This must be the French national dessert, enjoyed in every home, every brasserie and even many Michelin-starred restaurants. There are two points to watch when making crème caramel. First, the caramel must be allowed to turn a deep brown, almost to the point of burning – too pale and it will taste sweet with no caramel flavour; too dark and it will be bitter. Second, the custard mixture should be cooked until it is only just set. Overcook it and you'll lose that magical melting-snow effect in the mouth.
|For the caramel|
|For the custard mixture|
|500ml||Full fat milk|
|1/2 teaspoon||Natural vanilla extract|
|1/2||Vanilla pod, split open lengthways and seeds removed|
|2||Eggs (organic or free range)|
|3||Egg yolks (organic or free range)|
Making the caramel
1. Put the water in a small, heavy-based saucepan and scatter the sugar over it in an even layer. Let the sugar absorb the water for a few minutes, then place the pan on a medium heat and leave, without stirring, until the sugar has dissolved and formed a syrup.
Simmer until the syrup turns into a rich brown caramel (there should be a light haze and it should smell wonderful). Wrap a cloth around your hand and immediately remove the pan from the heat. Pour the caramel into 4 ramekins, about 7.5 cm (3 in) in diameter and 5 cm (2 in) deep; tilt each ramekin slightly so the caramel coats the base evenly. Transfer the ramekins to a baking tin and set aside.
Making the custard mixture
2. Pre-heat the oven to 160°C/325°F/Gas Mark 3. Put the milk in a saucepan with the vanilla pod and seeds (or vanilla extract) and bring just to simmering point for 3–4 minutes to allow the milk to become infused with the vanilla. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, lightly whisk the eggs and egg yolks with the sugar. Slowly pour in the hot milk, whisking all the time.
Cooking the Crème Caramel
3. Strain the mixture through a fine sieve into the caramel-lined ramekins. Place the baking tin containing the ramekins in the oven and carefully pour enough boiling water into the tin to come two-thirds of the way up the side of the moulds.
Bake for 55–60 minutes, until the crème caramels are just set (press gently with your finger to check). Any dip in the centre means they are undercooked. Remove from the oven and leave to cool, then chill for 2 hours (or overnight, if more convenient). To release each crème caramel from the dish, take a thin, sharp knife and slide it around the inside edge of the ramekin, then turn it upside down on to a serving plate (or, more simply, serve them in their ramekins).