Crème caramel is a classic dessert. It is baked at a low temperature because it contains no starch; it depends on the eggs for structure. If you bake it at a temperature that is too high, the eggs will scramble and the texture won't be smooth or creamy. When you remove it from the mold, the melted caramel runs over it, forming a ready-made sauce.
Wine recommendation: For a roller-coaster ride not usually associated with this buttoned-up classic, pour a lush, honeyed wine that will complement the caramel flavor yet provide enough acidity to counter the dessert's sweetness. Macari's 2000 Essencia from Long Island is a fine choice.
To prepare the caramel: Preheat the oven to 300F. Pour the sugar into a medium-size heavy-bottomed frying pan and cook over medium-high heat. Make a dry caramel by letting the sugar cook until evenly light golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Remember, the caramel will continue to cook in the oven, so do not make it too dark, or it will taste bitter. Occasionally stir the sugar with a wooden spoon to remove any lumps. When the caramel has reached the proper color, carefully add a little water (it may splatter) to keep it from becoming too hard. Mix in the water and remove the caramel from the heat. Carefully pour the hot caramel into the bottom of a 2-quart mold. It may be necessary to tilt the mold from side to side so that the caramel completely covers the bottom.
To prepare the custard: Pour the milk and half of the sugar into a nonreactive 2-quart heavy-bottomed saucepan. While the milk is heating over medium-high heat, use a sharp paring knife to slice the vanilla bean in half lengthwise. Separate the seeds from the outside skin by scraping the bean with the knife. Place the skin and seeds in the milk. Scald the milk mixture by heating it until bubbles start to form around the edge of the pan. Remove from the heat.
Place the remaining sugar, the whole eggs and egg yolks in a large mixing bowl and whisk until well incorporated. When you add sugar to eggs (especially to egg yolks), it is important to create an emulsion quickly, or a chemical reaction that produces heat will occur. If you do not whisk immediately, this heat will cook the egg yolks and create lumps in the custard. Continue to whisk while slowly pouring the hot milk into the egg mixture and whisking until the mixture is smooth and consistent in color. Try not to create air bubbles on the surface of the custard when you whisk, as these can form a crust on the baked custard. Pour the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve to remove the vanilla bean pieces and any overcooked eggs. Then pour it into the mold and place in a roasting pan in the oven.
Traditionally, custard is baked in a hot water bath to insulate it from the direct heat of the oven and to keep the eggs from cooking too fast, which would cause them to separate. Use hot water from the tap and pour enough water into the roasting pan to reach halfway up the side of the mold. When baked correctly, the custard should tremble slightly when gently shaken. This should take about 21Â¼2 hours. If you detect any liquid under the skin, the custard is underbaked. Put it back in the oven and shake it every 5 minutes until it is ready. If the custard begins to bubble during baking, reduce the oven temperature by 25F.
Remove the mold from the oven and the water bath and place it on a wire rack for 30 minutes. Refrigerate for 2 hours before serving: It will finish setting in the refrigerator. It is safer to let the water bath cool before removing it from the oven.
Carefully run a sharp paring knife around the inside of the mold to loosen the custard. Invert a flat plate over the crème caramel. Place one hand on either side, grasping both plate and mold, and flip them both so that the mold is on top. Gently lift off the mold. You may need to tap the bottom of the mold to release the custard. Sometimes I like to serve this dessert with whipped cream. Crème caramel will keep in the refrigerator, well wrapped in plastic, for a couple of days.