I've never understood analogies that compare vanilla to something plain and simple.  Vanilla is exotic, spicy, floral, and comforting and in no way simple, plain or boring.  Sure, it gets used in just about every baked dessert, but just because it's use is widespread doesn't make plain or simple.  Vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world, after saffron. This is because growing, harvesting and getting vanilla to market is a time-consuming, labor intensive undertaking.  First off, the orchids, that vanilla comes from must be hand pollinated.  The pod then takes up to 6 months to mature, but once matured is only at its peak for a very short time.  This means that farmers have to go out day after day, hand picking only those pods that have reached their peak.  Once the pods have been picked, vanilla undergoes a curing process that requires numerous steps.  All of this before the farmer can even get their product to the markets to be graded and sold.

It's hard to imagine baked goods without the addition of vanilla nowadays.  Like salt, vanilla often plays a secondary role in the flavor profile, where, like salt, it helps to round out flavors and bolster other flavors.  And like salt, we often don't notice it, unless it is missing.  Without it playing its supporting role, baked goods often seem flat and somewhat dull tasting.

But vanilla is not just a supporting player.  It can often be a star in its own right, and what a glorious star it can be.  Vanilla is a complex flavor and aroma encompassing floral, spicy, heady, earthy, warm and comforting notes.  While it plays well with other flavors and aromas, it also can impress as the centerpiece of a dessert.

One of the best ways to allow vanilla to shine is in custards, especially in my favorite custard dish, Crème Brulee.

For years, Crème Brulee has been a staple on fine dining menus, and as such many people have this misguided impression that it must be difficult to make.  That couldn't be further from the truth.  It is actually quite easy to make and only requires serious attention to detail at just a couple of points in the process, the first of which is choosing the vanilla you are going to use.  As the most important flavoring agent in Crème Brulee the quality of vanilla is of the utmost importance.  Your first choice, for vanilla, should be a whole bean, which can be found in most spice shops and gourmet food stores, or online at the very least.  Your second choice should be a high quality vanilla extract.  While that little, brown bottle, purchased at your local grocery store, is fine for most baking applications, for this recipe spend a little more money for a high quality vanilla extract.  My favorite is the Double Strength Vanilla Extract, found at Penzey's Spices, either in one of their stores or online.  Trust me, spending a little more for high quality vanilla will make all the difference in the world in this dish.

Crème Brulee

serves 8-16 depending on the size ramekin you use

4 cups  Heavy Cream

3/4 cup  Granulated Sugar, divided + more for topping

1 each  Vanilla Bean (or 2 tsp. high quality vanilla extract)

8 each  Egg yolks

1/8 tsp.  Salt

Preheat your oven to 300°F.  Fill a tea kettle with water, bring to a boil and set aside.  Pour the cream into a nonreactive sauce pot and add 1/4 cup of the sugar.  Split the vanilla bean in half, lengthwise (I usually also cut my bean in half making 2 shorter pieces to work with which can be easier).  Using the back of your knife, gently scrape out all the seeds.

Add all of this (pod included) to the cream, stir to dissolve the sugar and place over medium high heat.  Bring to a gentle simmer (small bubbles breaking around the edges), but do not boil.  Simmer for 5 minutes.  Meanwhile, combine the egg yolks with the remaining 1/2 cup of sugar and the salt.  Stir to combine, but be gentle so as to not incorporate any air into the mix.

Remove the cream from the heat and slowly pour 1 cup of the cream into the egg mixture, stirring constantly to temper the yolks.  This tempering process will help to ensure the eggs don't curdle when you add them to the hot cream mixture.

Next slowly pour the egg mixture into the remaining cream, again stirring constantly, but gently so as to not incorporate any air into the mixture.

  Allow to sit 2-3 minutes then skim as much foam off of the top, of the mixture, as you can.

Strain the mixture through a fine mesh sieve.  The vanilla seeds are small enough to go through, but the sieve will catch any stray fibers from the vanilla pod and any lumps you have in your mix.  Divide your mixture between your ramekins or individual baking dishes.  Place the ramekins into high sided baking dishes (I usually use 9x13 baking pans, at home) and place into the oven.  Pour the hot water, from the tea kettle into the baking pan until the water comes about 2/3's of the way up the sides of the ramekin.  Bake until done.

How long the Crème Brulee needs to bake depends on whether you are using larger, shallower ramekins are smaller deeper ramekins.  Shallow ramekins 1-1 1/2 inches high might only take about 30 minutes while deeper ramekins may take 50-70 minutes.  The way to tell if your Crème Brulee is done is to give one a little shake.  The edges will be firm, while the center will still jiggle like Jello.  If it is still too liquidy give it a few more minutes then check again.  What you don't want to do is over bake these.  If you do you run the risk of the custard souffling where the eggs curdle and creates many small air pockets.  This in turn will give you a grainy texture with the look and feel of scrambled eggs instead of the smooth, dense satiny texture of a properly baked custard.

Once the custards are done, remove the pan from the oven and allow to sit for 5 minutes.  Remove the custards from the water and allow to cool to room temperature then refrigerate for at least 3 hours or overnight.  At this point the custard will have set up completely.

Finishing the Crème Brulee should be done just before serving.  If you do it too early the moisture, trapped beneath the crust will start to soften the crust and one of the best parts of eating a Crème Brulee is that shatteringly crisp crust.

Sprinkle on about 1-1 1/2 tsp of sugar and spread evenly over the entire top of the custard, shaking off any extra.  You don't want too thick of a layer or the crust won't melt and caramelize evenly leaving you with burnt spots and areas with unmelted sugar.

I find the best sugar to use for this is either granulated sugar or Sugar-in-the-Raw.  I usually stay away from brown sugar as I find it too moist to make a great topping, although I have used brown sugar after drying it out considerably.

Once the sugar is on, then comes the fun part.  Sure you can make the topping underneath the broiler, but I find it gives inconsistent results and is not nearly as much fun as playing with a blow torch.  While on the subject of blow torches, it's my opinion that you should forget about those fancy, little "kitchen" torches sold online and at specialty kitchen stores.  For about half the cost you can purchase a blow torch at your local hardware store and get 10 times the amount of gas.  Besides that's what most professional pastry chefs use in their kitchens.

The key to getting a good, even crust is twofold.  First don't hold the torch too close to the custard.  The tip of the flame should just barely kiss the top of it.  Secondly, keep the torch moving constantly.  If you hold it over one area until the sugar is caramelized to your liking then the carryover heat will take further, usually to the point of being burnt.  By constantly waving the flame over the entire surface you end up with a more even distribution of heat ensuring an even carmelization that you can control much more easily.  Allow the crust to cool for a minute or 2 then serve.

When not writing for ChefTalk, you can find me blogging about food over at www.onceachef.com.