I find this dessert such a simple comfort. It might be the most basic of baked custards, but it really is heaven on a plate. Perhaps it is the memories of eating it as a child, or maybe it’s the texture. Either way, it is a delicious, classic dessert that deserves to be brought back from the annals of “retro” and “old-fashioned” to sit proudly on our dinner tables once again.
Prepare the oven and ramekins
Make the caramel
Put the sugar and water in a small pan over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until the sugar has dissolved. Once the syrup is clear, stop stirring (this can cause crystallization) and let the pan remain over the heat, without touching it, until the sugar caramelizes, which may take anywhere from 4 to 7 minutes. The second that you have a caramel with a dark copper color, remove the pan from the heat and immediately pour it evenly among the prepared molds. (Be careful that the caramel doesn’t cook too far as it can burn easily.) Let the caramel puddles sit while you make the custard.
Make the custard
Cut the vanilla bean, if using, in half and scrape out the seeds. Place the seeds or vanilla bean paste in a medium pan and add the milk and cream. Heat gently over medium-low heat until the mixture is hot but not boiling, 5 to 7 minutes.
Meanwhile, place the eggs and sugar in a bowl and beat together until pale. Once the milk mixture has come to temperature, remove the pan from the heat and slowly pour the mixture over the eggs, stirring constantly. Using a ladle, divide this custard equally between the prepared ramekins. Put the roasting pan in the oven and add enough cold water so that it reaches halfway up the sides of the molds. Bake for 30 to 45 minutes, until the custards have set around the outside but still have a wobble in the center and register 170°F to 175°F (76°C to 79°C) on a deep-fry or candy or instant-read thermometer.
Carefully remove the roasting pan from the oven. Lift out the custards and put them onto a wire rack to cool. Cover each ramekin with plastic wrap then transfer them to the refrigerator to chill overnight. To serve, use a knife to gently loosen the custards from the ramekins. Place a serving plate on top of each ramekin and invert it to turn the custards out. Make sure all the caramel drains from the ramekin onto the custard. Serve. (The creme caramels will keep, in their ramekins, for up to 3 days in the refrigerator.)