Vanilla Bean Creme Caramel

Recipe Source:  Mustard’s Grill – Napa Valley Cookbook
Serves:  6 to 8

Elegant, sinfully creamy, yet quite simple, this custard is packed with vanilla flavor.  It is delicious by itself, or serves with fresh berries, whipped cream and candied pistachios (use the recipe for Those Nuts on page 212, but omit the salt).  When working with caramel, always wear oven mitts, as the hot sugar can cause serious burns.  Also, be careful not to touch the custard cups after you pour the caramel into them – they’ll be blazing hot!

INGREDIENTS
1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream
1 cup milk
1 vanilla bean, split and scraped
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 cup water
3 eggs
3 egg yolks

PREPARATION
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.  Combine the cream, milk, and vanilla bean in a heavy saucepan and bring to a boil.  Remove from the heat and allow to steep for 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the caramel.  Put six 4- or 5-ounce custard cups or ramekins in a baking dish with 2-inch sides and place near the stove.  Combine 1 cup of the sugar and the water in a skillet, mixing until evenly combined.  Brush the sides of the skillet down with a clean, wet pastry brush, and continue brushing the sides if the crystals form.  Cook the mixture over high heat, without stirring, for about 5 minutes, until the sugar starts to caramelize.  Now stir the caramelized sugar as necessary to cook evenly, but avoid getting sugar on the sides of pan.  When the sugar is a deep amber, after about 15 minutes, remove from the heat and very carefully and quickly pour the caramel into the custard cups, dividing evenly.  Swirl the caramel up the sides of the cups, holding them by the rim and carefully tilting them with a circular motion.

To make the custard, whisk together the eggs, egg yolks, and the remaining 1/2 cup sugar in a bowl.  Add a small amount of the hot cream mixture through a fine-mesh sieve into a pitcher or large measuring cup.  Pour the custard into the caramel-lined custard cups and place the baking dish in the oven.  Pour hot water into the baking dish to reach halfway up the sides of the custard cups.

Bake for 20 to 30 minutes, rotating the dish 180 degrees halfway through the baking time.  When done, the custards will be set around the edges but still a little jiggly at the center.  Remove the baking dish from the oven and allow the custards to cool enough to remove them from the water.  Refrigerate for at least 3 hours (or even overnight).

To unmold, run a butter knife around the edges of each custard cup and turn out onto the individual plates.  Each custard should have a nice glaze of caramel.  To make cleanup easier, I soak the empty custard dishes in hot, soapy water right away in order to melt the hardened sugar off the bottoms.

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