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Legend holds that this delicate custard-with-crunchy-top originated at the, possibly at Trinity College, Cambridge; personally, I believe it was first devised at their neighbor and rival, St. John’s College. The silken vanilla-scented custard is baked, then chilled, and finally covered with a layer of sugar, which melts to become a brittle sheet of caramel. Burning the sugar evenly can be a challenge the first time out, and though many recommend a small blow-torch, I find it does best in my counter-top Ninja oven. Use turbinado sugar for the topping, as it melts well and forms a crisp, easily shattered cover; also, organic light brown sugar works well.
Prep time: 20 minutes; total time is five hours including chilling; serves four.
Two cups (1 pint / ½ litre) heavy cream
1 vanilla bean, halved lengthwise, or 1½ teaspoons (6g) vanilla extract
2 large eggs + one egg yolk
1/4 cup (50g) organic light brown granulated sugar
Generous pinch (2-3g) kosher salt
Organic light brown sugar to sprinkle on the top
4 (5-ounce) flameproof ramekins; a small blowtorch or hot grill/broiler
Put a rack in the middle of oven and preheat oven to 325°F.
Pour cream into a 2-quart heavy saucepan. Using tip of a knife, scrape seeds from vanilla bean, if using, into cream and add pod (if using vanilla extract, do not add it yet). Heat cream over moderate heat until hot but not boiling; remove from heat and discard pod.
Put on the kettle. Whisk together yolks, granulated sugar, and salt in a medium bowl until well combined. Add hot cream in a slow stream, whisking constantly until combined. Pour the custard through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl and whisk in vanilla extract, if using. Ladle custard into ramekins.
Arrange the ramekins in a roasting pan and add enough boiling water to pan to reach halfway up sides of ramekins. Bake until custards are just set, 25 to 30 minutes. With tongs, transfer custards to a rack to cool, then refrigerate, uncovered, for at least 4 hours.
Just before serving, sprinkle turbinado sugar evenly over custards. Move blowtorch flame evenly back and forth close to sugar until sugar is caramelized. Let stand until sugar is hardened, 3 to 5 minutes. Alternatively, place the ramekins on the top rack under the grill or broiler on high, and grill until the sugar has melted and formed a caramelized skin.
Let rest for at least five minutes so that the caramel become crisp. Then dive in!
The custards can be refrigerated for up to 2 days (cover after the first 4 hours). Pat the tops gently with paper towels before sprinkling with light brown sugar and caramelizing.
Here is the recipe in .pdf format: Crème Brulée