The basic method:
Heat the oven to 325°F. Heat the cream in a medium saucepan over medium heat until scalded (you'll see small bubbles on the sides of the pan). Split the vanilla bean in half, if using, and scrape the seeds into the cream. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, slowly whisk the sugar into the egg yolks. Slowly whisk the hot cream/milk into the sugar/yolk mixture. Strain the mixture through a fine sieve into a pitcher or measuring cup. Stir in the salt and vanilla extract, if using.
Arrange eight 6-oz. ramekins in a baking dish with deep sides. Pour the custard into the ramekins, fill the baking dish with water to come halfway up the sides of the ramekins and cover the dish with foil. Bake until just set, 25 to 50 minutes. Be sure to start checking early; baking time will depend on the thickness and depth of your ramekins and baking dish. Carefully remove the baking dish from the oven and let the ramekins cool in the water bath. Remove, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 2 hours or up to 2 days.
Follow the instructions below for making the crackly topping.
Two ways to make a crackly caramel topping for crème brûlée:
The blowtorch method -- By far the easiest method of caramelizing sugar on a crème brûlée is with a propane blowtorch. Blowtorches are sold in most hardware stores, with good ones going for around $30. (Williams-Sonoma (www.williams-sonoma.com) also carries a mini-torch for about $30; to order, call 800/541-2233.) I highly recommend buying one with an automatic ignition, which allows you to light the torch with the press of a button -- no matches needed.
Sift a thin, even layer of sugar over the refrigerated custards, ignite the torch, and with a slow, sweeping motion, guide the flame directly on the surface of the custard. The nozzle should be 2 to 3 inches from the surface, with the tip of the flame licking the sugar. The sugar will melt slowly at first and then caramelize. As soon as the entire surface is glossy brown, move on to the next custard.
The easiest method of caramelizing sugar on a crème brûlée is with a propane blowtorch.
The broiler method -- This method is only successful with a very hot broiler in a gas oven (electric ovens don't seem to provide heat high enough to caramelize the sugar). Line a baking dish with a towel to keep the baked custards from sliding around and arrange them on top. Fill the spaces between the ramekins with ice and add water so that they're surrounded by ice water. This will keep them cold and creamy while their tops are being caramelized.
Sift a thin, even layer of sugar on the surface of each custard and gently slide the baking dish under the broiler, positioning it so that the flame is 2 to 3 inches away from the tops of the custards. Watch carefully: within three or four minutes, the sugar will melt and then caramelize. Remove the baking dish and take out the ramekins.
Fill the spaces between the ramekins with ice and add water so that they're surrounded by ice water. This will keep them cold and creamy while their tops are being caramelized.
nutrition information (per serving):
50, Fat Calories
450, Saturated Fat
6, Monounsaturated Fat
29, Polyunsaturated Fat
Photo: Ben Fink
Espresso Crème Brûlée: Omit the vanilla. Crush 1/2 cup espresso beans into coarse pieces, add to the cream, and heat to a simmer. Remove from the heat; infuse for 5 min. Strain and proceed.
Ginger Crème Brûlée: Omit the vanilla. Cut a 3-inch piece of fresh ginger into very thin slices, add to the cream, and heat to a simmer. Remove from the heat; infuse for 15 to 20 min. Strain, bring back to a simmer, and proceed.