Together with chocolate mousse, creme caramel is the standard dessert in cheaper restaurants in France: it seems fancy because it's hard to make, but the ingredients are cheap - milk, sugar, eggs - and it can be made ahead and brought out during the dinner rush without reheating or anything. These same qualities make creme caramel an excellent choice for impressing your dinner guests - no last-minute prep, and nothing expensive. You do have to practice a little, though.
How to make Creme Caramel:
Set out eight small ramekins or espresso cups or teacups in a roasting pan. Preheat the oven to 300 F.
In a medium-size frying pan, over medium heat, mix 2/3 cup of sugar with one or two tablespoons of water. Mix briefly with a wooden spoon, then do not mix but gently swirl the pan from time to time, until the sugar turns an amber color, the color of hazelnuts. This will take quite a while and you may think it will never happen but be patient and it will.
Meanwhile, in a saucepan, heat 3 cups of whole milk with 2/3 cups of sugar to a boil. While the milk is heating, break four eggs into a mixing bowl.
When the milk boils, take it off the heat and add one teaspoon of vanilla. Slowly pour the milk into the eggs, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. Go especially slowly at the beginning so you don't accidentally cook the eggs.
When the sugar in the frying pan caramelizes (turns brown), pour a little bit of caramel into each ramekin, just enough to cover the bottom. If there's any left over, add a little more. Then gently pour the milk mixture on top of the caramel. Fill the ramekins nearly to the top. Put the roasting pan in the oven, and use a measuring cup to pour water into the roasting pan so that the water comes about 2/3 of the way up the sides of the ramekins. Bake about 45 minutes to an hour, or until the pudding seems solid all the way through. Let the puddings cool on the counter, then refrigerate them for an hour.
You can eat creme caramel out of the ramekins, if you're feeling cowardly, but it's prettier to unmold them and have the caramel shining on top. Run a knife around the edge, put a dessert plate on top of the ramekin, hold the plate and the ramekin firmly together, and flip it over quickly. Take off the ramekin, and you've got a pretty creme caramel.
Vegetarian or Vegan?
Will creme caramel keep?
Yes, for a day or two in the refrigerator, but then you'd better eat it up.