We wanted a rich and creamy custard that wasn't too sweet, so we could fully enjoy the signature crunchy layer of caramelized sugar on top. By only using egg yolks, we achieved a soft and creamy texture. We tried using milk and half-and-half but, in the end, we landed with heavy cream for its richness. Whole vanilla beans give a more intense, pure vanilla flavor that you can't get from extract. We also like seeing the vanilla seeds flecked throughout the custard.
Arrange a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 300 degrees F. Line a large heavy roasting pan (a turkey roasting pan works great) with a clean kitchen towel and place 4 six-ounce ramekins on top of the towel spaced a few inches apart.
Heat the cream in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Using the back of a paring knife, scrape the vanilla seeds from both halves of the pod. Add the seeds and pod to the cream. Whisk in the salt and 3 tablespoons of the sugar and bring to a boil. Remove from the heat.
Vigorously whisk the yolks and 3 more tablespoons of the sugar in a large bowl until pale yellow and very thick and creamy, about 2 minutes. Alternatively, you can use an electric mixer on high speed and beat until pale yellow and very thick and creamy, about 1 minute.
Whisking the yolks constantly, add a couple of teaspoons at a time from 1 cup of the hot cream, then increase to a steady stream until the cream is fully incorporated. (Don't pour too much hot cream at once or you'll end up with scrambled eggs.) The yolks are now tempered. Whisk the tempered yolks back into the remaining hot cream until combined. Strain through a fine mesh sieve into a large measuring cup or medium pitcher for easier pouring; discard the vanilla pods.
Skim the foam off the top of the custard by placing a clean paper towel on top and lightly pressing down so it touches the surface and absorbs some of the liquid. This will make for a completely smooth and silky custard. Fill the ramekins with the custard, about 3/4 cup per ramekin.
Carefully pour boiling water into the roasting pan halfway up the sides of the ramekins without getting any water in the custard. Cover the pan tightly with foil and bake until the custard is set around the edges but still has a slight jiggle in the center, 35 to 45 minutes. Carefully remove the roasting pan from the oven and transfer the ramekins to a wire rack to cool for 30 minutes. Then refrigerate until very cold, about 3 hours.
Just before serving, evenly spread 1 tablespoon of the sugar over the top of a custard. Hold a kitchen torch 2 inches above the surface. Starting in the center of the ramekin, move the flame in a circular motion and work your way out to the edges to caramelize the sugar. Repeat with the remaining sugar and custards.
Alternatively, arrange a rack in the top position of the oven and heat the broiler on high. Place the ramekins on a rack set inside a baking sheet and broil until deep golden brown, 15 to 60 seconds, checking every 10 seconds.
Freeze the custards for 5 minutes before serving (see Cook’s Note).
We love the contrast of cool custard and slightly warm sugar crunch. Freezing the custards before serving helps to achieve this.
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Propane gas torches are highly flammable and should be kept away from heat, open flame and prolonged exposure to sunlight. They should be used only in well-ventilated areas. Follow torch manufacturer's instructions for use.
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