Preheat oven to 300 degrees F.
In a heavy-bottomed medium non-reactive saucepan, heat cream with vanilla bean over medium-low heat for 15 minutes, stirring to ensure it does not burn; do not let boil. Remove from heat and let steep for 15 minutes. Remove and discard the vanilla bean, or save for another use. Strain cream through a fine mesh sieve.
Meanwhile, in a mixing bowl, beat egg yolks with an electric mixer on high speed for 5 minutes, or until light and fluffy. Gradually beat in 1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar. Add about half the cream mixture, a little at a time, to the egg mixture, whisking until well blended. Then pour the egg mixture into the remaining cream mixture. Stir until completely blended.
Pour the custard into 4 (9-ounce) ramekins or custard cups. Place the dishes in large baking pan. Pour enough hot water into the pan to come halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes or until the mixture is set in the center (it should still wiggle when shaken). Carefully remove the dishes from the baking pan. Let cool to room temperature and then refrigerate for at least 2 hours, or up to 24 hours. Let creme brulee stand at room temperature 20 minutes before serving.
Divide 1/3 to 1/2 cup white or light brown sugar in a thin, even layer over each custard, covering it completely. To caramelize the sugar, light a propane torch* and hold it so the flame just touches the surface. Start at the center and spiral out toward the edges of the ramekins. If the sugar begins to burn, pull the torch away and blow on the sugar to extinguish the flame. Serve immediately.
VARIATIONS: Finely grate orange zest or bittersweet chocolate over the creme brulee before adding the sugar for caramelizing.
Cook's Note: A propane torch can be bought at your local hardware store. If you don't have one, caramelize the topping under the broiler, watching carefully so as not to burn it.
Recipe courtesy of Paula Deen