This is our adaptation of a recipe developed many years ago by Dieter Schorner, then pastry chef at New York City's Le Cirque. For more on caramelizing, see Blow Hard.
2 cups heavy cream
5 tbsp. sugar
1/2 vanilla bean, split
Small pinch salt
4 egg yolks
1. Preheat oven to 275°. In a small pan, bring cream, 2 tbsp. sugar, vanilla bean, and salt just to a boil over medium heat. Remove from heat and set aside to cool. Remove and discard vanilla bean.
2. In another bowl, whisk egg yolks with 1 tbsp. sugar until sugar dissolves. Slowly whisk in cooled cream (if it is not cool, yolks will scramble). Strain through a fine sieve.
3. Divide custard between 4 shallow gratin dishes (each about 1/2 cup in capacity). Place dishes in a baking pan, then place pan in oven. Pour enough cold water into pan to come about halfway up sides of dishes. Bake until custards set, 30-35 minutes.
4. Cover cooled custards with plastic wrap. Chill in refrigerator for at least 4 hours or overnight. Before serving, sprinkle 1 1/2 tsp. sugar on each custard and use a blowtorch to caramelize tops, holding torch at an angle (flame should barely touch surface) to brown sugar.