasteless crust. And the bright yellow broccoli quiche seemed to be filled with stems rather than florets, which made for a bitter taste.

A tall slice of spinach quiche from Giant's deli looked much better, but the overwhelming flavor of nutmeg spelled doom. (Home Made Brand 23-ounce quiche, $5.79; deli quiche, $7.79 per pound.) Available at most Giant Food stores.

SAFEWAY

The flimsy packaging on the Willamette Foods pies was an early warning sign that these might not be the greatest. And they weren't. The Lorraine-style quiche looked terrible and tasted sweet. The spinach quiche was worse. And the broccoli and cheddar quiche was neon orange in color, with a strong taste of scrambled eggs. (Lorraine-style 21-ounce pie, $6.49; spinach 21-ounce pie, $7.49; broccoli and cheddar 21-ounce pie, $4.99). Available at Safeway stores.

SUTTON PLACE GOURMET

When it comes to fillings, more isn't necessarily better. The quiche Lorraine was filled with unwieldy chunks of dry sweet ham, the broccoli and cheddar quiche had a nice crust but was packed with too much bitter broccoli, and the mushroom and spinach sample would have been better with fewer chunks of mushrooms. (Quiches available by the slice, $7.99 per pound). At Sutton Place Gourmet stores.