Once when I was a student at Ole Miss, I traveled with a group of friends to New Orleans for a Sugar Bowl game. We stayed at the home of one friend’s parents, who one night graciously wined and dined us at Commander’s Palace. I remember the dessert vividly. It was my first time eating cup custard, also known as caramel custard, and it was divine. I loved the creamy custard with the dark syrupy caramel on top.

Caramel custard was different from the custards back home. Those descended from England and sometimes had little meringue islands floating on top. When I learned to make flan, I saw the similarities in the Spanish baked custard and the French crême caramel that found their way to white tablecloths in New Orleans restaurants. The caramelizing of sugar that first hardened and then melted like a sauce over the custard was both French and Spanish, just like the city that was to become my home.

It wasn’t long before I was introduced to another custard dessert that immediately stole my heart. That is the fabulous crême brûlée. (Incidentally, the literal translation of crême brûlée is “burnt cream.”) The brûlée’s crispy lid on top is in stark contrast to the cup custard’s topping, which becomes syrupy during the baking.

There are several ways to achieve the crisp topping of a crême brûlée. You can place ramekins containing the dessert under a broiler until the top becomes caramelized and crisp. Or, you can play like a chef and use a salamander or blowtorch.

Unfortunately, I got one of those early home models that took an hour or so to brown several crême brûlées. When everyone at the table got tired of waiting, I simply stuck all the ramekins under my broiler and dessert was ready in minutes.
I’m sure there are better browning torches available now at upscale kitchen stores.

The best part about these seductive desserts is that they’re simple to make. Since they’re served cold, they can be made ahead. Ingredients are simple – eggs, milk or cream and sugar with a vanilla flavoring and a possible pinch of salt and/or nutmeg.

Cup custard can be made without the caramelized sugar and served in its baking cups. However, the extra step of caramelizing sugar is well worth the trouble. For an elegant touch to both desserts, serve fresh, sweetened berries on the side. The contrasting colors of blueberries and raspberries brighten the neutral shades of the custards and add a tanginess to the taste.
3 eggs
1 egg yolk
1 cup sugar
Pinch salt
2 cups half and half
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon water
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Beat eggs and yolk with a whisk or in a mixer until foamy. Add 1/2 cup sugar and salt, then whisk. Gradually add half and half and then vanilla and mix well. Set aside.
In a small saucepan, heat remaining half cup of sugar with water, stirring constantly, until mixture is caramelized and a medium brown color. Pour a little into 6 ovenproof ramekins or dessert cups, quickly swirling the mixture across the bottom of each cup.

Divide egg mixture equally into ramekins and set into a large baking pan with 2-inch-high sides. Place pan in oven and pour hot tap water from a pitcher into the pan to a 1-inch depth. Bake for 1 hour or until a knife inserted in the center of a custard comes out clean. Cool and store in the refrigerator.

When ready to serve, run a knife around each ramekin to loosen the custard and invert on a small plate. Drizzle caramel over the custard. Serves 6.

The custard for crême brûlée is very similar to caramel custard. The main difference is that only the yolks of eggs are used, making it richer. Some recipes call for heavy cream, although using part half and half works as well and is a little healthier.
Crême Brûlée
Yolks of 6 large eggs
1 cup sugar, divided
1 cup half and half
1 cup whipping cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium bowl, whisk egg yolks until light. Add 1/2 cup of sugar and whisk well. Gradually add half and half and whipping cream.

Whisking constantly, add vanilla extract. Lightly grease 6 ovenproof ramekins or dessert cups. Pour mixture into ramekins. Place ramekins in a large baking pan with 2-inch-high sides and place in oven. Pour hot tap water into the pan to a 1-inch depth. Bake for approximately 45 minutes or until the custards are set. Cool completely and then refrigerate. Custards can be made up to this point a day in advance. They should be refrigerated for at least an hour.

Just before you’re ready to serve, sprinkle custards with the remaining 1/2 cup of sugar. Place directly under a preheated broiler and broil on high heat until sugar has caramelized and is brown, about 1 minute or brown the tops with a kitchen blowtorch. Watch this closely or it will burn. Serve immediately or refrigerate briefly – no longer than 1 hour – before serving. The sugar topping should remain crisp.

Serves 6.