1 cup granulated sugar, plus extra to caramelize top
4 cups heavy cream
1 to 2 vanilla beans, split and scraped or 2 tablespoons pure vanilla extract
Using a wire whisk or an electric mixer fitted with the whip attachment, vigorously whisk egg yolks with granulated sugar in a large
bowl, until mixture becomes light in color and sugar has dissolved a
bit; set aside.
In a medium-sized saucepan, combine heavy cream with vanilla
beans which have been carefully split down the center, its fragrant
black seeds scraped from the pod, and both combined with the cream.
Bring the mixture to a simmer; when small bubbles have formed
around the edges of the cream it is ready.
Gradually pour the cream mixture into the egg/sugar mix, whisking
gently by hand to combine. Strain custard through a fine mesh strainer,
retrieve vanilla bean and place it back into the custard. Chill and cover
mixture with a sheet of plastic wrap, pierced several times to release
any steam (chilling mixture overnight will let the flavors develop and
allow custard to thicken a bit).
Preheat oven to 350*F (180*C). Place individual ramekins in a baking pan, large enough to hold 8 to 10 six-ounce custard cups and deep
enough to allow the water for the bain-marie to be added reaching at
least halfway up the sides of the dishes.
Remove the vanilla bean from the custard mixture (can be reserved
for another use) and fi ll ramekins 3/4 full. Place pan in preheated oven
and pour hot water into baking pan so water level reaches halfway up the
sides of the ramekins. Cover pan with a sheet of heavy-duty aluminum
foil, sealing edges to retain steam. Cook 40 to 50 minutes or until custards are set. To test for done-ness, gently shake the individual ramekins;
if center is still a bit liquid-like or wobbly return custards to oven and
continue to cook, checking every 5 to 7 minutes, until it has just set, with
a small area in the center, the size of a quarter, still a bit loose.
Remove ramekins from baking pan and chill custard in refrigerator
several hours or until chilled through.
To serve put a thin layer of granulated sugar atop each custard. Using
a blow torch, over a heat and flame proof surface (like over a large cookie
or baking sheet), caramelize sugar working from the outside in towards
the middle keeping the torch in constant motion. Sugar should be
golden brown and caramelized, never black. If burnt, let the sugar layer
cool a few minutes than peel it away with a paring knife and begin again.
Alternatively you could caramelize the sugar under a broiler, keeping a
careful watch over it and rotating it to cook evenly.